Finish Line
Home Up Johns Hopkins

 


Book One: A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS

 

PART TWO: HIGH SCHOOL HELL
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN:
THE FINISH LINE

Written by Rick Archer
 

  2015, Richard Archer

 


SUBCHAPTER 80
- GUARDIAN ANGEL

 

I was deeply affected by my conversation with Mrs. Ballantyne.  In the days following our conversation, I spent a considerable amount of time trying to make sense of what had taken place.  I was not a particularly religious person at that time.  I had so many problems that thoughts of God and the Meaning of Life were the farthest thing from my mind.  But right now thoughts of Guardian Angels were front and center.  I was convinced that some unseen entity had brought this lady to my doorstep.  No other explanation made any sense.  

I recalled the time when I was 5 and a race car had come plunging through the fence at 100 miles per hour.  My father and I would have been obliterated except for the curious fact that an idea had suddenly popped into my head that made me stop. 

My father exclaimed, "Son, if you hadn't stopped us, we would both be dead now."

My father was right.  We had missed death by an instant.  Had we continued walking, we would have been right in the path of that speeding car.  Dad asked me why I had stopped.  When I explained the idea to stop had come out of the blue, Dad was convinced some higher force had intervened to save us.

"It seems to me your Guardian Angel was watching out for both of us."

I was pretty young, but I did wonder where my idea had come from.  Was the idea to stop 'my idea'?   Or did some guardian angel plant the idea in my mind like my father suggested? 

I could not help but wonder if something similar had happened to Mrs. Ballantyne.  Maybe she had been driving home from visiting her husband at his job in the Medical Center.  Her path home would have taken her right past my grocery store.  As she approached my grocery store, perhaps an idea popped into her head suggesting that she needed to stop and pick up some groceries. 

Consequently Rick Archer and Maria Ballantyne met for the first time in this lifetime.  I will never know the truth of what really took place that day, but there was one thing I was sure of... something took place in that parking lot that was not normal. 

There was no cosmic way to explain:

 Why my choice for the world's best mother had suddenly become acting mother to a boy who was a complete stranger.
 Why the same woman involved with the loss of my scholarship had conveniently appeared for questioning.
 Why in a class of 50 graduating students, this woman's daughter had been the one picked for the award.
 Why a lady who had no obvious reason to be at that grocery store had showed up in a place where she didn't belong.
 Why we had never met despite sharing a limited school area occupied by 600 students and faculty.
 Why 1,000 opportunities to meet spread out over nine years had failed to establish any sort of connection.
 Why this lady had appeared out of nowhere at the exact time in my life when I needed her the most.
 Why the childhood of the school's most prestigious parent turned out to be just as miserable as my own.


Throughout our conversation, I could not figure out why this busy, important woman had chosen to share her deeply personal story with a complete stranger as well as reveal the intimate details of her financial situation.  After much thought, I had my answer. 

When we first met, Mrs. Ballantyne was just being polite.  However, but when she realized I worked at the grocery store three to four days a week, she realized there was something way out of the ordinary about me.  Why would any St. John's student need to work so hard for money?  Mrs. Ballantyne had already noticed that I was very worried about something.  It was written all over my face.  Seeing how withdrawn and depressed I looked, I imagine she became concerned that something serious was troubling me. 

After two or three more pointed questions, Mrs. Ballantyne was horrified to realize just how serious my financial situation was.  When I explained that my grocery store job was the only way I could possibly go to college, her jaw dropped open.  She was shocked. 

In her wildest dreams, she never imagined the remote possibility that a boy as poor as me could exist at this wealthy school.  It was at this point that I believe she guessed her daughter's victory had created untold agony for me.  Mind you, she didn't reveal her realization, but I am certain it was on her mind from this point on.  Mrs. Ballantyne suddenly understood that Katina's accomplishment had jeopardized my college chances and that I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown over it.

So what does someone do in this situation?  Walk away?  Or stick around and try to help the wounded boy?  I think Mrs. Ballantyne's heart went out for me.  She made a conscious decision to stay by my side until she was sure I was okay.  She understood that for every winner, there has to be a loser.  That's just the way life is.  But I think Mrs. Ballantyne hurt for me, especially since I reminded her of her own desperate childhood.

Mrs. Ballantyne's empathy explains why she made a special effort to lift me out of my fears.  It also explained why she was so candid with me.  No, Mrs. Ballantyne could not give me her daughter's scholarship, but she could stick around to make sure I was strong enough to deal with the misfortune.  From that point on, she began to work her magic.

Mrs. Ballantyne took a big chance by openly revealing the circumstances of her daughter's scholarship.  Fortunately her candor worked to perfection.  Mrs. Ballantyne was very relieved to know she had done the right thing by bringing up the awkward topic of Katina's good fortune.  It meant a lot to her to know I was satisfied with what had transpired regarding the scholarship. 

My encounter with Mrs. Ballantyne changed my life.  Following her incredibly classy gesture, I cannot begin to explain how much my admiration for this woman grew.  She became my unforgettable role model.  Several times in my life, I literally asked myself what Mrs. Ballantyne might have done in a difficult situation. 

The parking lot conversation marked the moment I became convinced that things happen for a reason.  From that point on, I paid close attention any time something out of the ordinary happened to me.  I believed that if I studied the events of my life closely enough, I might discover a very interesting pattern.  I am pleased to say that hunch came true time and time again.   

 

After my encounter with Mrs. Ballantyne, I was cheerful for the first time in my entire Senior year.  Thanks to her, I now believed things would work out after all. 

"I promise you things will work out.

I repeated Mrs. Ballantyne's words over and over like a Hindu mantra.  Thanks to our conversation, Mrs. Ballantyne occupied a near-mythical status in my mind.  No doubt she was human, but not in my book. 

Oddly enough, from this point on, Mrs. Ballantyne seemed to disappear on campus.  We never spoke again in the final two months of the school year.  Although I saw her a couple times from across the Quadrangle, it was too far to even wave.  Nor did we pass in the hallway.  It was strange not to see her again after that amazing encounter.  Whatever invisible energies had kept us apart before our meeting seemed to have returned.  

William Shakespeare once said the world is a stage and we are all the actors.  In my life, Mrs. Ballantyne had made a brief but powerful cameo appearance, then vanished off stage. 

From my viewpoint, I felt like the lady had appeared for one act in my play, worked her magic, then disappeared like an ghostly apparition.  Her unlikely disappearance only served to further enhance the mythical aspect of our conversation in my mind.

 


SUBCHAPTER 81
- RALPH O'CONNoR

 

It was now April 1968.  About two weeks after my strange encounter with Mrs. Ballantyne, something unusual happened at school.  I was studying in the school library when over the loudspeaker I heard, "Richard Archer, please report to Mr. Salls' office."

To hear my name called like that was very unsettling.  Now what?  Students were rarely summoned to the Administration Office in this manner because it meant every class in the entire school had to be disrupted in the process.  I was suddenly frightened.  Why did Mr. Salls want to see me?  There was definitely a "Voice of God" quality to that announcement.  During my nine years, I had never heard my name called.  Since I did not know the purpose of this request, I immediately began to worry.  Was this going to be about the cheating incident?  Something to do with my nemesis Mr. Murphy?   What could it be? 

As I entered Mr. Salls' office, I was very tense.  My first instinct was to make sure we were alone.  I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I discovered no one else was in his office.  If there had been a committee, that would have meant trouble. 

Mr. Salls knew I was there, but he didn't even look up.  While continuing to read something on his desk, he simply said, "Mr. Archer, good morning, please sit down."  Hmm.  No greeting in German today.  Good sign or bad sign?  I sat down and waited.

There was no way I was able to relax.  I sat there on edge.  There were so many questions I wanted to ask Mr. Salls, but most of all I wanted to get down on my knees and apologize for the cheating incident.  I had a wild urge to beg for forgiveness.  I cannot begin to explain how terrible I felt about letting this man down.  However, never in a million years did I have the guts to bring up a subject this serious on my own.  Mrs. Ballantyne might have the courage to talk about serious subjects, but not me.

   

Finally Mr. Salls finished whatever he was doing and looked up. I saw he had his Headmaster mask on.  No pleasantries today.  He was all business, very brusque.   No 'how are you?', no cordialities spoken in German, just his stern, inscrutable face with his penetrating eyes.  I couldn't help but wonder why Mr. Salls was always so formal.

"Mr. Archer, I understand you have been accepted at Johns Hopkins University.  Is this correct?"

Without changing expression, I smiled to myself.  Aah, I wasn't in trouble.  What a relief!  The first thing that crossed my mind was that this was an odd way to begin the conversation.  He knew darn well I had been accepted at Hopkins.  After all, it was his idea for me to apply there in the first place. 

"Yes, sir. I have been accepted at Hopkins."  

Mr. Salls continued.  "Are you still interested in this school?  Because if you are, I would give this school my highest recommendation.  Johns Hopkins is a fine school."

I groaned.  Still interested?  Good grief, Mr. Salls, I have never been interested. 

But I didn't say that out loud.  There was no point in being rude to Mr. Salls.  But my heart was set on Georgetown.  Georgetown was located in Washington, DC, just across the Potomac two miles from the home of Aunt Lynn and Uncle Dick in Northern Virginia.  They were the closest thing to a real mother and father I had ever known.

   

Aunt Lynn and Uncle Dick had been my benefactors back in the 7th and 8th Grade when they paid my SJS tuition after my own father had slammed the door on me.  I loved these two people and I would do anything to be near them again.  Considering how much I needed a mother and a father, I liked the fact they would be close by to offer me encouragement.

   

Besides, I was deeply opposed to going to a men's college.  My face wasn't perfect, but it had cleared to the point that girls were looking at me now without instantly frowning.  It was high time for a fresh start. 

I had a mental picture of walking across the Georgetown campus with pretty girls at my side.  This image had formed a powerful grip on my imagination. 

Since I assumed Georgetown was academically just as good a school as Hopkins, I saw absolutely no reason why going to a men's school like Hopkins made the slightest bit of sense.  In fact, I had barely given Hopkins a second thought since Mr. Salls first suggested I apply back in September.

I had only applied because Mr. Salls had asked me to 'consider Hopkins'.  If Mr. Salls said 'consider it', of course I would 'consider it'. 

But that didn't mean I was happy about it.  A men's school?  Forget it.

   

I still regretted wasting money on the application fee.  I recalled how deeply I had resented being asked to apply there.  Upon his suggestion, I had burned $75 hard-earned dollars in application fees... the equivalent of 30 hours of work at the grocery store.  This was precious money that could have been put to better use... like applying to the University of Texas, for example.  If I had done that, I wouldn't be in the fix I was in.  Now that I had lost the Jones Scholarship, I couldn't afford Georgetown, but I had enough grocery store money to afford UT.  Too bad I didn't apply.

On the other hand, maybe there was a point to this meeting.  Due to the highly unusual nature of today's visit, I had a hunch something was up.  Mr. Salls had just inquired if I was interested.  Hmm.  No, I am not interested in Hopkins, but I am interested in what this meeting is about.  Close enough. 

"Well, Mr. Salls, I don't know much about Hopkins, but from what you told me last fall, yes, I am very interested." 

A bald-faced lie.  Hey, I didn't think a little fib could hurt.  I resisted the urge to touch my nose and see if it had grown any longer.

There was a definite pause in the conversation.  As Mr. Salls stared at me intently without a word, I stopped breathing.  Uh oh, what if Mr. Salls was just as psychic as Mrs. Ballantyne?  What if he senses what a phony I am?  I certainly hoped not.  He seemed to be probing my face for signs of insincerity.  The suspense was brutal.  Mr. Salls was definitely debating something in his mind. 

Maybe he was thinking about bringing up that cheating incident.  I felt sick in my stomach.  Please, let's not talk about that.  No doubt Mr. Salls was still angry at me.  Or at the very least disappointed. 

Finally Mr. Salls decided to speak.

"Very well.  In that case, I want you to do me a favor.  I want you to call an old friend of mine, Mr. Ralph O'Connor.  Mr. O'Connor is the Houston-area representative for Johns Hopkins University.  I would like for you to meet him and learn more about the school." 

Mr. Salls handed me a card with Mr. O'Connor's business phone number on it.  That was the end of my visit.  I estimate our talk took all of two minutes including Mr. Salls' 15 second Martian mind probe to look for signs of insincerity.

The word 'do me a favor' stuck in my mind as I walked out of his office.  I asked myself a question.  How often does Mr. Salls, Headmaster of St. John's, ask Rick Archer to do a favor for him?  

Not very often.  Maybe this unexpected moment was the break I had been hoping for.  I tingled with excitement.

I wasted no time calling Ralph O'Connor at his office.  Mr. O'Connor said he had been expecting my call.  Could I drop by his house in the evening sometime this week to discuss Johns Hopkins?  

   

I said I worked tonight and tomorrow, but I could come by two nights from now.  Mr. O'Connor said that would be perfect. 

So two nights later, I drove to Mr. O'Connor's house at 6:30 pm. 

I was surprised to see the address led me to an enormous River Oaks mansion on Chevy Chase.  This particular home was so large and palatial it dwarfed the homes around it.  It reminded me of pictures of the Palace of Versailles in France.  Who is this guy?

Mr. O'Connor was a very gracious host.  He ushered me into his expansive living room and offered me some coffee.  As we both sipped our coffee, he made me feel at ease immediately. 

Mr. O'Connor spoke to me for half an hour about Johns Hopkins.  Like Mr. Salls, Mr. O'Connor was quite passionate about the strengths of a school I knew nothing about.  All I could think of was too bad there were no girls.

   

After he was done telling me the glories of Johns Hopkins - the famous medical school, the lacrosse tradition, the academic excellence, the beautiful wooded campus in the center of Baltimore - I told him that he had sold me on the school. 

But that was all a complete fib.  I was just being polite. 

Georgetown had girls.  Hopkins didn't.  End of story.  But I didn't see the need to reveal just how shallow my thinking process was.  Furthermore, I didn't want to say anything that might short-circuit the direction this pleasant conversation might be headed.  I had a hunch it was to my advantage to play the game. 

Pleased at my interest in his school, Mr. O'Connor switched topics.  He said the most curious thing.  "Rick, could you take a moment to clarify your home situation?"

I gave Mr. O'Connor a five minute summary of the strange problems I faced.  I told him my mother was broke and my father was pathetic.   I explained that my father made serious money, but had no intention of helping me.  His other children were more important.  I added that I was worried how I would explain his disdain to a stranger in order to get a scholarship.  Then I told him about my grocery store job and how worried I was about paying for college. 

Mr. O'Connor nodded.  He seemed to take my word for it at face value.  No more questions.  Mr. O'Connor rose from the couch.  He thanked me for coming and said he would be in touch.

What an odd meeting.  What was that all about?  Something was definitely going on here.  Yes, Mr. O'Connor had made a fine presentation for his school, but I still wasn't interested in Hopkins.  However, I was very curious about his question regarding my financial status.  Did this mean what I hoped it would mean?

Mr. O'Connor had said he would contact me soon.  However, I never heard from him again.  But I did hear from Johns Hopkins.

One week later I received a letter from Johns Hopkins University.  I ripped open the envelope. 

I had just been awarded a four year full scholarship to Hopkins.   The grant was worth $16,000.  I screamed at the top of my lungs with excitement.   I couldn't believe it.  This grant was four times larger than the Jones Scholarship. 

Maybe I didn't win the Jones scholarship, but this was quite a consolation prize.  Yes, this was quite a prize indeed.  This was the answer to my prayers.  As my eyes bulged, I could only assume that Mr. O'Connor had arranged this scholarship based on our conversation. 

When I calmed down, several thoughts crossed my mind. 

I wondered if the omniscient Mrs. Ballantyne had known something about this scholarship.  I was sure she did.  After all, she had spoken with such certainty that I had nothing to worry about.  I assumed she had overheard something during her involvement in the Jones Scholarship.

So Mrs. Ballantyne's prediction had come true.  "I promise you things will work out.

My luck had finally taken a turn for the better.  After all that worry, I was going to college next year after all.  Thank goodness.

As I sat on the porch hugging my dog silly, I wondered again about the cheating incident.  Apparently I had gotten off scot-free after all.  My Senior year had been such a horror story.  Let's face it, I had a really tough childhood.  Left pretty much to fend for myself, I had grown up crooked, twisted and bitter.  But somehow life had also given me St. John's and people like Mr. Curran and Mrs. Ballantyne.  The lessons I had learned at St. John's had given me the chance to aspire to become a better person.

Cheating on that test had to be the dumbest thing I had ever done in my life.  Oh well, live and learn.  I vowed that was the last time I would ever cheat.  I am proud to say I kept that vow for the rest of my life. 

 


SUBCHAPTER 82
- SENIoRITIS

 

Thanks to my wonderful encounter with Mrs. Ballantyne and the ensuing gift from Ralph O'Connor, my tension eased away.  This was the first time the pressure and worry had been lifted off my back in ages.  My optimism returned and I began to dream of the future non-stop.  Liberation from Little Mexico was only two months away.  I could barely wait.

In September 1968, I would be going to college at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.  A free ride to college made the thought of going to a men's school much more palatable.  I was very pleased with the thought that Dick and Lynn were only an hour's drive away from Baltimore.  This cheered me up greatly.

One might think my problems were over.  Strangely enough, my final two months at St. John's were far from idyllic.  I wish I could report that with my future assured, I sprinted to High School Graduation in glorious style.  Unfortunately, that did not happen.  Not hardly.  I stumbled so badly that I barely crawled across the Finish Line. 

To begin with, at the end of April, I was again called into Mr. Salls' office over the loudspeaker.  Like an idiot, I assumed this had something to do with my college scholarship.  Maybe Mr. Salls had just found out and wanted to congratulate me. 

So I go waltzing into Mr. Salls' office expecting the trumpets to sound only to freeze in horror.

The moment I opened the door and saw Mr. Salls, Mr. Murphy, Coach Lee and Coach Osborn staring at me, I knew I was in trouble.  This meeting turned out to be the showdown concerning the gym equipment found in my car. 

Although I escaped scot-free on this mistake, I was mystified at their decision.  I felt I deserved to be punished.  But nothing was done. For some reason... probably because Graduation was so close... the four men decided to look the other way.  I concluded the four men had decided there wasn't much point at throwing the book at me.  Just let the kid graduate and be done with him.

I began to wonder just how grateful these men would be to see me go.  The one thing I took away from that meeting was the memory of Mr. Salls' impassive face.  He never spoke once.  I still felt incredibly guilty over that cheating incident.  So when I saw him staring at me intently throughout the meeting, yet never saying a word, I assumed he was terribly disappointed in me. 

Fighting, cheating, stealing, plus my constant disrespect towards Mr. Murphy and the school rules.   No question about it... I was a constant headache for these men.  How they tolerated my rebellious ways is hard to imagine.  I wondered if there would ever be a way I could make it up to them for their incredible patience.

There was bad news on another front as well.  Now that the pressure was off, I fell to pieces.  After the good news of my Hopkins scholarship, the fatigue from all that stress caught up with me in a major way.  In the final two months of my high school career, I barely lifted a finger to study.

I was afflicted with a terrible apathy known as "Senioritis".  This highly contagious condition is known to countless high school seniors.  In my case, it caused a complete loss of interest in my studies.  In particular, I was so disgusted with my Calculus teacher that I stopped studying calculus in the final two months.  I simply could not seem to force myself to do the work.  Nor did I pay attention in class.  Instead I tuned Mr. Flansburg out.  I was there, but I wasn't there.  To deal with my boredom, I spent my time daydreaming about girls, basketball and college.  

I have little doubt Mr. Flansburg took careful note of my lack of attention.  Rather than chew me out as I deserved or throw an eraser at me like Mr. Salls, he had another idea.  He disliked me so much he gave me a "65" for my final grade, the SJS equivalent of a "D". 

I was incredulous.  I was also furious.  What an insult!  I had never once in nine years made a single grade below 80.  In addition, I had done well enough in his class back when it mattered.  Despite all my problems with studying thanks to the Jehovah's Witness organ music and the Little Mexico situation, I had made an '80' in Calculus for the first quarter, an '80' in the second quarter, plus an '80' in the third quarter. 

Now I was stuck with a '65' for the year's final grade.   I wasn't expecting this grade at all.  A '75' was probably warranted, but not this black mark.  Yes, I had goofed off in the fourth quarter, but not to the extent indicated by my final grade.  Nevertheless, Mr. Flansburg had chosen to drop me to a near failing grade out of spite.   

I didn't care much for Calculus, but I knew enough math to do some simple algebra.  Let's see.  65 = 80 + 80 + 80 + X divided by 4.  What does X equal?  X = 20.  Mr. Flansburg had given me a "20" for my fourth quarter performance and final exam performance. 

Trust me, I wasn't that bad.  Clearly, this grade of 65 was meant as a rebuke, a slap of sorts.  Mr. Flansburg had sent me a message.  Well, I got the message loud and clear.  My Calculus misstep had been caused by the worst case of burnout imaginable.  I just never expected the man to be so vindictive.

Since the grade was meaningless, I was surprised at how much I resented his insult.  Mr. Flansburg had wounded my academic pride immensely.  It didn't affect my college plans, but it probably changed my class ranking.  The 65 grade rankled me for days, make that weeks, make that years.  This was Flansburg's way of telling me what he thought of me so I would remember him.  I am sure he would be pleased to know it worked.  I have NEVER forgotten! 

Obviously my St. John's sense of achievement ran deeper than I thought.  Thanks to my Senioritis attitude, I was under the assumption that I had ceased to care about my performance.  Wrong.  I was surprised at how angry I was at myself for taking my foot off the petal. 

What can I say?   Once a time, I could force myself to study whether I wanted to or not.  I was a machine for eight solid years until I fell apart in my Senior year.  From the moment the strains of the Holy Roller organ music greeted me at the start of my final year, my vaunted self-discipline had taken a beating.  Now in the final quarter, what little was left of that discipline abandoned me completely.  I had fought so long and so hard to stay on top that I had nothing left in the tank once my college future was assured. 

And now I was full of shame that I had embarrassed myself academically.  I had been in trouble countless times with Mr. Murphy, the administration's enforcer of dress code, punctuality and haircuts, but this marked the only time in my St. John's career when a teacher had decided to punish me.  I was mad at Mr. Flansburg for sticking it to me, but I was even angrier at myself for giving him the chance.

 


SUBCHAPTER 83
- A CLOSE CALL

 

I had a serious car accident on the final day of my SJS career.

It was the end of May 1968.  Today I had taken my "final" final exam.  After finishing my last test, I headed home in my VW Beetle.  It was 11 am.  Due to an avalanche of memories and mixed emotions, I was clearly preoccupied.

It was raining hard that day.  In the heavy mist and rain, I failed to notice the distant car in my lane up ahead was not moving.  Unbeknownst to me, the car was parked illegally in front of a church.  Since Westheimer was a busy four-lane artery, it never dawned on me someone might be stupid enough to park a car.  I never gave that car a second thought.

 

Lost in my daydreams, it was not until the last second that I realized my mistake.  If I acted fast, I had just enough time to switch lanes.  Ignoring my brakes, I turned the steering wheel sharply to the left. 

To my dismay, my car with its worn tires lost control on the wet surface of the street.  Now the back end of my car began to fish-tail.  The tremendous force whipped my car around a full 360 degrees before it came to a stop.    

Amazingly, the back end of my car did not hit the parked car during the spin.  It must have missed by inches.  However, I was not out of danger.  I knew for a fact that another car was right behind me.  As my car whipped around, my left car door suddenly popped open just as the car came to a halt.  The powerful force of the 360 turn had caused the door to open.

Since I wasn't wearing my seat beat, the violent spinning movement threw me awkwardly onto the wet pavement below.  I fell in slow motion, so the fall did not hurt because I was able to break my fall with my hands.  I tried to protect my face by turning my head sideways.  Because I was blind in my left eye, I turned my head to right as my face hit the wet pavement.  

To my dismay, I found I was stuck.  Only my upper body had fallen out of the car.  My feet and legs remained inside the car.  I knew I wasn't paralyzed, but my legs were caught.  I could not seem to free myself.  My legs had become mysteriously tangled between the seat and the steering wheel.  No matter how much I struggled, I was unable to move. 

I was panic-stricken.  Where was that car that was behind me?


My body was prone on the street face down.  My feet and legs were caught somehow in the seat, so I could not move.  I was scared out of my wits as the car close behind me screeched to a halt. 

 

I wasn't hurt in any way, but I was stuck lying chest down with my nose touching the wet pavement on a busy street.  Even worse, I could only see in one direction.  I felt incredibly helpless because my back was turned and I couldn't turn my head enough to see that oncoming car I was worried about.  I was certain the car behind me would run over me at any second.  Sure enough, I was terrified when I heard that car's brakes squealing behind me.  Would the tires grip on the soaking wet asphalt or would the car skid into me? 

Unable to see or move, all I could do was listen in horror as my fate unfolded behind me.  Was that car about to hit my car?  Or worse, was that car about to run me over?  I was scared for my life.  It crossed my mind I was about to be crushed or decapitated.  I still couldn't seem to get my legs free.  In a panic, I lifted my shoulders up just enough so I could finally turn my head back around and look to my left.  To my immense relief, I could see the oncoming car had come to a stop a mere three feet away. 

This had been a brush with death.

But I still wasn't out of trouble.  What about the oncoming traffic from the other direction?   I whisked my head back around.  I was very relieved to see they posed no threat.  The cars coming from the opposite direction were slowing down to have a look at me.  One man called out to ask if I was okay.  From the ground, I replied that I was stuck, but I wasn't hurt. 

There is an interesting device called the Chinese finger trap.  The more one struggles, the harder it is to free the fingers.  My legs had refused to respond to my struggle during the emergency.  However, now that I took my sweet time, I was able to extricate my awkwardly tangled legs car pinned between the seat and the steering wheel. 

I got up and walked to the car behind me to tell the driver I was okay.  I thanked him profusely for watching out for me. 

The man smiled and said he could hardly believe what he had witnessed.  He said I was really lucky.  It was very fortunate that he had been watching carefully in the rain or he probably would not have been able to stop in time.  Some instinct told him to slow down which is a good thing.  Otherwise the wet surface would have caused a problem. 

I nodded in agreement and thanked him again.

Lucky indeed!  If that driver behind me hadn't been paying attention, I would be dead now or headed to the hospital.  I still couldn't believe I had been laying flat on this busy street for a full 30 seconds and no car had hit me.  I hated being so helpless in such a dangerous situation.

I wondered what he meant about 'some instinct to slow down'.  Was my Guardian Angel watching out for me again?   I had no way of knowing the truth, but that didn't stop me from wondering.  I was already convinced some invisible being had guided Mrs. Ballantyne to my side two months earlier.  Now I had another reason to ponder the mysteries of the Universe.

Now my mind snapped back to reality. I was soaking wet from the rain and miserable.  Plus I had no business standing here in the middle of Westheimer Street.  So I did a quick inspection.  I could not believe there was no damage to my car or to the parked car.  How I had avoided hitting that parked car was beyond me.  My car had surely missed it by mere inches during my tailspin.  However, since there wasn't any damage, I decided I was free to go.  Thanks to the dramatic 360 fishtail, my car was more or less already headed in the right direction.  So I gingerly got back in my car and took off.  Soaking wet and scared, I shook like a leaf the entire way home.

It was a good thing that man was paying attention.  Plus the complete absence of traffic was definitely a lucky break for me.  Normally Westheimer was a very crowded street at 11 am. 

Was it 'luck' that saved me?  Or was someone watching over me again?  My close call from this dangerous accident put me into a strange mood.  It seemed like my entire time at St. John's had a mystical element to it.  I still had trouble finding any rational explanation for Mrs. Ballantyne's recent appearance.  All I knew was that for all my mistakes and problems, I also led a charmed life.

 


SUBCHAPTER 84
- GRADUATION DAY

 

The Graduation ceremony took place during a balmy evening in late May 1968.  The crowd sat in temporary chairs placed in the middle of the Quadrangle facing an elevated podium.  

I had only been to one SJS Graduation ceremony in my Freshman year.  Attendance was mandatory for Upper School students, but I had skipped it the past two years.  What were they going to do, put me in Detention Hall?  Tonight was different however since I did wish to receive my diploma.

I was handed a program that listed the evening's activities.  The program said I had graduated with Honors.  I breathed a huge sigh of relief.  I was grateful to see my poor Calculus grade had not cost me this distinction.

Now I settled into my seat.  There would be a long wait.  I knew the ceremony where the 50 Seniors were handed their diplomas came last.

 

The long climb was over.  Tonight my nine years of struggle would come to an end.  The Rock of Sisyphus was seemingly secured on the ledge high above the valley below.  My ordeal was over. 

Graduation Day should have been a proud moment for me, but instead it was a truly abysmal experience.  To my regret, this event gave Father of the Year an excuse to show up.  It was the first time I had seen him since the $400 insult three months earlier. The nerve of that man to even show his face... as if he somehow contributed to my high school career.  I snorted with disgust at the sight of the man.  Thank goodness his witch of a wife did not join him.

To my surprise, my father sought out my mother and sat down beside her.  I believe this was their first meeting since the divorce.  If I didn't know better, they were happy to see each other.  As I sat in a separate section reserved for the Senior class, I watched them talk about old times as if nothing had happened.  I shook my head in disgust. They should have been ashamed of themselves.

It was nothing short of a miracle that I was graduating tonight.  I had lost count of the times I had narrowly missed a nervous breakdown thanks to those two clowns.  I felt nothing but contempt.  If they only knew what I had been through this year, but they were too oblivious to know or care. 

I scanned the crowd to spot Mrs. Ballantyne, but I couldn't see her.  Instead, to my surprise, I saw my nemesis Mr. Murphy glowering directly at me.  Judging by his expression, I had gotten under his skin one too many times.  I fought with him almost as frequently as I did with my mother. 

Three weeks ago Mr. Murphy and I had a serious run-in.  The confrontation took place just days after the stolen gym clothes incident. 

 

Mr. Murphy was waiting for me outside of class, so I suspected he had sought me out.  Today he had some very sharp words for me. 

"Young man, you have brought dishonor to this school.  Your continued disregard for the rules is unforgivable.  Let me add your insolence towards me has demonstrated a serious lack of respect for my authority.  If I had my way, you would have had your scholarship revoked long ago.  You don't deserve it.  In my opinion, you do not belong here.

You never learned your lesson.  You will leave here thinking you are too superior to follow the rules, but I have news for you.  Someday you will learn the hard way that you aren't nearly as smart as you think you are."

Whoa.  Mr. Murphy was dead serious.  These were by far the harshest words he had ever spoken.  Due to my defiant attitude, I usually responded with my fair share of sarcastic comments, but not this time.  I was so rattled by the depth of his anger and his sense of doom that I bit my tongue. 

With the end at hand, Mr. Murphy had obviously decided to dispense with being polite.    At the time, I had the distinct feeling that Mr. Murphy had been overruled on how to discipline me following the stolen gym equipment.  That might explain why he was so completely fed up with me. 

I understood that Mr. Murphy lived and breathed the school rules.  However I refused to accept that my scholarship hinged upon things like regular haircuts, punctuality to class, not running in the hall, and better attention to the dress code.   It wasn't like I showed blatant disregard for the rules, but there was definitely a part of me that questioned the importance of certain things like hair length.  I was a St. John's Rebel to the bitter end.

Here is a picture of Mr. Murphy chewing out a student for some infraction.   His parting words to me took place in virtually this same spot.

 

As the evening began, I noticed Mr. Salls looked very impressive in his crimson Harvard gown.  The first part of the Graduation evening was devoted to handing out achievement awards.  St. John's had instilled the achievement ethic in me from the moment I first set foot on the campus.  Tonight the school would honor the best and brightest.  The achievement awards were presented for excellence in all sorts of categories... academics, sports, drama, leadership and so on.  I watched as one student after another paraded to the podium to receive a certificate from Mr. Salls. 

I had never received an award.  I was good academically, but certainly not the best.  As for sports and extracurricular activities, no chance of that.  Last time I checked, one must participate in order to be eligible.  However, tonight I sensed I had a strong chance of winning the school's award as the best German student.  I had deeply mixed feelings about this.  Although one part of me yearned for recognition that I was good at something, I dreaded the thought of facing Mr. Salls tonight.

The cheating episode back in February had led me to believe that Mr. Salls was very displeased with me.  I was certain he knew the truth.  Although he had never said a word about it, I grimly recalled the day he asked me to his office to hand me Ralph O'Connor's phone number.  His terse reception reinforced my fear that he was indeed angry with me. 

In addition, Mr. Salls' glowering stare throughout the stolen gym clothes interrogation led by Coach Lee further confirmed my suspicions that he did not approve of my behavior.  Nor should he...

Therefore, when my name was called to come up to the podium and accept the German Award, this moment evoked more dread than it did satisfaction.  This should have been a moment of great pride for me, but I was deeply unhappy as I walked up.

 

I tried to detect a smile in Mr. Salls' stern face, but there was none.  His eyes bored into me like a hawk as he handed me my award.  He handed me a certificate, then barked out a brief congratulation in his harsh, raspy voice. 

"Ausgezeichnet, Herr Archer.  Gute arbeit."  (excellent, Mr. Archer, good work)

Instead of smiling back at his praise, I looked down.  I could not look him in the eye.  I was too ashamed to make eye contact.  I cannot begin to say how empty that victory felt.  I had just been given an honor in German achievement I no longer deserved. 

The German award was the only prize I ever won at St. John's in nine long years, yet I managed to cheat myself out of all satisfaction.  At a moment when I should have felt triumph, I felt nothing but shame.  The worst part of the evening was knowing that I had let Mr. Salls down.  That thought completely devastated me.  I wanted him to be proud of me, but I had thrown all chance of that away.

By cheating, I had tainted my victory.  How could I have been so stupid?

   

Later in the evening, I was called forward to receive my diploma.  Again, I was too ashamed to look Mr. Salls in the eye.  I said "thank you" for my St. John's education, but I felt so empty inside. 

Without a doubt, I was crushed to know how much I had disappointed this man.  I could have cared less about Mr. Murphy's low opinion of me, but I very much wanted Mr. Salls to know how much he had meant to me and how grateful I was for my scholarship and my education. 

I had put in nine years to reach this moment.  This evening should have been a time of triumph and celebration, but it was a bittersweet moment at best.  Plagued with guilt and regret, I was miserable the entire night.  My entire experience of Graduation Night was a feeling of regret.  

If I could have said one thing, I would have told Mr. Salls not to give up on me.  Just because I didn't participate in activities and just because I was the toughest discipline problem of any student they had, deep down I was a good kid who promised to take this education and put it good use someday. 

Clutching my diploma tightly due to the tension I felt, the moment the Graduation Ceremony was over, I wanted to leave.  I forced myself to go to my parents and say goodnight.  My father handed me $50 for which I thanked him.  After that, I quickly left because I had a party to go to.  I did want to spend another minute with either parent.

   

I had fibbed to my parents.  There were no celebration parties awaiting me.  Who would dream of inviting the Invisible Kid?  So I decided to have my own pity party.  I went home and sat on my bed in the dark with Terry beside me.  Nine long years were over.

I had just received the most incredible education any young man could ever ask for, but all I felt was that hollow, empty sense of regret.  Four years of High School Hell had taken a heavy toll on me.  With a huge sigh, I drew my dog to me and hugged him.  I smiled and said, "You know what?  I could never have done this without you." 

 And then I cried for a while.  Terry always had that ability to reach my soft side and turn on my tears.  Where would I have been without my dog to remind me that deep down I was still a good kid? 

 

After the tears passed, I began to reflect.  I could not seem to get Mr. Murphy's hate stare out of my mind.  Mr. Murphy's ominous warning had me badly spooked.

In Greek Mythology, Cassandra was the daughter of Priam, King of Troy.  Princess Cassandra had strongly warned her father not to allow his men to haul the mysterious Trojan Horse inside the gates of Tory.  Not only Priam, but everyone else ignored her.  In fact, they were openly hostile about it, calling her a fool and an idiot.

To me, Mr. Murphy's warning had a Cassandra-like ring of truth to it.  I might defy the man to his face, but I heard what he said nonetheless.  My Senior Year had been a neverending nightmare.  I was alarmed at all the ugly thoughts that had crossed my mind this past year.  This entire year had been marked by fights with my mother, fights with Mr. Murphy and fights with Mr. Norris, the grocery store manager. 

As I sat here in the dark, Mr. Murphy's voice of doom ran counter to my optimism about college.  I hoped I was all grown up now, but what if he was right?  I had serious problems dealing with authority.  I did not handle discipline and criticism well at all.  Thanks to my thin skin, the prickly porcupine side of my personality appeared far too often.  Someday my big mouth might get me in more trouble than I bargained for. 

I speak of good luck and bad luck and how the lines get blurred.  Sometimes good luck turns out to be bad luck and vice versa.  In Mr. Murphy's case, he understood that in my case, the kid gloves approach used by Mr. Salls and Coach Lee could very easily backfire someday.  It was my good luck that the administrators used a soft approach with me given my bristling, moody nature.  Otherwise my problem-filled time at St. John's would have been far more difficult than it already was.  I might very easily have completely self-destructed had they used the lash rather than mercy. 

 

My entire Senior year left me mystified.   When viewed in light of the school's well-known lack of tolerance for honor code violations and discipline breakdowns, I believed I had been treated differently than other students.  Mr. Murphy practically said so himself.  Why had Mr. Salls and Coach Lee been so unbelievably patient with me?  Why did I keep getting all these second chances?  I had no idea why I had been spared so many times.  In so doing, I was allowed to graduate without ever learning the importance of keeping my mouth shut and obeying authority without talking back.  

Unfortunately, the soft touch would come at a price.  As Mr. Murphy warned, I had failed to learn a valuable lesson.  He understood that my bad attitude towards authority was a ticking time bomb.  My rocky childhood had left me badly damaged.  My lack of self-confidence, my inability to stand up for myself in a mature way, my sarcasm, my temper, my moodiness, and my lack of social skills around boys and girls my age were weaknesses that would haunt me time and time again in the years to come.  However, it was my inability to handle criticism that would cause my eventual downfall. 

The day would come when the lessons I failed to learn in high school would rear up and cause me the greatest pain I ever felt in my life. 

However, let's save that story for the next book.

 


SUBCHAPTER 85
- A FITTING END

 

Yogi Berra, the famous baseball player and much-quoted philosopher, said it's never over till it's over.

After that anxiety-filled graduation ceremony, I thought I was done with St. John's, but apparently not.

Two days after the graduation ceremony, I came home from my grocery store job at 9 pm. To my surprise, my mother came out of her bedroom and handed me a bill from St. John's.  Along with the bill was a stern note that said in order for me to "officially" graduate, this debt would have to be cleared first.

I gasped at the amount. $500.  

Then I looked at the date on the bill.  It was over a week old. 

I stared at her in shock. "Mom, what in the hell is this?"

Embarrassed, my mother admitted she had only paid the school bill only one time the entire school year. She had not made a single payment since my father had stopped sending his child support payments back in October.

I was stunned. I knew my mother had a bad habit of not paying her bills, but I still could not believe she had left the school bill unpaid since last October.

"Mom, didn't the business office insist that you pay this bill?"

"All the time."

"Didn't they threaten you?"

"All the time."

"What did they say?"

"They said you weren't going to be allowed to graduate if I didn't pay the bill."

"But I've already graduated. I don't get it."

"I was very surprised. I honestly didn't expect they would allow you participate.  Right up to the end they insisted you would be blocked from the ceremony. I guess someone decided there was no point in punishing you."

"Why didn't you tell me what was going on?"

"I don't know, I guess I didn't want you to know the bad news until I had no choice."

"Why are you telling me now?"

"I got a nasty phone call today from the St. John's business office demanding I pay the bill.  I figured you should probably know."

"So what is going to happen now?  I have already graduated.  I have a signed diploma.  What are they going to do to me if the bill still isn't paid?"

"Probably nothing.  The bill is not in your name.  I can't imagine how they can legally un-graduate you."

"Well, what are they going to do to you?"

"I don't know, sue me for payment, I guess, or continue to harass me.  I told them I could not pay the bill.  I told them I was sorry, but I am way too broke to pay this bill.  I told them maybe you would pay the bill.  You're the one with the money around here.  But if you don't want to pay it, then don't.  It's not your problem. Go to college and forget about it. They can sue me all they want."

I groaned. I could not believe this.  I could hardly believe this ongoing problem had been hanging over my head the entire time and she had not said a word to me.  $500 was a lot of money.  Putting things into perspective, tuition at St. John's was $1,000 for the year.  Long ago, my mother had agreed to pay everything else... books, supplies, meals, charges for certain special events, and so on.  I could not believe my mother intended to stiff the school after all they had done for me.

On the other hand, I knew my mother was telling the truth.  Once my father had discontinued the child support, my mother became so poor that she couldn't even pay for me to graduate.  The Little Mexico situation had been the direct consequence of my mother's financial problems.  Now I discovered there was yet another headache.

I feel very uneasy.  My mother had risked causing me serious embarrassment.  What if my name was announced at school?  I could just hear it now.  "Richard Archer, report to the Business Office immediately!"

I would have gone to the Business Office and been confronted by someone who insisted I clear my school bill if I still wanted to graduate.  Just the thought of it left me cringing.  How humiliating would that have been?  After all the crap I had been through this year, wouldn't that have taken the cake?

I gave it some thought.  I guess it was an idle threat.  Or else someone in the office did not have the heart to block my graduation.    There was no remaining threat they could use to collect this unpaid bill.  I was incredulous.  Either they had been bluffing about denying me the chance to graduate or someone had let me graduate knowing full well the school might be stiffed for the money.  As it stood, they were left holding the bill.

Whatever the case, I was beyond grateful that I had been spared this embarrassment.  Now it offended my sense of honor to leave this bill unpaid.  On the spot, I decided I would pay the final St. John's book fee and lunch bill myself.

So the next day I made a special trip to school.  I went to the business office and wrote out a check for $500.  I understand that $500 doesn't seem like a big deal in today's money, but back then that was a heck of a lot of money for me.  This was the equivalent of four months of work at the grocery store.  I winced as 25% of my grocery store college savings went down the drain. 

 

Oddly enough, I found some dark humor in the incident.  With a deep appreciation for the irony, I smiled as I handed over the check.  I bet to this day I am still the only student in the history of St. John's School that had to clear the final bill out of his own pocket in order to graduate. 

This curious moment served as the perfect ending to four long years of High School Hell.

I am quite certain that Mr. Murphy was thrilled  to see me go.  Yes, I was a juvenile delinquent in his mind, but he was wrong about me.  What Mr. Murphy did not know was that underneath my miserable exterior, I nursed a burning desire to someday repay my immense debt to my school. 

My St. John's experience had been very painful in so many ways.  Even so, I clearly understood the faculty of St. John's were the only reason I had survived my difficult childhood somewhat intact.

St. John's had given me a fighting chance in life.  I would never forget that as long as I lived. Today I had repaid my financial debt.  Someday I would find a way to repay the emotional debt as well.  I was as loyal to St. John's as any student that ever graduated from this school.  

 


CHAPTER NINETEEN: JOHNS HOPKINS

 

Intro 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30
SSQQ Front Page Parties/Calendar Jokes
SSQQ Information Schedule of Classes Writeups
SSQQ Archive Newsletter History of SSQQ