Halfway through my senior year in high school, I found myself in a quandary.
It wasn't a quandary in the typical sense, like being in charge of the prom committee and agonizing over whether the theme should be "Hollywood Heroes" or "Springtime Lust." In high school, I wasn't in charge of anything - including my life.
No, my quandary was far more mundane, if not downright cheesy.
I was desperately trying to figure out exactly how little work I could do and still stroll across the stage in June, "Pomp and Circumstance" tooting and squeaking in the background.
I was pretty set with my courses because I was pretty much not taking any. I had English and American history, both of which were required. Also, because I liked foreign languages and Mrs. Godson, I took fifth-year French, which was optional and was a no-sweat Gentleman's C. Last, I was taking chemistry.
I'd taken chemistry the year before and barely passed with a 65. Being a lad of pride and persistence, I decided to take it again, to prove myself, which I did. Unfortunately, I proved myself a complete dunce, this time getting a 66. Since absurdity speaks for itself, I'll say no more on that topic.
So my senior year I had a grand total of four hours of classes per day. And since there were eight periods in the day, I also had four study halls. A diligent student would've used the time wisely - in band or glee club practice, in the wood or metal shops, working on the school paper or the stage crew, or even doing something as far out as studying. But this was me, folks.
I spent 16.6 percent of my entire weekday in The Big Room, 310, either furtively reading crappy sci-fi novels or blatantly staring out the window, a look of studied ennui plastered on my mug.
Free at last!
But that all changed in the last marking period, when in the course of one of my multitudinous daily bathroom breaks, I discovered the art room.
To me it was nothing less than discovering Shangri-La.
In the James Hilton novel, "Shangri-La" was a mythical place somewhere in the Himalayas, an isolated and earthly paradise where everyone, in addition to being perfectly happy, aged hardly if at all.
The art room was like Shangri-La in that, compared to the rest of the school, it was isolated and, if not idyllic, at least relaxed. But there was a major difference: The people in the art room, instead of not aging, seemed to have aged a great deal, becoming wise, if not jaded, beyond their years. They were all the bohemians of senior high.
It was appropriate they were in the art room since the art teacher, Ken Carr, was a boozy bohemian, or so he seemed to me. It was pretty hard to tell about his booziness, since tippling was simply bizness as usual for My Home Town.
You want an example? How about good ole SLHS's fight song, which went like this:
We never stumble,
We never fall
We sober up on wood alcohol
While our loyal faculty
Lies drunk on the barroom floor.x
So with the whole school - including the loyal faculty - singing this at the top of their lungs in pep rallies and the like, drinking seemed to be only one more vital thread in the social fabric.
I'm not sure how much of a bohemian he was either, but he seemed such in comparison to his colleagues. He read a lot of novels, then considered underground, and he knew a lot about jazz and art. But beyond all that, he seemed as unimpressed with school regulations, rituals and rigmarole as I was. That's how I managed to stay in there.
Remember, I was taking only four classes, and none of them was art. Therefore, I had no official reason or right to be in the art room at all. At first, I went the semi-official route and had Mr. Carr write me passes to the art room. But once I started spending more time there - like all my study halls - I realized scamming that many passes a day was not only going to try Mr. Carr's patience but would alert the powers-that-be of my subversive behavior as well.
Marx and marks
Of course, if I'd ever produced anything artistic, or artful, or even art-like, I might've been allowed to hang out in the art room. But that would've required work. Instead, I was having fun, talking with my fellow sages about the lofty stuff never discussed in the classes, like clairvoyance, reincarnation, Atlantis, socialism and the much less lofty stuff like sex, drugs and rock 'n'roll. Plus I got to talk with Mr. Carr about such literary masterpieces as "On the Road," "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and "Peyton Place."
What to do?
Well, in my own self-important way I consulted the great philosophers, by browsing Bartlett's "Familiar Quotations." All the quotes were either humdrum or irrelevant till I saw one from Jesus. It was, "Render unto Caesar the things which be Caesar's, and unto God the things which be God's."
And suddenly it hit me: I was dealing with neither Caesar nor God. I was dealing with the high school administration and to hell with 'em!
Thus I went to my classes and quit going to study hall altogether. And so I spent the rest of my senior year free time in the Petrova School's low-rent Greenwich Village, discussing vital issues with my fellow "intellectuals."
I thought I'd pulled off a major coup, a powerful strike against The Establishment, a triumph of existentialism and free-thinking over the rigid, rules-bound, backward-thinking losers who controlled the status quo.
But I found out differently when at the end of the year I found out Mr. Carr had played the major role in the success as a revolutionary. For when I got my report card, there in stark black and white, was my art grade.
Art grade? How'd I get an art grade if I never took art?
I don't know how Mr. Carr did it, but I do know why: By giving me a grade for hanging out in his bailiwick, he covered both our butts.
Typically, the lowest grade anyone got in art, no matter how lousy they were, was an 80.
Mr. Carr gave me a 70, which as far as I was concerned was at least as good as a 100.