A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS
PART TWO: HIGH SCHOOL HELL
PAINT IT BLACK
Written by Rick Archer
2015, Richard Archer
After the freak basketball injury, I couldn't wait any
longer. Whatever was wrong with my face, it was serious.
But there was no money in my house. I knew my mother was
broke. Not only was she out of a job, she was also facing a much-needed
Desperate, I called my father for help.
Considering the deep resentment I felt for him, this required a
different kind of courage. I still hated my father for turning
his back on me in the 6th grade and refusing to keep me at St.
But I had no choice.
The constant burning had eroded all my defiance. I
swallowed my pride and begged for help.
To my vast relief, Dad
stepped up to the plate. He said his insurance would pay
80% of my treatment. He said he would go ahead and pick up the
remainder of the tab. I had never been so grateful in my life.
Yes, thanks to my father,
one week after the outbreak, I finally went to see a dermatologist. Unfortunately,
the situation was too far
out of control for any quick fix.
Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months. It
six months of tetracycline and radiation treatments to get the
entrenched inflammation under
Every visit Dr. Spiller
would shake his head and say, "What a shame you didn't come to me
I just wanted to
year was ruined. From October 1964 till the end of
the 9th grade school year, I walked
the halls with my face of
would expect, I
received strange stares from people whenever they saw me for the first
time. Some looks would be that of confusion, others would convey a
sense of involuntary revulsion.
One day on
a Saturday morning, I rode my bike to a classmate's house.
Frank and I
were going to work on a biology project. However, Frank had
forgotten to tell his mother I was coming. Frank's
mother heard the knock on the door. When she opened the door,
gasped. I cringed as she covered her mouth to hide her shock.
The poor woman bent over backwards to apologize and I certainly bore
her no ill will. But I could not get her look of horror out of
It was incidents like
these that reinforced my growing self-image as the creepy loser kid.
To my chagrin, the
problem lingered long past the 9th grade. In the 10th grade,
Harold became a freshman and took a special delight in tormenting
me. Harold's cruel barbs about "Dead Eye Dick", "Dickless",
and "The Clearasil Kid" touched
right on my most sensitive nerve. I was overcome by an overwhelming sense of ugliness and inferiority.
It doesn't take much
imagination to see why I felt like such a hideous leper.
I felt rejection in many
different ways. One particular area of awkwardness took place
on Friday nights after our home football games.
The Saint John's Mother's Guild
sponsored dance parties for the Upper School after each home
These dance parties were held at the various
River Oaks mansions of my classmates. As a
student at St. John's, I had every right to attend these Friday
night dance parties. Considering how much I wanted to see how
rich people lived, I went to every one of these parties
despite my appearance.
The splendor of these modern castles was a sight to behold.
I was impressed by the beautiful artwork, the landscaping,
and the expensive furniture.
had another reason to attend. I went because I liked to watch my classmates dance. Although I
didn't dare participate in the dancing, I enjoyed seeing my classmates
dance. I smiled as they tried to outdo each other on the latest moves
and how they laughed and teased
each other's attempts.
and daydream about the day my curse would be lifted.
someday I could be happy like they were. But then I would snap
back to reality and remember how sad I felt all the time.
would appear at the entrance to these River Oaks homes, I would
invariably receive a polite but frosty reception. I didn't
know if it was my clothing, my lack of confident demeanor or my permanent
Freddy Krueger Halloween
mask that tipped them off, but I received stares that made me feel uncomfortable.
impression was these wealthy women who were greeting me could not believe
someone who looked like me could possibly be a St. John's student.
In a way they were right. Any mother but mine would have
sent her child straight to the doctor and put a stop to this problem before
it could take root.
imagine the stares I would get. What did these women think as
they greeted this pathetic kid who dared walk up the
sidewalk to the homes of the rich and powerful? There I was with
my bloated, blotchy face covered with a red sea of
angry pimples and pus-filled white caps.
Just the memory makes me sick. The pain has not passed with
years. Oh, what a sight I must have been.
note of every subtle frown and every dirty look as I
approached their home. The incredulous looks said to me,
"Who on earth are you? You can't possibly be a St.
several parents at St. John's who were class acts, but my overriding
memory were the snobs who acted like they were doing me a serious favor by
allowing this pitiful child into their homes. No doubt they had done their good deed for the year.
10th grade, one woman
actually challenged me. To my surprise, I was more impressed
than angry. She was so clever about it. I suppose this woman had become
suspicious because she had seen me
shuffling down her street like a homeless person. I had ridden
my bike over after the game and hidden it in a thick clump of
bushes. Then I walked to her home.
these parties were held in the River Oaks neighborhood near school,
I didn't have far to go. As I approached this modern day
castle in the dark,
I walked up with my head down and my shoulders slumped.
doubt my body language conveyed my apology for disgracing her
with my presence. I was always full of dread at these
unavoidable greetings. As I
reached the steps,
I raised my head to the light.
The lady at the door could not have guessed my appearance.
However, once she got a good look at me, this lady did the usual
hand to mouth gasp and double-take. I had taken her completely off guard
with my looks.
recovered quickly. In an instant, she regained her friendly mask.
stuck out her hand and greeted me cordially. "Hello, I'm Mrs.
Anderson. And you are?"
name is Richard Archer." I hated using 'Dick', my
nickname. I yearned to find a way to get rid of it.
"Welcome to my home, Richard. I don't believe I've met
you before. And what class might you be in?"
I was a sophomore.
really?" she said sweetly, "Isn't Susan Templeton in your class?"
Since there were only fifty kids in my class, I knew the
name of every student. For that matter, I knew their
class ranking and their likely
socioeconomic order as well. There was no 'Susan Templeton'. So I assumed
this lady was trying to trick me.
I was fairly certain
Mrs. Anderson expected me to panic and lie, "Oh sure, I know Susan well!
Susan and I are old friends."
at the woman and said, "Susan Templeton transferred to Lee High
The woman's happy face slipped imperceptibly as I called her
Mrs. Anderson replied, "Oh really? I didn't know that,
Richard. Well, thank you for telling me. Why
don't you come in? I hope
you enjoy your party."
And with that she moved aside to signal permission.
With her false smile ushering me in, I could tell she was
disappointed. I suspected that behind her Friendly
Face she was disgusted at being forced to allow Leper Boy
into her home. No doubt the maid would be told to
Lysol every place I touched in the morning.
But I had to hand it to her; this lady
was smooth. She never once let on that she had been playing an entry trick on me.
Now I smiled politely and went inside. The fact that
the woman had tried to trip me up helps to explain why I felt
unwelcome at these events. It is a good thing I had so
much defiance in me or I
would have never made it through these awful years.
In the spring of my Freshman year, the pimples finally
started to fade. After six months of radiation
treatment and tetracycline, the Red Sea finally began to dry up.
For a young boy, this attack had absolutely
devastated my confidence and self-esteem. I could
hardly wait to see what I looked like with the acne
cruelest blow was yet to come. As the pimples
slowly vanished, like a receding glacier they left
series of peaks and valleys in my skin. I
was full of despair to discover my
face was permanently pockmarked worse than the cratered landscape on the
I was beyond sick. It was one thing to withstand a
temporary shame, but this scarring was permanent.
I couldn't bear the
thought of looking like this for the rest of my life.
my doctor offered me some hope. He recommended I undergo a dermabrasion
operation to restore my ravaged face to at least some normalcy.
I begged my father to
pay for this operation. Thank goodness he said okay.
I wanted the operation immediately, but Dr. Spiller said it would be
best to wait for the summer between my freshman and sophomore year
to do the operation. He said my face would be full of thick
scabs that would prevent me from going to school. The scabs
would take at least two weeks before they came off.
Summer arrived and with
it came this much-anticipated skin planing operation. This was
the moment I had been waiting for. I was so desperate.
This was my only hope! I wanted so badly to look normal again.
The operation wasn't
pleasant. The doctor sprayed my skin with some extremely cold
liquid, then he began to sand all the skin off my face. I
developed a thick crust of scabs. I looked so ridiculous that
I was confined to home.
One day I got stir crazy and had to leave the
house. So I got a grocery bag and cut two holes in it.
Once I put the bag on, I realized how silly it was to cut two holes
when I only had one eye. I walked
around the neighborhood to relieve the tension. I
remember talking with Jane, the girl next door, with the bag
over my head. I told Jane I was living on pins and needles
hoping this treatment worked.
I had a huge crush on
Jane. She went to Lamar. Not only was Jane super-bright,
she was pretty. She was also kind of shy like me. I liked that a
lot. Maybe when these scabs healed, my looks would return and
I could ask her out. This thought kept me going throughout the
two weeks prior to the unveiling.
couldn't bear to wait any longer. I was so nervous. I
had to know what I looked like!! It took two weeks, but
eventually the skin healed and the crust began to loosen.
Bit by bit the crust fell off, revealing pink new skin
The early results were not promising. I
could still see deep pockmarks. I could barely contain my disappointment.
It was all for naught. The first operation had come nowhere
close to making my face normal again.
I would peg the improvement
at 50%, but considering how serious the problem had been, we still had a long way to go.
I was miserable. Jane would have to wait. I
wouldn't dream of talking to a girl looking like this.
So I begged my father for a second operation over
the Christmas break
of my sophomore year.
Finally he relented.
Again there was
improvement, but again the job was incomplete. My second skin planing
operation had left the job 25% unfinished. The
doctor promised he could handle the remaining problems with one more
operation. Dr. Spiller felt sorry for me enough to offer a half-price
So I turned to my father
and pleaded for the third operation. My father said no, the insurance deductible had run out. This was a
new year and he would
have to pay a new deductible. In his opinion, two operations were
close enough. No more.
His advice was to learn to live with it. So I never got a
shot at the third operation.
And with that, I was
my moonscape face for the rest of my life.
I returned to school in
January 1966 for the second half of my Sophomore
year feeling deeply dejected. I was really in the dumps.
When I looked around, it
didn't help that practically every one of my classmates had
magically acquired new cars for Christmas
Brand new Mustangs, Thunderbirds, and GTOs lined the parking lot.
These kids were barely old enough to drive and they already had
their own car. Wealth did have its advantages.
With the influx of cars came
a sense of freedom plus an increased opportunity to
date. Suddenly there was a flurry of romance among my
classmates. Several of them paired off and began walking down the
halls hand in hand. As I watched their excitement, the envy was
difficult to bear. I too had hoped to begin dating in my Sophomore
year when my face healed. However, as I stared in the mirror, that was out of the
question. Despite the improvement, I believed I looked repulsive.
So what did other people
think about my appearance? My mother said I didn't look that
bad. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Mr. Curran, my
favorite teacher, commented one day that I looked much better.
That brought a smile to my face. I was surprised I still knew
how to smile.
To tell the truth, it
didn't matter what other people said. I couldn't stand to look
at myself in the mirror. The shame I felt when staring at my
face was unbearable. I believed I was ugly and that feeling
was absolutely unshakeable. Let me add that psychological
scars are much harder to heal than facial scars. Once a leper,
always a leper.
I did not believe it was remotely possible for a girl to be
interested in me looking like this. Considering my social
backwardness at this school, dating would have been an uphill struggle to begin with,
but with a face like this, it was beyond hopeless. What girl in her
right mind wanted to be seen walking the halls hand in hand with the
Creepy Loser Kid?
The shame that vision brought to me was
I threw in the towel.
I declared the fair young ladies of St. John's totally off-limits. My mind snapped shut to any possibility.
Now that all hope of
ever dating was gone, a terrible thick shell
began to grow around me. Slowly but surely I grew hard and
cold. The acne made me feel like a hideous person. My
pain caused everything in my world to turn a deeper shade of black.
Trust me, there was an
sixteen month stretch when my ugliness was
real. This was not my imagination. During the worst
part in my Freshman year, I was truly the teenage werewolf.
As people avoided me like the plague, I felt every bit the monster.
Every day my loneliness
became more acute. Slowly but surely, that loneliness turned
into bitterness. Many waking moments were filled with rage at
my helplessness. I was consumed with self-pity. A bitter darkness came
over me. What
had I ever done to deserve this?
Okay, so I stole some candy
bars from a grocery store in the 8th grade and some Batman comics
from a convenience store. And yes I stole that kid's sports jacket.
Surely those crimes were not serious enough to justify an entire
lifetime as the disfigured Phantom of the Opera.
been a hopeful, optimistic kid at the start of my Freshman year, but
this teenage curse had changed all that. I now lived
in a state of desperation as
I tried to
deal with the knowledge I would be ugly for the rest of my life.
other kids my age were having fun, I would watch from the
sidelines for my entire four years of high school. My battered face
was a handicap I simply
could not overcome, maybe not even if I had the remarkable Mrs. Ballantyne
offering her wisdom. "Life is tough; get used to it!"
Memories of kids shunning me like a leper
would always haunt me. A sullen anger against the world began to burn within me.
I was locked in an endless depression as
I watched all those hopes for high school evaporate before my
look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door, I must have it 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
I see a red door and I want it painted black
No colors any more, I want them to turn black
I see the girls walk by, dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes
-- Rolling Stones,
Paint it Black
After my father shut the door on all further hope in January 1966,
by coincidence, Paint it Black was being released. This
angry, bitter song quickly became my anthem.
Although the school colors for St. John's
were red and black, during the second half of my sophomore year the
only color I saw was pure black.
Harold had entered my
life with his "Creepy Loser Kid" taunt. He took delight at
tormenting me at every turn. That nasty label upset me no end. How could I
get this awful bitterness out of my soul?
I was stuck in
a trap from which there seemed no escape. I was the poorest boy in school.
I was the ugliest boy in school. I had the least charm and
quite possibly the lowest self-esteem of any boy. I looked like a leper
and my fellow students ignored me. My feelings of loneliness
and inferiority were overpowering. Basketball would not save
me from this. Nothing could save me from this.
Socially speaking, I was
I was having angry thoughts
that were starting to scare me.
When I compared my dotted face and crooked teeth to my attractive classmates
with their perfect smiles, perfect teeth, and perfect complexions, there were
times when I felt exactly like the creepy loser kid.
Whenever I was around
the sophisticated women of the Mother's Guild or my confident
classmates with their shiny cars, I felt so inadequate. How could I ever
measure up to these people who were so clearly superior to me?
locker room shower fight
with Harold took place early
in the second half of my Sophomore year. The fight affected me terribly.
Harold's taunts confirmed my worst nightmare that some people
thought I was repulsive. The thought that students like Harold
believed I was a 'creepy loser kid' was appalling. How could I
possibly change their minds? I had no answer to that
question. There were certainly no image-improving miracles in my bag
After the shower room fight, I fully expected
Harold would be gunning for a rematch. I also expected Harold's taunts
to continue. I became paranoid enough to begin watching over my shoulder. I was
certain Harold would try to jump me to gain the upper hand. I
was so touchy and defensive that
any student's suspicious glance put me on aggressive alert.
As I waited for the
sneak attack, my anger intensified. I was sullen and
looking for someone to give me an excuse to take my anger out on.
loser kid or not,
I was not about to take crap off of anyone.
intended to slap the next person to laugh at me into submission.
the hallways gave me a wide berth. Do you blame them?
I have little doubt the hostile, suspicious expression
on my face made me difficult to approach.
as my constant companion, I was convinced I needed to
A week or so after my fight, I saw an
old beat-up set of weights at a garage sale on my bike ride home. Ten bucks.
Heck, even I could afford that. I had to ride my bike back and
forth four times to get the full set home, but that night I started lifting weights.
Since basketball was out of the question, now weightlifting became my afternoon passion. Not only did it help work off some
frustration, it helped me feel safer.
It wasn't like I had much else
to do. Looking like this, I spent every spare moment in
As my muscles grew, my shell
thickened as well.
College offered hope for
a new start, but college was
more than two years away. I had already given up on high school.
I felt so beaten, why even bother trying
to be friendly at school? Locked into my role as "Dick", the
students at my school would always see me as poor,
ugly and unsophisticated. Bad first impressions are tough
enough to overcome, but my role as the creepy loser kid was
Full of self-pity at the futility of my situation,
I continued to lift weights and build the wall around me even higher.
I was well on my way to
transforming myself into a teenage Hulk.
The shower fight in the
early part of the 10th grade had turned my former sanctuary into a potential
battleground. Wherever I walked, I looked for danger. I hesitated at every hallway
junction lest I
walk into a sneak attack.
I fully expected all three boys would participate. Three against
one is tough enough, so I couldn't dare allow them to surprise me or
corner me. Always making sure I had a place to retreat to, I refused to let my guard down.
Where would they
come from? When? To deal with my angry feelings and my fear of attack, I
armed for battle. I spent an hour every night
pumping iron and cursing the scars on my face.
My face didn't improve, but my body did. I began to fill out.
Soon enough, I had
shoulders as wide as my frown. I was as big as any
starting linebacker on our football team.
new-found muscles didn't protect me from myself. The muscles
proved to be no compensation for my lost self-esteem.
I was my own worst
enemy. My body was strong, but my mind was weak. Every day my inner demons came
to haunt me. Whenever there was an idle moment, I was
tormented by dark thoughts.
It might be two
girls who giggled just after passing me in the hall. What were
they laughing at? Paint it black.
I might be
staring at a pretty girl only to see her frown when she noticed my
gaze. Paint it black.
Some days I spent
lamenting my fate as the poorest kid in the entire school. I
rode a bicycle to school. They drove a Mustang. Paint it
Other days I cursed the
fact that some kids had parents like Mrs. Ballantyne. Look who
I was stuck with. Mom the Scarlet Pimple Popper. Paint it black.
Another day I might
wonder for the millionth time how I would ever be able to afford to pay for
college. These kids had nothing to worry about. Paint it black.
I was full of regret
over my blind eye that prevented me from playing sports at St.
John's. Now that I had filled
out, I would have earned a starting position on any sports team. Paint it black.
Scar face. Blind
eye. Inferior. Invisible. Unwelcome.
It's not easy facing up when your whole world is black
AND THE BEAST
I see the girls walk by, dressed in their summer clothes...
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes
More than anything else, I cursed my
fear of dating the pretty girls at my school. During my
freshman and sophomore year, I had turned my face away in shame whenever an attractive girl
came near. For two years now, it had been look but don't
touch. My loneliness was overwhelming at times.
The sad thing is that I was attracted to several girls in my class, but
I was far too scared to say
What held me back?
In my mind, the girls in my class could only see me in my role
as the Invisible Man or the Creepy Loser Kid. It would take a
real leap of faith on their part to see me in any other light.
Why would they even give me the time of day?
I could not imagine how these rich girls could see any potential in
me worthy of their attention.
I was the
ugliest boy in a school full of beautiful people. I was the
werewolf situated among the
genetically-superior sons and
daughters of Houston's elite.
No girl was going to date
me for my athletic prowess... no one even had a clue that I was a good
athlete. Nor was
any girl going to date me for my personality... I didn't have one. My dating chances were
I was a tough, joyless
kid bristling with hostility. Why would any girl take a chance
on me? There would be no Beauty
and the Beast scenarios for me. Leave that to fairy tales. I
simply could not
bear the thought of rejection by one of these modern Princesses.
So I gave up. I
never said a word. My cowardice bothered me no end.
"Would you like to go out to a movie sometime?" One look
at my face and they might break out laughing.
I would go to the dance
parties after our home football games and hide in the shadows.
When the music came on, oh, I cannot begin to say how much I wanted
to get out there and dance!
Rolling Stones, Beach
Boys, Beatles, Motown. What great dance music!
I hated myself the most
when I saw my classmates enjoying themselves on the dance floor at
those parties. I was so envious. It killed me to
watch the boys touch the girls when they danced. I wanted to
dance so much, I could barely keep myself from jumping up and
joining them. As I watched them dance, the girls' laughter and
smiles made it clear I was missing out on something special. I
knew I would never have this chance again. I was wasting what
should have been my exciting years of discovery.
However, I didn't think
teenage werewolves were welcome on the dance floor.
Besides, I didn't know
how to dance. How was I supposed to learn? How did my
I had an enormous fear
of looking spastic. I was certain any girl would break out in
a fit of laughter at my clumsiness. Furthermore, even if I
could dance a little, where was I going to get the courage to ask
some girl to join me on the floor? Surely once we got out on
the floor, someone would make fun of me and embarrass us both.
Plagued by my fears, I
stayed invisible in the darkness and burned at my cowardice.
The wall around me grew
higher and higher. Inside the wall, my misery grew.
Why didn't anyone ever
speak to me? There is a real possibility the story of the
shower fight might have spooked people. Although the shower
fight was the only time I ever lost my temper in high school, no
one was going to take any chances. Nor could I blame them. Between my
scar face, brooding countenance, massive shoulders and reputation as a
fighter, I surely resembled a walking powder keg.
Inside I was tense,
worried, and bitter. Thank
goodness no one ever lit my fuse. If
someone had rubbed me the wrong way with some more choice words about
my face, I might have gone
ballistic. Fortunately, that one fight incident was
enough to scare everyone off.
The transformation was
complete; I had become The Hulk. I was always on the lookout for the next insult.
Don't tread on me! That attitude might
explain why everyone my age at school left me alone.
They had their own problems; why bother with that creepy loser kid?
The only time I spoke at
my school was during class discussions. At lunch I hung out
with several boys who were almost as shy as I was. We played
chess and stayed to ourselves.
The rest of the time,
I could not help but feel invisible. I
was here at this school every day, but no one
too lost in my own problems to realize my isolation was by and
large my own fault. I was responsible
for keeping everyone at arm's length, but I didn't have the
sense to figure it out. Who on earth would
dare approach such a hostile, angry-looking kid? And since I
was too scared to make the first move, I was left alone to wallow in
I was very frightened
of losing my temper.
Would I be able to handle more taunting?
Or would I fall off the deep end and lose control like I had in the
shower room? I had come within an inch of kicking that kid in the
face while he was helpless on the floor. I could have hurt him
badly and gotten into a lot of trouble. If the next situation was as bad as the shower
scene, I had no idea just how much self-control I had left.
Modern day readers might
wonder if I was Columbine Crazy. I
can certainly see the parallels. Loneliness, alienation,
Fortunately, that wasn't me. I wasn't a bad kid,
just a lonely one. There was a big difference between
those monsters at Columbine and my situation at St. John's... I loved my teachers at St. John's.
Nor did I have an issue with a single student at SJS other than Harold...
and he left school at the end of my sophomore year. Yeah,
everyone ignored me, but oh well, I wasn't so fragile that I
couldn't handle that. My anger was real, but it was mostly directed at my
own dilemma. I never once had fantasies of deliberately hurting anyone
or picking a fight.
That said, I will admit
I was a danger if someone had picked another fight. Fortunately,
there were no more incidents. I think the weight lifting was a
good idea. It practically guaranteed
no one would dream of saying another cross word to me. There
wasn't a single boy significantly bigger than me and certainly
no one with a bigger frown.
The sad thing is that it
was all a front. I wanted to
show the people at my school that I wasn't really a
creepy loser kid. I wanted the respect of my classmates in the
worst way. But I didn't know how to get that respect.
I had hate in me, but it
wasn't directed at anyone other than my parents and myself. I just hated my life,
that's it in a nutshell. My father was
nowhere in sight
and I had begun to argue with my mother on a daily basis.
My bitterness towards her regarding the acne crisis had really soured our relationship.
I was starved for
attention. I was desperate for praise. What I really
needed more than anything else in the world was someone to pat me on my back and appreciate me for
how hard I was working in school.
I was a really scared kid. Thanks to my
isolation, I had no one to talk to about college. I was
growing more and more worried
about how I would ever pay for college.
Worst of all, my
fondness for Saint John's was diminishing because I no longer felt
welcome there. Yes, my teachers liked me, but no one else did. Every day
had become a drudgery.
There was a real chance
that I might explode if I could not find some way to defuse the tension of my