I never graduated from high school. I mean, I started college on time and eventually my diploma turned up in my parents’ mailbox, but I never did the whole flip-your-tassel, throw-your-cap, pose-for-pictures thing, or whatever it is that happens at graduations.
A month shy of commencement, my parents called me to ask when I would be home for dinner. This usually meant one of two things: they missed me and were genuinely curious, or I’d been caught doing something wrong and needed to get my ass handed to me (and in those days, it was usually the latter). On this specific occasion, my crime was failing Speech class for the semester. And my sentence was summer school.
Besides royally pissing off my parents, this revelation left a huge stain on my ego. I felt like walking around wearing a sandwich board styled after Alfred E. Neuman that read, “What — me, summer school?” Because you have to understand — the rules did not apply to me. I’d escaped death, arrest, and alcohol poisoning enough times to know: I was not simply human but a conjoined cat, 18 lives and none to waste on things like book learnin’ and school goin’. Even after I was enrolled to take Speech a second time, I was naive enough to trust that the system would break down along the way and I’d spend my summer roasting in the sun and perfecting my keg stand, as god intended.
When an opportunity to save myself (read: suck up) was presented, I was reassured of my invincibility. Three days before the end of the school year, my Speech teacher approached me in the hallway, frantic and waving a large yellow envelope. “Stephanie — there’s been a family emergency. My son, he’s sick and I… will you take these evaluation forms and bring them to class in the morning, have everyone fill them out, and then put them in my mailbox?” Of course, I said yes — though I admit rather ashamedly that I was only compelled to help out of self-interest and not because I had a soul or anything like that. I did as I was asked and awaited my final grade, confident my good deed would move my teacher to amend it so that I might pass. I received a 64 — a point short of what I needed to avoid summer school. And so it goes.
Despite my initial dread, summer school turned out to be okay. There were two reasons I’d failed Speech the first time around — one being that it was my first class of the day and I was late to school all the time, the other was a result of my being deathly afraid of public speaking. Speaking in front of an audience shreds my resolve: I get off to a good start, but by the end I’m sweating and shaking like I’ve just run a 10K. Rather than have a nervous breakdown in front of like… nine people I’d known for the last seven years, I wussed out and skipped class on days I was scheduled to present a speech. Summer school forced me to overcome that fear, at least temporarily. It helped that my audience was curated — performance-anxiety bad apples who used their lunch breaks to grub cigarettes from one another and discuss the many merits of ditching class.
Early on, I shared a smoke with a kid named Pat — a transplant from one of the moneyed school districts that didn’t have a demand for summer school that year. We hit it off right away, our common interest in weed prompting us to make plans for when school let out. Once we were dismissed, Pat drove me to the other side of town where he lived, all manicured lawns and three-car garages. At his house, he immediately funneled two beers and was getting ready to roll a blunt for us to share when his phone rang. “My friend lives down the street — do you mind if we smoke with him?” We got back into his car and drove two blocks away and into an identical driveway.
I developed an instant crush on Pat’s friend, a tall and attractive guitarist who I recognized as my designated ‘type’ before I’d ever met anyone who embodied it. We sat on his deck and lit up; two highs merging together until they were impossible for me to separate. I reflected on the serendipitous nature of that day, how when I’d woken up that morning I’d had no idea where I would find myself just six hours later. That much was obvious, I confirmed, as I looked down at what I was wearing: an old wifebeater and oversized pajama pants. Then I remembered my face, unwashed and nude. And my hair — still styled from the night before, if you can call it that. I was a total mess.
And it didn’t occur to me then — then I thought, “Dammit, I’m gross right now and there’s no way this guy is going to be interested in me.” But now, when I think of that day, of that summer I think, “You should’ve been better than that.” I spent the bulk of my teenage years in a self-destructive haze, half-assing my way through anything requiring effort to the point that even getting dressed was like, too burdensome for me to bother. Not only did I fail to do the bare minimum to graduate like every one of my friends who would go on to attend college that fall, I couldn’t do something as simple as look presentable in public. I just didn’t care, not about myself and certainly not about other people.
I remember that day vividly, but not because it served as some sort of wake-up call. I remember it because it represents the priorities that were once etched into my brain, priorities that hurt a lot of people and took years to correct and still haunt me from time to time when I think of the ways my life would be easier now if I’d learned, worked, cared, tried harder.
On a Sunday that June I sat in the backseat of my friend’s car and we drove past my high school as my classmates graduated. The football field was awash with white caps and proud parents and though I had little remorse for my actions at the time, I still felt left out watching as they all blurred together into a sea I’d rightfully lost the privilege to drown in.