When I was high school age, it was pretty safe to say that I had impulse control problems. If I got the sudden urge to break something, say something, or do just about anything, I would usually go for it without any reasoning at all, and not be too terribly concerned about whether or not someone would be hurt by it. I kicked holes in walls, broke a lot of bottles, teased people intensely because I thought they deserved it, drove like an idiot. All young men survive 15-25 by the grace of God, but I was an extreme case. I guess I had a bit of Eddie Haskill in me, as I still stayed in less trouble than a lot of my friends. This was because, although I was a smartass, I would usually stop short of doing things that were obviously punishable within any teachers’ eyeview. Who put that 2 liter in the microwave when they weren’t around? Could’ve been anybody.
One of those guys who was always in the principal’s office wrote in my yearbook “What the hell is the matter with you? You have serious mental problems.” I took it as a joke, but it turned out that he knew something that I didn’t quite figure out for a long time.
Once you got to be a senior at my high school, the administration really let you coast and have a good time, not that any of us appreciated it. If you hadn’t flunked anything, you could take a bunch of electives all day as long as you showed up for a literature class at your last hour. You got a special parking lot where you could hang out, they wouldn’t run you off until the principal wanted to go home until around 5. There was a special little cafeteria for you, where you could get rowdy within reason.
I wasn’t too into reason, so one day, I decided it would be a good idea to walk across one of the lunch tables, and then verbally assault a friend of mine with a loud chain of expletives. There was a guy, probably in his 60’s, whose job it was to monitor the room. His name was Tom. Balding guy with a mustache and windbreaker. He never once got up from his seat in all the time I knew him. Not until that day.
“Come on. Let’s go.”
The principal knew me and hated my friends that were always ending up in front of him, and he had never had anything on me before, so to this day I think he threw the book much harder at me than he would’ve even at one of those guys because he finally had the chance. A week of ISAP (In School Assignment Program, where you go sit in a room and copy shit out of books for a day instead of going to class, although I instead wrote a manifesto about something or other I would no doubt be embarrassed to re-read today), and a call to my mother at her factory job. “Why did you do that?” she asked over the speakerphone.
I just told her the truth: “I don’t know.” And I still don’t. Like I was a lot of times back then, I can’t tell you why it made sense to behave that way. To paraphrase LP Heartley- the past feels like a foreign country. I did things differently then.
my home life was tense for awhile. That was one thing, easy to take in stride, as it wasn’t too unusual. If I’m honest, I was pretty proud of my stupid accomplishment. The problem emerged for me when the principal next demanded that I be kicked out of the cast of the big senior play. I had a leading role in the thing, and as a natural born ham, it was a very big deal for me. The whole cast had already put a lot of work into rehearsals over weeks of time, and although I hated every other type of school sponsored function, I had been waiting for my big senior play moment for years, after roles in a number of others in my underclassman days. I couldn’t lose it, it was near the top of a very short list of things that I cared about. It was decided that the only way that I could be allowed to continue along to opening night was by offering an apology to Tom.
The last thing I wanted to do was go and humble myself for the benefit of this cafeteria monitor. I felt like it was completely beneath me, but I had no other option. I had to swallow my pride and do it. I imagined him grinning and crowing, taking a proverbial victory lap across the forehead of this kid that defied his lunchroom rule. After all, that was the way I would’ve handled it were the situation reversed.
The day after I was released from ISAP, I approached the bench off to the side, where Tom sat by the window. Now I realize that he probably gazed out there at the courtyard and imagined that he was anywhere besides where he was, because that’s exactly what I would do were I in his predicament. I don’t recall exactly what I said, but I probably tried to come off like it was my idea to do it and not saying words that I was basically forced to string together. I do, however, recall exactly what Tom said, after he stuck out his hand to shake mine:
“It shows a lot of character that you would say that.”
Character. What a concept. I won’t say that my life changed right then, because I was still kind of an obnoxious shitheel for a long time after that, but a seed was planted. It would slowly dawn on me that character is really all we really have at the end of the day. It trumps everything else. Pride is nothing compared to character. In fact, they’re often at odds. It’s not always easy to do the right thing. In fact, it often stings. But I sleep better when I try to do the things a person of character would do, and not so well when I recall times that I did not. It’s not for one to say if they personally exude character. Only others could decide if you are a gentleman or a lady. No one is perfect, of course. But that day in that lunchroom, that man paid me one of the highest compliments I’ll ever hope to achieve.