High School Hell
Home Up Paint it Black

Book One:
A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS


PART TWO: HIGH SCHOOL HELL

CHAPTER SIX:
HIGH SCHOOL HELL

Written by Rick Archer

  2015, Richard Archer

 


SUBCHAPTER 26
- BLIND EYE

 

Here I am at fourteen.  I wasn't a bad looking kid.  By the way, that's a stolen jacket I am wearing for my Freshman picture.  They said I needed a jacket for the picture.  I didn't have a jacket.  I saw one hanging on a locker.  It fit, so I kept it.  A month later I wore that same jacket again on a school field trip to the museum.  As students of an elite private school, we were required to wear a jacket. 

A boy noticed me wearing the jacket on the bus.  He exclaimed, "Gosh, Dick, I had a jacket that looked just like that one you are wearing.  I lost it at school somewhere.  Too bad.  That was my favorite jacket."

He stared at that jacket for a long time.  He didn't accuse me, but I am sure he was suspicious.  There were times when I worried that maybe I really was a creepy loser kid.  Starting in the 8th grade, some serious anti-social tendencies began taking hold within me.  Because the world was mean to me, I used that as an excuse to be mean to others. 

Do you see my raised eyebrow?  That's a false eye. I am blind in my left eye. The eyelid often stayed in that odd raised position due to my blind eye.  I cut my eye out with a kitchen knife when I was five.  I was left unsupervised.  What kind of mother leaves a small child alone with a knife?  Well, mine did.

I had a piece of thick rope I wanted to cut, so I found a kitchen knife.  The knife was dull and I didn't have much strength, so I started pulling the knife towards my face with my left hand instead of away.  It was slow going, but I was almost done.  I heard my mother in another room calling to me to hurry up whatever I was doing and get ready to go somewhere.  So to speed up the process, I gave the knife a big jerk.  


I wasn't aware that just a thread was keeping the rope intact. 
Boom. The knife cut swiftly through the remaining rope and kept going in an arc that barely grazed the front of my my left eye.  I barely sliced the pupil of my left eye.  To my surprise, it didn't even hurt. 

Emergency room here I come. 

I soon developed a cataract.  Surgery to correct the cataract when I was six was unsuccessful. 

Even more problematic, I developed a detached retina.  

At this point, the doctor detected the early signs of "sympathetic ophthalmia".  This is an inflammation of both eyes that can follow trauma from the bad eye to the good eye.  Sometimes the good eye goes kaput just like the bad eye.  This condition can leave the patient completely blind.  So they decided to completely remove my bad eye as a precaution. 

Then I was given a false plastic eye to fill the empty eye socket. 

The loss of my left eye had no impact on my life until the 7th grade.  My coaches refused to let me play football in the 7th grade.

Throughout middle school, I was a tall, rugged boy.  I was one of the biggest boys in my class and I wanted to play football very badly.  However my coaches were deeply worried I could get hurt by being blind-sided.   

However, I begged them to let me play.  Finally in the 8th grade, Coach Skip Lee gave in.  After my mother signed a waiver, I was allowed to play football as an experiment.  We didn't play other schools.  Instead Coach Lee divided us into two teams that played each other.  I played defensive left end to protect my blind left eye.  This way, I could see almost all danger coming at me from the right side.

I say "almost all" for a reason.

One day a receiver set up wide to my left, my left being my blind side.  After he went downfield, I stopped worrying about him.  I assumed he was running a pass route.  Unbeknownst to me, once he was behind my back, the receiver turned around and came in from the side.  I had no idea he was even there.  Just as I was about to tackle the ball carrier, the wide receiver pulverized me with a brutal block on my blind side.  I had never been hit so hard in my life.  It was a clean hit, but since I never saw him coming, he completely leveled me. 

The blow knocked me unconscious.  After that, I didn't argue with my coaches any more.  I played one more game. It was the final game of our season and it would also be my final game of football.  I am proud to say I made a goal-line tackle on the last play of the game to save the victory.  And with that, my dreams of football glory ended. 

I had played well enough to know I had ability.  My coaches agreed.  I made the all-star team, a source of immense pride.  However, that knockout blow had made a serious dent on my confidence.  I had lost all my swagger.  I had given football a fair try, but now that I could see what my coaches were trying to explain to me, I had the sense to quit. 

Still, I really liked my coaches, especially Mr. Lee, the coach of the varsity team.  Since I couldn't play any more, I asked for permission to become the team's football statistician next year.  Mr. Lee was more than happy to grant me this privilege.  I did a good job keeping football statistics for all four years of high school.  Although I was glad to participate in this small way, it bothered me no end to watch my classmates out there on the field without me.  I ached the entire time over missing the chance to play.

What a shame my blind eye kept me out of football throughout high school.  The star of the team was Dana Ballantyne, one year ahead of me.  Playing fullback on offense, he was our leading rusher.  Playing linebacker, Dana was a ferocious tackler, the heart of the defense.  I wanted so much to play next to him.  But thanks to the blind eye, that never happened.  

I had the ability to play football.  I could have made friends on the team and perhaps come out of my shell.  However, thanks to the blind eye, I had lost the perfect opportunity to lose my invisibility.

Fortunately, I still had basketball.  Ever since my crossroads decision in the 8th grade to do something about my loneliness, I had kept my promise and practiced basketball on a daily basis.

Not only did I like basketball a lot, I had grown over the summer. I was now six feet tall, the tallest boy in my grade. With my height as an advantage, I pinned all my hopes on making the freshman basketball team.

If I couldn't play football, then I planned to use basketball as a way to make myself feel part of my classmates' lives again.  I had really dropped the ball in the 8th grade.  This sport seemed like an obvious way to start over and participate in high school extracurricular activities. 

My blind eye had proven to be a huge handicap in football, but so far my blind eye had not been a handicap in basketball.  Since basketball wasn't nearly as rough as football, I never felt in any physical danger. 

In the 8th grade, I had made a fool of myself when I quit the basketball team.  I lost my temper when my mother said I had to ride the bus home after any nighttime basketball games.  I regretted that decision for the entire year. 

Then the Nancy Paxton incident shamed me into taking action.  Frequently after school during the 8th grade and every day in the summer prior to the 9th grade, I went to Cherryhurst Park with Terry to practice my lay-ups and my jump shot.    Whenever I was joined by other boys for pick-up games, I dominated.  I had become an excellent shooter thanks to my daily practice and I could score at will.

I hated feeling invisible.  I wanted to rejoin my classmates in the worst way. 

Basketball was my big chance. 

 


SUBCHAPTER 27
- CRISIS

 

I began the 9th Grade in 1964.   I had finally reached the Upper School at St. John's, their term for "high school".  Thanks to the full scholarship granted me over the summer, I was excited to know I would be at St. John's for four more years. 

Like every other freshman boy, I dreamed about dating.  I prayed my basketball skills would get me noticed.  Maybe some girl would take a shine to me and I could finally have a girlfriend.  Maybe with her help I could regain status within my peer group. 

I could barely wait for basketball practice to begin.  I knew I was going to surprise people with my ability.  Finally I would be noticed again.  Maybe that would help my social life as well.

Maybe maybe maybe.  I was full of hope.

Two months into my Freshman year, I developed a mild case of acne. 

My mother hated pimples.  She didn't have enough money to pay a dermatologist for my minor skin problems, but she told me she had a less expensive solution.  One night in October she got out a sewing needle.  After sterilizing it with a match, she started merrily popping away at the pimples. 

I objected strenuously.  I said whatever my problem was, it wasn't that bad. 

However my mother insisted we continue. 

After she was done, Mom finished her handiwork by cleansing the open wounds with isopropyl alcohol.  Mom smiled at her excellent job.

"There!  All done.  In the morning, your face will be completely cleared up."

Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined what my mother had just done would change the course of my life.  Nothing would ever be the same.

Early the next morning, I woke up with my face burning in pain.  My face felt mysteriously swollen.  The swelling stretched the skin on my face so tight that I was having trouble moving my jaw properly.  I was scared.  What was wrong with me?  I rushed to the mirror and screamed in horror.

I had the face of a monster!  This disgusting picture from The Fly is of course an exaggeration of what I looked like, but it gives the correct impression.  I was hideous.

This bizarre experience was reminiscent of a passage in Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis

"Gregor Samsa awakens one morning in his family's apartment to find himself 
  inexplicably transformed into a gigantic insect."

Overnight I had undergone some process straight out of a horror movie, except in my case this was not a nightmare but rather a living waking hell. 

Overnight, my face had ballooned to twice its size.  My face was covered ear to ear with dozens of angry red pustules. 

No, I am not making this up nor am I exaggerating.  I still have the facial scars today to prove it.

This was insane. 

Normally I had a long slender face.  Now I had a round face.  My face had puffed up into a big round balloon.  Other than my forehead which remained clear, there was not one patch of clear skin left. 

Furthermore I was in a lot of pain.  My face constantly throbbed as my body tried to fight off the massive infection. 

As I cried buckets upon buckets of tears in terror, I asked my mother what to do.  She shook her head in sympathy.  "Well, Dick, you can stay home today and I'm sure this will clear up." 

So I stayed home. 

At the time, neither my mother nor I had any idea what had gone wrong.  We would later learn that my lymph gland nodes had become infected. 

While I slept that night, the lymph gland infection had spread like wildfire.  Overnight new pimples erupted across my face like volcanic explosions reshaping the earth's surface. 

I sometimes wonder why we didn't go straight to the doctor.  If we had begun antibiotics immediately, I have to believe the problem would not have become as severe or long-lasting as it did.

But we were poor and my mother completely underestimated the seriousness of my condition. 

My face did not clear up after one day.  So I stayed home a second day.  Still no improvement. 

I could not stay home a third day for a special reason... today would be the start of basketball tryouts, the most important thing in the world to me.

I would have gone to school even if there was a hurricane outside. 

Nothing would stop me, not hell nor high water..

Overnight my face went from mild acne to this.

 


SUBCHAPTER 28
- THE SHIELD OF INVISIBILITY IS RUPTURED

 

For the past year and a half I had been invisible due to the mistake of giving Fred's driver my correct address in the 7th grade.

I had made a mess of things in the 8th grade by quitting the play, the spelling bee, and basketball practice.  Now here in the 9th grade I was desperate for my second chance. 

For the past six months, I had been counting on basketball as my ticket out of invisibility.   I had been practicing every afternoon on my own for one to two hours just for this moment.  I was ready to take my stage and hope the world would see me again.

I had been dreaming of this day for ages now.  I had shot lights out over at Cherryhurst Park all summer long just for this moment.  I could not wait to see the shock on the other boy's faces when I showed them what I could do on the basketball court.  I was going to be a star.  I wouldn't miss basketball tryouts today for anything in the world, not even this bizarre acne attack. 

I was sick over the fact that I had to begin my re-entry onto the SJS stage looking like this, but I wouldn't let this problem stop me.  My mother had said the problem would pass, so I didn't dare skip today's tryouts.  I had too much riding on this. 

It wouldn't be easy though.  Looking in the mirror, I was horrified to note my balloon face was approximately the same shape as a basketball.  Paint the ball red, put a nose on it and we could be twins.  The irony was not lost on me.  Call me Mr. Basketball Head.

One thing to keep in mind is that I had no idea just how serious my problem was.  My mother said this would go away soon.

However, she may have known more she was telling.  My mother saw me getting dressed and stopped me.  She wasn't so sure going to school was a good idea.  Let's give it another day. 

I refused to listen.   So off to school I rode on my bicycle.  Mr. Basketball Head was on a mission.

Mom was right.  This turned out to be a terrible mistake.  I shocked them all right, but not the way I wanted to.  From the moment I arrived, students and teachers gasped as they saw me for the first time.  I will never forget the looks of horror as long as I live. 

The shame I felt was overwhelming.  Students actually stepped out of my way in the hall to let me pass.  Whatever it was that I had, they wanted no part of it.

As their eyes grew wide with fear and loathing, I could not help but recall the heart-rending leprosy scenes in the movie Ben Hur

"Make way, fool, dost thou block the leper's way?"

With my face bloated out of proportion and my skin covered with layers of pimples on top of pimples, how I had the guts to show my face at school that day I will never know.  That may have been the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life.  Maybe the stupidest too.  Damn it, I should have been at the doctor's office, not at school. 

But that wasn't my call, was it?

The experience of walking around school with kids staring at me ripped me to shreds with shame.  Those kids looked at me like I had turned into a monster.  In class I felt them staring at me.  Every bit of laughter behind my back seemed directed at me.  I cowered and wanted desperately to hide under my desk. 

Guess what?  I wasn't invisible anymore.  The irony did not escape me. 

One needs to understand that the students at St. John's were not just smart, they were also very attractive.  People with wealth and education have a wide choice of marriage partners.  "Good looks" were typically a required part of the package.  Therefore it came as no surprise that wealthy parents were blessed with attractive children.  With every student making regular visits to get braces or see a dermatologist as needed, St. John's students were flawless.  Beauty was taken for granted at my school.

Now suddenly a diseased Quasimodo had appeared in their midst.  The effect was revulsion.  Today was the birth of the legend of the Creepy Loser Kid.

I would have fled if not for my grim determination to stay for basketball tryouts.  I steeled my resolve.  I was sure these pimples were bound to leave eventually, probably next week.  I was a quitter last year, I wasn't going to quit again.

I wasn't going to sacrifice all that I had been working for just to salvage my pride over my damaged appearance. 

I counted the minutes to the end of the day.  It was finally time for basketball.  Despite my purple mask of shame, I was determined not to throw my ambition away for vanity's sake. 

So here I was three days after the acne eruption trying out for the Freshman basketball team.  Basketball was the only hope I had to find my way to popularity.  I wanted so much to belong at my school.

 


SUBCHAPTER 29
- THE COACH THROWS A CURVE

 

Strangely enough, as practice started, I was more worried about my blind eye that day than my basketball-shaped face. 

The previous week, my new basketball coach had thrown me a serious curve.  Now I was worried how much of a handicap my blind eye would prove to be. 

The rumor is they send young men to war because young men think they are invincible.  That was exactly my downfall in the 8th grade when I insisted they let me play football.  I thought I was invincible. 

However, after getting knocked out on the football field the year before, I wasn't so cocky any more. 

Mr. Brockman, the Freshman basketball coach, had heard about the incident.  The previous week he had hit me with an unpleasant surprise.  One day after P.E., Brockman saw me in the gym shooting layups.  He asked if I intended to play basketball.  I said of course.  At that point he made a huge fuss over my blind eye.  He said my blind eye would be just a big a handicap in basketball as it was in football.

I was stunned.  I had been playing basketball for several years now and my blind eye had never posed a problem.  I countered by telling him that I had played basketball at Cherryhurst Park all summer long and my blind eye had not been a problem.

Mr. Brockman was skeptical.  Brockman said it was that it was one thing for me to play one-on-one or two-on-two pickup basketball with a blind eye.  But without peripheral vision, how would I keep track of nine other players?   How much of a handicap would my blind eye be in a fast game marked by random motion complete with cutters, picks and no-look passes?  The coach said it was one thing to hide me at left defensive end in football, but I would have nowhere to hide on a basketball floor. 

He concluded by saying I could easily get knocked out again.

I retorted that I didn't agree with him, but his warning had a real effect on me.  The more I thought about it, the more I began to worry about my blind eye.

My anxiety increased when Mr. Brockman stopped me after P.E. again the next day.  He handed me a letter and insisted I get it signed if I intended to go out for the freshman basketball team.

I understood.  I said of course I would get it signed.

When I got home, I took a look at the letter.  I paled visibly.  Coach Brockman's letter was so much different than Coach Lee's football letter from the previous year.  The football letter was some vague one-sentence thing along the lines of "I understand that playing football with only one eye carries considerable risk of injury".

Mr. Brockman had quite the morbid imagination.  His basketball permission letter listed three different gruesome scenarios.  One situation involved permanent blindness from getting poked in the good eye by a finger.  A second scenario involved paralysis caused from breaking my neck after running into a player with my head turned and tripping.  A third possibility was serious injury caused by running into a pick set on my blind side.

Good grief.  At first I had thought the coach was worried about my safety, but my mother agreed with me this letter seemed more concerned with lawsuits.  Oh well.  I had never been hurt playing basketball.  I bravely told myself this was nonsense and I wasn't going to let this stop me.  I wanted to play and that was all that mattered. 

I signed it and so did my mother.  However, the coach had gotten his message across.  Not only was I defying his wishes by playing, his warnings had me deeply worried for my safety. 

I was so worried about getting hurt that I actually forgot about my face for a while.

 


SUBCHAPTER 30
- ACHILLES HEEL

 

Ironically, Coach Brockman turned out to be absolutely right. 

To me it was unbelievable, but just like he predicted, my blind eye ended my high school basketball career.

However, even Brockman with his vivid imagination could never have foreseen an accident as weird as mine.

On the second day of tryouts, during a passing drill at practice, a boy zinged a basketball pass at me with plenty of steam on it.  The kid saw my head slightly turned towards him when he threw the ball.  Unfortunately, this boy had no way to know he was throwing the ball at my blind side.  I never saw the ball coming.  The basketball hit me with great force flush on the blind side of my swollen face. 

Ordinarily this would not have been a problem.  Although the blow stunned me, it didn't knock me down.  Furthermore there wasn't too much pain at first.  I was just dazed.  After several seconds had passed, I was about to shake it off. 

Then the real pain hit.  I am unsure why there was a four second delay, but once the pain began, it was searing!  I felt like an bomb explosion had taken place inside my head.  That blow caused me more agony than I can possibly describe.  The basketball had made direct contact with the burning infection covering my face.  Every pustule had been compressed by the blow and now decided to retaliate.  My face felt like angry fire ants were biting me everywhere.  I was overcome by powerful stabs of burning pain. 

It was frightening that the severity of the pain refused to go away.  Why wouldn't this pain subside?

Now the pain became so intense that I was afraid I might fall.  For safety, I dropped to my knees and covered my face with both hands to hide my agony from prying eyes.  This had all been an accident, of course, but I was shocked at how devastating the direct hit to my infection proved to be.

I couldn't understand why the pain kept increasing!  Normally when I get hit by a ball, it hurts and then the pain subsides in ten seconds or so.  Not this time.  We were well past the one minute mark.  As the pain worsened, now I had to lie down on my stomach.  I covered my head with my hands so people couldn't see my face.  I writhed in agony as the pus in my horribly swollen, infected face burned for an eternity.  I became really scared when the hot throbbing would not go away.  Now I was becoming worried the pain wasn't temporary.  What is wrong with me?  

Tears welled up in my eyes.  It hurt so bad I thought I might pass out.  

Meanwhile everyone crowded around trying to understand why I was in so much pain.  To them, I had received a glancing blow from a basketball.  No big deal.  So why was I laying on the floor rolling around and grabbing my face like that?

How could they possibly know what was wrong?  What was I supposed to do, tell the world that I had been knocked senseless from an atomic pimple explosion?  This moment was even worse than the time I cut my eye out.  At least cutting my eye didn't hurt, but this pain was unbearable.  I wanted to scream it hurt so bad.

I kept my hands over my head so people could not see me in such agony.  What I really wanted to do was grab my face with my fingers and rip my skin away.  My face refused to stop burning.  As I lay there, I felt so helpless, so futile.   I couldn't decide what hurt worse, my face or the utter humiliation.   

This was truly the final straw.  Now what?  Was there any hope left for me? 

First my face was so full of pimples I couldn't stand to look at myself in a mirror.  Then everyone at school was horrified by my appearance.  And now I couldn't even play basketball thanks to this hideous curse of acne. 

I wanted to die right there on the spot.  If someone had handed me a knife, I would have used it.

Thankfully after three minutes, the pain finally eased a bit.  I was woozy, but at least now I could stand up.  A couple boys asked if I was okay and I nodded.  The boy who had hurt me was worried about me.  He asked what had happened. 

I quietly whispered about my blind eye to him.  This turned out to be a real mistake. 

Up till now, not many people in school knew about my blind eye.  Now my blind eye became public knowledge as the story was told and re-told.  Once Harold, my nemesis, learned I was blind in one eye, he immediately coined "Dead Eye Dick", his favorite nickname for me.  

How did I ever get to be so lucky?

I had bigger problems than worrying about new nicknames.  I was strong enough to wobble now.  Full of shame, I got up and stumbled towards the locker room.  A couple boys offered to follow me, but I said I was okay now.  I preferred to be alone, so I went there by myself.  I sat down on the first bench I could find and buried my hideous face in a towel.  Mercifully, the intense pain had subsided into a dull burning that I could tolerate.  The agony was over. 

Strangely enough, Coach Brockman was nowhere to be seen.  Not only had the man failed to speak to me when I was on the floor, he didn't visit me here in the locker room either.  Obviously he had determined what my problem was and understood I was in no real danger.  Furthermore, why give me any encouragement?  He didn't want me there in the first place.  He had made that perfectly clear with the note he made me sign.

With that thought, I suddenly realized I despised this coach.  Brockman was probably glad I had gotten hurt because it proved his point.  His lack of concern removed the last possible reason for me to stick around.

As I sat there alone on the locker room bench, I was beaten.  I did not have the courage to go back to basketball practice today and face the questions or any potential wisecracks.  I told myself that I would come back next week when this acne outbreak went away. 

Next week?  Guess again.  Sad to say, I was just now beginning to grasp how serious my condition was. I had a serious infection that was going untreated and the infection was growing stronger by the moment.  If anything, the basketball accident may have exascerbated the problem.

Although my mother kept reassuring me it would clear up in a day or two, she didn't know what she was talking about.  Every day we delayed going to the doctor would add another month to my recovery time. 

My dreams of playing basketball this year were over.  In fact, despite my talent, I would never play for my school. 

I was embroiled in the worst crisis of my life. 

As I rode my bike home after the blind side accident, I had the oddest feeling about my injury.  The direct hit on my face was a strange coincidence.  I bet that boy couldn't hit my face again from that distance if I gave him twenty tries.  Furthermore he had to throw that pass at the exact moment I had turned my head or I would have simply caught the ball. 

I had never been hit in the face by a basketball before.  Furthermore, with the benefit of hindsight, I can add that it would never happen again.  In other words, despite a lifetime of playing basketball, I was only hit on my blind side one single time.

What an odd coincidence that of all the days to be struck in my blind spot, this particular accident had taken place at such a key moment.

My mind drifted to Achilles, the fierce Greek warrior who struck fear into the heart of every Trojan warrior.  Achilles had one weak spot - his heel.  A well-aimed poisoned arrow had struck the Greek hero in the only place he was vulnerable.  Now he would die a slow death. 

I had always scoffed that an arrow shot from a hundred yards away could have such accuracy.  Today I wasn't laughing any more.  The accuracy of that basketball made me wonder if the Gods had directed it the same way they had directed the arrow to the heel of Achilles.

I now understood I had much bigger problems than not making the team.  What was I going to do about my face?  Previously, I had despised my invisibility.  As they say, be careful what you wish for.  Today's dilemma felt like the punch line to a bad joke. 

Now convinced my appearance was little better than that of a leper, I wished with all my heart I could disappear again.

And disappear I did.  This was the day I would start my retreat deep into hiding at my school.  Two short months into my high school career, today's events had doomed me to remain in the shadows for all four years of high school.  That was my fate.

Already the poorest kid in the school with an inferiority complex to match, now I was the ugliest kid in school to boot.  That's a tough combination to lick.  My whole world had turned black.

I would never play football or basketball.  I would never act in a play.  I would never dance at a high school party.  I would never date a single girl at my school. 

That thud you hear is the sound of the Rock of Sisyphus falling to the valley below. 

Welcome to High School Hell.

 


CHAPTER SEVEN: PAINT IT BLACK

 

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