I've been sick, I was out of town for a while, and I had a nasty fight with family which put me in no mood to write. But! Today I'm finally getting around to revealing which of my 3 statements was the lie. Thanks to OEsheepdog for the Open Call, 2 truths and 1 lie.
The real truth is I'm a very bad liar. I knew that if I tried to make up a fabulous story, it would be obvious to everyone. So I cheated a little. There are two truths and one story that while mostly true contains a lie.
Truth 1: Yep, I once dislocated my shoulder while rollerblading down the curved ramp of the elevated parking garage of the Clark Tower, which is (at a modest twentysomething stories) the tallest building in Memphis. The parking garage is six stories tall, I believe, one of the very few elevated parking garages in Memphis. Memphis is mostly spread out with lots of trees and small buildings and acres of open air parking lots. Back in college I used to date a guy who hung out with a bunch of other guys who would do crazy things like breaking into the bison enclosure at Shelby Farms to do a little cow tipping - bison tipping, that is. One of the crazy things they did was rollerblade down the aforementioned ramp late at night when the building was closed. Just get going and lean into the turn, letting the slope bring you up to speed. They claimed to have clocked one guy doing 60 mph. I suspect that figure was exaggerated for the sake of impressing me, but they got going pretty darned fast. They wore football helmets and hockey pads for these runs.
I'm a mediocre skater at best, but I do have more courage than brains, and when they offered, I had to try it. Hit a patch of oil on the third turn and spun out and flipped into the wall. Fortunately the pads kept me from busting my skull and the wall kept me from plunging to my death. Dislocated joints hurt.
Truth 2: I have seen an angel. I'm pretty sure I was five. I know I must have been four or five, because it was when we lived in Jackson. I was in bed, supposedly asleep, and I woke to find a towering column of flame watching over me. "Don't be afraid," she said to me. (Columns of flame have no secondary sexual characteristics, and neither did the voice, but I felt certain at the time she was female.) "Go to sleep now." And - this is what's strange, and what makes me feel that this was a real vision and not just an unusual dream - I did stop being afraid, and I did go right back to sleep. And I remembered it when I woke up, although I remember almost nothing else from that era.
My family were not particularly religious, and although I would attend church with my mother after we moved to Memphis, I had never been to church in Jackson. I can't think of any way I would have been exposed to the concept of angels as creatures of fire. It was only years later, reading Ezekiel, that I had a moment of recognition. I wasn't otherwise given to night terrors or fancies. I'm aware that none of this is very good evidence. My primary reason for believing is entirely subjective and not able to be shared: the feeling, a feeling I had not felt before and have only felt since in the presence of the holy, a feeling reminiscent of being held in the arms of my mother, but more so, combined with the wonder of seeing something beautiful and the strange clarity of standing facing into a strong wind.
She was a tower of flame, as I said: red, shifting flames that did not burn and had something of the quality of the afterimage you see after looking at too bright a light. The shape gave the impression of wings and of a robed woman but was neither.
One lie: I wasn't suspended from school for smoking pot. I was suspended from school for refusing to say who was smoking pot. Maureen was the one smoking pot. (If you're reading this, Mo, hi!)
Both Maureen and I lived too far out in the country to ride the bus to school, so we were part of the group of kids whose mothers dropped them off on the way to work. A janitor would let us into the gym almost an hour before any other adults arrived, so we had plenty of unsupervised time to get up to mischief.
That morning she and I arrived together because I had spent the night at her house after attending a Van Halen concert. The year was 1984, the album was 1984, and David Lee Roth was past his best moves but did not yet look like an elderly lady. At the concert both Maureen and I had purchased t-shirts, and we were both wearing them, in defiance of the school's dress code which did not allow any form of writing on t-shirts, but in obedience to the long-standing student tradition that anyone lucky enough to go to a concert the night before must wear the shirt proving it to school the next day. We expected the usual routine: get called out of homeroom into the office, lectured about our shirts, asked to change. Protest that we had no other clothes. Since we were too young to drive and both our parents worked, we would not get sent home - the headmaster would shake his head and tell us not to do it again.
So I was expecting it when Maureen was called out of class mid-morning, and I was expecting it when half an hour later I was called out of class too. She passed me in the hallway, escorted by two teachers, and gave a tiny shake of her head, which seemed to be a warning.
I was cheerful. I knew that I needed to pretend repentance well enough for the headmaster to pretend to be satisfied, and so I put on a long face as I entered the office.
The headmaster was unexpectedly accompanied by the Dean of Students and the head of the school board (also founder of our small private school), and he wasn't cheerful at all.
"Do you know who was smoking marijuana in the girl's locker room this morning?" he asked.
As a teenager I had a highly developed sense of honor. Over the years I've come to believe that there are times when lying is the right thing to do. At age 16, I still believed the truth was sacred.
"Yes, sir," I said.
Before the teachers arrived, Maureen had gone into the locker room to finish off the roach she had in her purse from the night before. I had declined to join her. I was a control freak who preferred watching other people act stoned to being stoned myself. I often enjoyed a contact high from other people's smoke, but I hadn't smoked last night, and I hadn't smoked that morning.
As it turned out, Maureen had left the tiniest bit of a roach in the sink's lint trap. The girl's coach, after smelling the tell-tale scent of smoke in the locker room, had discovered it. Told to investigate, our teacher had noticed the same smell on our shirts, which we had worn at the smoke-choked concert the night before.
"Was it you?"
"No, sir," I said.
There was an audible sigh. The assembled authorities, who had been tensely perched, visibly relaxed.
"Who was it?"
They leaned forward in anticipation.
"I'm afraid I can't tell you."
Consternation. Red-faced sputtering. Threats.
I don't clearly remember whose idea it was, but I was told that school policy mandated expulsion for drugs on school property. If I told, I would only be suspended, for knowing about it. If I failed to tell, all the suspected parties would be expelled. I wouldn't succeed in saving the guilty party in either case.
It's funny, remembering this. I started to write, "I felt sick." You'd think that I would have felt sick. I was a straight-A student, the leader of my class in most subjects, the person who had been featured in the papers for high scores on the PSAT, looking forward to a scholarship to the college of my choice and a brilliant future. All of that would vanish if I were expelled, my whole life down the toilet because of one ill-fated clothing choice.
But I didn't feel sick. I felt exhilarated. Honestly, I live for that feeling. It's like the feeling of seeing an angel, but angels don't show up on cue. Flying down an elevated parking ramp on rollerblades sometimes gives an echo of the same feeling. The most reliable way to get it is to stand up for what you believe is right, in the face of injustice. If you live a life where you get that feeling on a regular basis, you know you're doing it right.
I didn't back down.
"We're going to have to call your parents," the headmaster said.
"You do that," I said.
I was lucky, in ways I didn't know at the time. In 1984 no one would have dreamed of violating a student's rights by drug testing. There were no policemen in schools and it never occurred to the school staff to wreck the lives of their students by giving them criminal records. It was just my word, and Maureen's word.
I saw Maureen outside, hours later, in the parking lot when our parents arrived.
"You gave me up," she said. "They told me after you talked to them that you gave me up."
I was inexperienced in being a suspect, but I also had a mother who had raised me on a diet of cop shows and murder mysteries. I recognized a basic interrogation technique: pretend to know more than you know, so that the suspect breaks down.
"I didn't tell them anything," I said. "If you want to tell them, that's up to you."
Maureen had quickly realized that as long as we were both under suspicion, she had a chance of getting off because they wouldn't punish an innocent person, but if she ever confessed, she would be expelled. So she had refused to say anything. She could have gotten me out of a mess by telling the truth and taking her punishment, but I didn't blame her: I didn't hold her to the same standard I held for myself. We had never been friends, we just liked the same music.
I expected my parents to kill me. I think the school staff expected the same thing, which was why they let us go home to our parents. But they hadn't reckoned with Maureen's parents, who were redneck alcoholics who had bought the pot for her in the first place, and they hadn't reckoned on my father, who had raised seven children before I came along. My father had bailed his kids out of jail before and was not fazed by uproar from the staff of a private school.
I think he was amused, to tell the truth. He told me a rambling tale of a crazy exploit that had happened to him and three brother officers while they were stationed in Hawaii.
"You shouldn't have gotten caught," he said. "Do what you like, but don't be dumb."
"Maureen's the dumb one," I said.
"Well, you knew that on the front end, so you were dumb too."
That night there was an emergency board meeting. I knew none of this at the time, but would learn it later. The zero-tolerance policy regarding drugs was a new one which had never been tested; previously our school had no drug policy, because "Our students don't take drugs." Some board members were concerned that the policy was too harsh. Maureen was a middling student but I was an excellent one. There was that article in the paper. And there was another issue, which was that I had won the state Latin contest for my age group and placed eighth in the state math contest. Those exploits were featured in the school's brochure, along with those of a student in the class above mine who had won the state science fair, along with a full scholarship to Stanford, for inventing a new cancer drug derived from goldenrod.
It's funny, more than one commenter on my previous post expressed disbelief that a school would bend the rules for the sake of a student who exhibited academic excellence. My tale might be true, they reasoned, if I were a football player, but no one would make an exception for a Latin contest winner.
I'd like to say that my fine alma mater had uniquely high regard for scholarship, but really, it's not so much that as that we had a unique way of sucking at sports. We didn't just have a bad football team, we had no football team. We weren't able to field enough players. We had a basketball team, though, in the bottom league. I seem to recall our record for the year was 28-0. Once, the year before, we had won a game, against Messick, which was a tiny, motheaten public school in a poor section of town, with holes in the wall and no gym, in danger of being closed down for lack of funds. Messick had been so humiliated that the next year they clobbered us - their score was in the triple digits and I don't think we scored. We sucked so bad that our school didn't even try to win homecoming games - it was such an obvious lost cause - instead the players started fights on the court, in hopes of salvaging some sort of dignity by having the game called.
With a sports program that bad, really the school's only hope of attracting paying customers was academics. And we had some brilliant students. The joke was that our school had no "normal" program. There was a gifted program, and there was a program for students with learning disabilities, and that was it. The gifted students were mostly upper-middle class who carried the burden of maintaining the school's reputation as an outstanding academic institution. The "learning disabled" students were mostly perfectly average children of the very rich who needed a rubber stamp from an outstanding academic institution to get into an Ivy league college.
The next morning my parents and Maureen's parents and Maureen and I were summoned to the school office, where the Dean of Students informed us that we had both been given three days of at-home suspension, to be followed by probation for as long as we remained at that school. Any further infraction and we would be expelled. We were expected to be grateful for the mercy of the school board.
The weather was beautiful for those three days. I rode my Appaloosa gelding and lounged in the sun working on an early tan and caught up on my reading.
And here we come to the most bizarre part of the story.
I suppose I should have predicted this, but I didn't: I had become a Cause. The entire student body, and many of the teachers, who were a Bohemian lot with probably some pot smoking in their own spare time, thought I was a freedom fighter against the oppressive authoritarian overlords. They admired the way I had refused to narc on Maureen. In general, most of the time, I was unpopular in school, a fringe member of the fringe clique of theater kids. But the day I returned to class, I received a standing ovation.
I'm told that at most schools, at home suspension is not a punishment but a vacation. It wasn't that way at my school. At my school, there was a policy that students were not allowed to make up any missed work, and had to receive a zero for it. In our highly competitive school, three days could make a huge difference to a final grade. In addition, because the administration had become aware of what they considered inappropriate support for me among the teachers, the teachers had been warned that they were not allowed to change the dates of tests or assignments. I had missed the date of the presentation for a major reading assignment in English class, several graded homework assignments, and a secondary test in my math class.
The administration did not think to ban the teachers from offering extra credit questions on tests, however.
I mentioned that our school was competitive. Part of that competitive spirit was that several of the teachers read off each student's test scores aloud at the end of the semester. If you thought you had done badly, you were allowed to ask the teacher to skip you - which was an open admission of shame. There was only one girl who regularly opted out. The rest of us sat alert and quivering at each number, hoping to hear our rivals vanquished. It wasn't, in retrospect, the best way of teaching us affection, or compassion.
That day was different, though. Both my English teacher, a colorful ex-hippie who had been both a Peace Corps worker and a nun, and the math teacher, a drab, emotionless man devoted to chess who had parted his hair the same way for so many years that he had a broad groove of bare scalp in the middle of his head, were among those who read scores out loud. They hurried through the alphabet to my name; everyone was waiting.
I remember the teachers' voices so clearly, and the thrilled hush of the whole class holding their breaths, rooting for me. I can almost remember the actual scores: "One hundred eight. One hundred. One hundred five. Zero. One hundred ten."
In our school, the teachers were allowed to determine the numerical value of their grades, but in general, a 95 was an A, and anything above an 85 was a C. My score in math was exactly 95. The math teacher had never established whether the rule was "95 and above" or "anything above a 95." For a few moments uproar reigned, as students shouted out protests that it wasn't fair to give me a B. The stolid, logical math teacher blinked at his students from behind his thick glasses, and uncharacteristically caved.
I pulled off a B, just barely, in English, and a cheer erupted.
That was my only B. Ever. It kept me from being valedictorian, which probably wasn't a bad thing, since I can only imagine what I would have come up with to say to a captive assembly of parents, administration, teachers, and students at graduation.
Maureen left the school at the end of the year. I can't say I was sorry to see her go. And I won the state math contest and the Latin contest the next year.