How I Became a High School Dropout

(Warning: harsh language, drug use.)

Painted Black

At the end of the summer of 1980, my girlfriend Anna left for college, I turned 17, I began my junior year, got glasses, read Catcher in the Rye, assumed my post as Editorial Page Editor on the Lance, and badly sprained my ankle playing soccer. And I was at war with myself, total war.

As September cooled into October, a gloom began to settle over me that I couldn’t shake. I don’t know if it was clinical depression; it might have been. After spraining my ankle I was done with soccer, and any sports for the time being. I began to slack at school. My introspective tendencies were at their worst. As far as I could tell, it was all brought on by the pangs of Anna’s absence. I was overcome by negative feelings about myself and life in general. Smoking dope and drinking didn’t help.I was tired and, as always, walked around with a knot in stomach over school.

You know I’d give you everything I’ve got
for a little peace of mind
-John Lennon
I’m So Tired

Over the summer, my friendship with Mark and Troy grew stronger. In September, Mark, Troy and Dave Larson (my co-editor) had talked about traveling together in Europe, and as soon as they were all done with school was the perfect time for them to do it. Of course they didn’t have the money, so they would have to figure out a way to save as much money (and as quickly) as possible. One night, Dave came to my house and we walked through Bonner Park. He was very troubled. He asked if could confide in me, if I could keep a secret. Mark and Troy had come up with a scheme to make a lot of money fast: growing pot. A lot of pot. Dave found this very troubling, and needed  to get it off his chest. I suggested he decide if he was in or out, and let the other two do what they wanted. He told them he was out.

Shortly after that, about the end of the month, Mark and Troy proposed the Alliance: the three of us, backing a growing operation to fund a trip to Europe. I did not like the business plan, but the Europe trip – well, that was something I had dreamed of since I was 10 years old. I loved the idea. After arguing with them about my objections, I was in. As soon as I did, I began to mentally persecute myself over the decision. I was overcome with self-contempt for agreeing to help grow and sell drugs, mostly because I knew my motivation for opting in was easy money. In other words, I was guilty of one of the worst sins there was: greed.

I look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door and it has been painted black
Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black
-Jagger & Richards
Paint It Black

That wasn’t the only problem. Mark was graduated, and Troy was going to finish early, at midyear, by taking correspondence courses. But I was not going to be done with school for 20 months. I don’t remember who first suggested it, but when I started getting F’s, not just on my work, but on my report card, I felt I had dug myself into a hole I could not dig out of. I truly believed this. And unless I gave up the parties, drugs and alcohol, I was probably right. I began to think about dropping out of school. In so short a time, my way of thinking about my future had been derailed by a half-baked pipe-dream.  No, I was not thinking clearly. And no, far from giving up drugs, I was branching out.  That fall, I took mescaline, the hallucinogen found in peyote, and tried Quaalude, the drug du jour.

Boy, did I feel rotten. I felt so damn lonesome.
-JD Salinger
Catcher in the Rye

I did this in the apartment Mark and Troy rented in Missoula. To get it they asked me for the remaining $300 I had earned in the summer. The apartment served two purposes: it allowed Mark to move out from his grandparents’ house and Troy to move out from his folks’, and it was to be the home of our growing operation, a scheme that began to fail before it ever got underway. For the few months they had it, it became my second home.

Meanwhile, my energies and creativity were focused on the Lance, where Dave and I edited the editorial page, and I continued drawing cartoons and writing my humor column, Nowhere Man. One night in early October, I worked late with other staffers on paste-up. Getting home about 11, I went up to my room and was listening to music, when the phone rang downstairs. I raced to answer it, as Dad and Jane were asleep, and It was Jeff Morgan on the other end.

“Some asshole  just murdered John Lennon,” sounding dismay mixed with anger.

“What?!”

“Some goddamn lunatic shot him on the street. He’s dead.”

“My God.”

To me and some of my friends, this was a cause of sadness and anger. Another death that waved a black flag before us. A warning, a revelation or perhaps a remembrance. I don’t know.

Bad news news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step
-Don McLean
American Pie

The real fallout was a sense of disillusionment. Lennon symbolized much of what I had grown up with and had taken as my own attitudes and convictions over the last year. Within the counterculture vision I found a promise – of personal and social evolution – that I was desperately grasping for, but which I was already beginning to doubt as empty and impossible. It pointed to a deeper struggle I was lamely putting up: an illusory light, losing its struggle against a very real darkness. You might stand for such a vision, but skulking around the corner is a lunatic with a gun. There’s always one of those, isn’t there?

With my emotional and academic life in a seemingly irreversible tailspin, dropping out and moving away started looking to me to me like an escape hatch – and I wanted to escape. I was one decision away from making my problems go away.

In February I made the decision.

* * *

I realize that my problems were not very apparent to those around me. I was gregarious, always seeking the company of my friends, and never solitude. At those times, I generally aimed to be the life of the party, which often led to me just making a fool of myself without knowing it. On the outside, I was all laughs and good times. On the inside, my thoughts were serious and dark. I wondered what I really was, if my ideals meant anything, if life and the world and my dreams had any value or meaning.

In the fall I first listened to The Wall from beginning to end. It was a disturbing experience for me, a view of life as so unbearable in its losses and oppression and torments that alienation is inescapable and isolation the only recourse. At this time I first caught a glimpse of something that was just a plain horror to me: the notion that we were alone in the universe. No God, no ultimate meaning or purpose, no reality beyond the material and physical, no soul, no eternal: nothing. Just this life and then the grave, lived on whatever terms we could arrive at by our own wits.

The prospect that this was the truth, that this was the fact of our existence that science, reason, and philosophy presented us with – the fact that I must face, and must embrace –  it knotted my stomach and made my blood run cold. I did not accept it. I wasn’t ready.

If you should go skating
On the thin ice of modern life
Dragging behind you the silent reproach
Of a million tear-stained eyes
Don’t be surprised when a crack in the ice
Appears under your feet.
You slip out of your depth and out of your mind
With your fear flowing out behind you
As you claw the thin ice.
-Roger Waters
The Thin Ice

This was running silently in the background to my declining grades and plans of escape, and did so for most of the next two years.

* * *

Maybe then I’ll fade away

When Troy, Mark and I formed the Alliance, we had one aim: save enough money for a trip to Europe. When the pot-growing plan fell apart, they began to talk about moving out of Missoula to a big city where we could make more money. We talked about Boston. I had to decide if I was willing to drop out of high school half-way through my junior year. I couldn’t see myself ever getting back on a good academic footing. And if I couldn’t, why stay in school, especially if there was the prospect of adventure and travel?

Of course, this meant telling my parents. Not asking. Telling. Not letting myself be talked out of it. The memory of the upset and anxiety I caused them is something I don’t even like to recall enough to write about it. But I did tell them, Dad and Jane in person and Mom over the phone. Legally, I was old enough to leave school, but going forward in life as a dropout did not offer a lot of promise. They were worried about me and my future.

I told my teachers, too. A couple of them smiled and got a far-away look, remembering their own freedom road days of 1969, and found little to say in objection to my plan. I remember speaking to Kermit Edmonds, who was never my teacher but was greatly respected by me and most of the students. I told him I still planned on going to college some day. He said that when I got there I would have an invaluable advantage over my classmates: life experience, an education of a completely different but indispensable kind. Boy, was he right.

So I did it. On Friday, February 13, 1981, I walked out of Hellgate High School, walked away from our friends, from my classmates, from the Lance, from the great teachers I was lucky enough to have there. As we planned to leave Missoula, life seemed a little more hopeful, and I felt a little less despair. I think that is because I was switching things up, making something happen, and it didn’t seem like circumstances were running over me as much.

Of course, I didn’t realize in any meaningful way all that I was walking away from. And not the least idea of what I was walking into.

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