Book One: A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS
PART TWO: HIGH SCHOOL HELL
THE FINISH LINE
Written by Rick Archer
2015, Richard Archer
THE WORLD IS A
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.
you things will work out."
I repeated those 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.
to disappear on campus. We never spoke again in the final two
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.
strange not to see her again after that amazing encounter.
Whatever invisible energies had kept us apart before seemed to have
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.
It was now April 1968. About
two weeks after my strange encounter with
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
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.
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?"
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
"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.
I assumed Georgetown was academically just as good a school as Hopkins, I saw
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
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
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.
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
"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
I said I worked tonight and tomorrow, but I
could come by two nights from now. Mr. O'Connor said that would
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
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.
girls. Hopkins didn't. End of story. But I didn't see
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
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.
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
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
Maybe I didn't win the Jones
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
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.
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.
Thanks to my wonderful encounter with Mrs. Ballantyne and the
gift from Ralph O'Connor, my
tension eased away. This was the first time the pressure and
worry had been off my back in ages. My optimism returned and I
began to dream of the future non-stop. Liberation from Little
Mexico was only 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
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
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. For some reason... probably because the Finish Line was
so close... the four men decided to look the other way. I went
scot-free on this mistake.
I was mystified at their
decision. I felt I deserved to be punished. But nothing was
done. I concluded that
with graduation so close at hand, the four men had decided there
wasn't much point at throwing the
book at me. Just let me graduate and be done with me.
The one thing I took
away from that meeting was Mr. Salls' impassive face. 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.
stealing, plus my constant disrespect towards Mr. Murphy and the
school rules. I began to wonder just how grateful these men
would be to see me go. No question about it... I was a
constant headache for them. I wondered if there would ever be
some way I could make it up to these men for their incredible
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
poor attitude known as "Senioritis". This highly
known to countless high school seniors 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 would have,
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 and
furious too. 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,
'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. I had goofed off in the
fourth quarter, yes, but not to this extent. Nevertheless, Mr. Flansburg had chosen to get personal and
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. 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 more 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
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
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 the 12th grade. 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,
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.
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. This was
the last test of my SJS career. It was 11 am as I headed home
in my VW Beetle. Due to an avalanche of memories
and mixed emotions, I was clearly
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
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 left.
To my surprise, 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 90 degrees
before it came to a stop.
Amazingly, the back
end of my car did not hit the parked car. 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 stop. The powerful
force of the U-Turn had somehow caused it to open.
Since I wasn't
wearing my seat beat, the violent spinning movement threw me awkwardly onto the
I fell in slow motion, so the fall did not hurt me at all.
In addition, I was able to break my fall with my hands so my
face didn't hit the surface too hard. However, because I was blind in my left eye, I turned my head to
right as my face hit the wet pavement. This would
cause a major problem.
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 I couldn't seem to move my
legs to free myself.
There I was lying chest down with my nose touching the wet
pavement. I wasn't hurt in any way, but my legs had
become mysteriously tangled between the seat and the
steering wheel. I was
furious at my inability to move no matter how much I
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 was panic-stricken. What about that car
behind my back? I could hear the car's brakes squealing and the
tires screeching on the soaking wet asphalt. However, my blind left eye
prevented me from seeing what was happening. With the left
side of my face
touching the street, I couldn't turn my head back to the left to see that oncoming
car I was worried about.
Unable to move or see,
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 worried the car would skid
on the wet street.
I fully expected that car would hit me or hit my car. Either
way I was in big trouble. 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
The cars coming from the opposite direction were
slowing down to have a look at me. Fortunately they posed no
threat. 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 as I
took my sweet time, I was able to
my awkwardly tangled legs car
pinned between the seat and the steering wheel.
got up and walked to the other car to tell the man 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
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
I wondered what he meant
about "some instinct to slow down". Was some unseen person
watching out for me again? I had no way of knowing
the truth, but that didn't stop me from wondering. Lately I
had begun to wonder if someone had guided Mrs. Ballantyne to my
side. Now I had another reason to ponder the mysteries of the
However, 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. 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.
I got back in my
car, turned it 90 degrees to the right, then drove home.
Soaking wet and scared, I shook
like a leaf.
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"?
I still couldn't shake the feeling that someone had been watching over me
This put me into
a strange mood. I could not help but think 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
All I knew is that for all my mistakes and problems, I also led a charmed life.
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 previously. 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 my poor Calculus grade had not cost me this
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.
So now the long climb
was over. Nine long years were about to come to an end. The
Rock of Sisyphus was finally 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 my father an excuse to show up. At the sight of my
father, I just wanted to puke. It was the first time I had
seen him since the $400 insult. The nerve of that man to even
show his face. Thank goodness his witch of a wife did not
To my surprise, my
father sought out my mother and sat down beside her. I believe
this was their first meeting since the divorce. I was further
surprised to notice they seemed pleased 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.
Look at them laugh at some joke. Look how happy they are!
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
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. About two
weeks ago Mr. Murphy and I had another run-in. He was waiting
for me outside of class, so I suspected he had sought me out. Mr. Murphy had some very harsh
parting words for me. He chewed me out for the recent stolen
gym clothes incident, then added some choice words.
"Young man, you have
brought dishonor to this school. Your continued disregard
for the rules is
unforgivable. Let me add your insolence towards me shows 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 don't belong here."
I was shocked at the depth of his anger. Mr. Murphy
was dead serious. These were the harshest words he had
ever spoken. 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 on more than one
occasion. 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.
No doubt I was a St. John's
Rebel to the bitter end.
The first part
of the evening was devoted to handing out achievement
achievement awards were presented for excellence in all
sorts of categories... academics, sports, drama, leadership
and so on.
nervously as one student after another paraded to the podium
to receive a certificate from Mr. Salls. Mr. Salls
looked very impressive in his crimson Harvard gown.
I had never
received an award nor had I expected to. I was good
academically, but certainly not the best. As for
sports and extracurricular activities, no chance of that.
Last time I checked, you have to participate in order to be
I sensed I had an outside chance of winning the German 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 again.
episode back in February had led me to believe that Mr.
Salls was very displeased with me. Although he had
never said a word to me about it, his terse reception on the
day he asked me to his office to hand me Ralph O'Connor's
phone number had reinforced my fear that he was indeed angry
glowering stare throughout the stolen gym clothes
interrogation led by Coach Lee had further confirmed my
suspicions that he did not approve of my behavior.
When my name was
called to come up 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.
Archer. Gute arbeit." (excellent, Mr. Archer, good
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.
How could I have been so
Later in the
evening, I was called forward to receive my diploma.
My greatest regret on Graduation Night was feeling too
ashamed to look Mr. Salls in the eye and thank him for my
St. John's education. I felt a deep sense of gratitude
towards him and to my school for this incredible gift, but I
was complete unable to express my appreciation.
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 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.
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
what I told them, but there were no parties awaiting me.
So I decided to have my own pity party. I went home and sat on my bed in the dark with Terry beside me on
the bed. Nine long years were over.
just finished getting the most incredible education any young man
could ever ask for, but all I felt was emptiness.
Considering my neverending backtalk
to Mr. Murphy, my frequent visits to Detention Hall, the cheating incident, the
equipment theft, and even the curious incident where Mr. MacKeith
overlooked my restroom violation, I had been in hot water so many times
this year that I had nearly
turned to stew.
Deep down, I thought I was a good kid,
but I definitely had my rough edges. I did not handle
authority, criticism or discipline well at all.
I drew Terry to
me and hugged him. I smiled and said, "Terry, I could
never have done this without you." And then I cried
for a while. Terry always had that ability to turn on
So what would
the future hold for me?
Sad to say, I was in for
some rough times. As I prepared to leave
high school, I thought I was all grown up now. However, in the
days ahead I would learn the hard way that I was badly damaged from
my childhood. Mr. Murphy was on to something... I never
learned my lesson. He said my smart mouth
was going to get me in a lot of trouble someday. He was right.
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.
I suppose 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 SJS would have been far
more difficult than it already was. My entire
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. Why were
these people 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.
kid glove treatment would prove to be a mixed blessing of sorts.
bad attitude towards authority was a ticking time bomb. Heading off to college,
I was a curious mixture of talent and a host of self-destructive
handicaps. My lack of self-confidence, my inability to
stand up for myself in a mature way, my inability to handle
criticism, my temper, my moodiness, and my lack of social skills around both boys
and girls my age were weaknesses that would haunt me time and time again in
the years to come.
The next great crisis of
my life was five years down the
road. The day would come when my big mouth and bad attitude would backfire badly
in graduate school.
Due to my propensity for arguing with the chairman of the
department, he would use his influence to get me dismissed from graduate
school. The ensuing crisis was devastating. I lost so
much confidence that it would
four years after the dismissal to find my way again.
However, let's save that story for the next book.
Yogi Berra, the famous baseball player and
much-quoted philosopher, once 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.
I stared at her in shock. "Mom, what in the
hell is this?"
Embarrassed, my mother admitted she had
only paid the school bill a single time the entire school year. She
had not made a single payment since my father had stopped 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 this 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
"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
"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."
"So what is going to happen now? I have
already graduated. What are they going to do to me if the bill still
"Probably nothing. I certainly can't
pay it. I am sorry, but I am way too broke to pay this bill. 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. Once my father had discontinued
the child support, my mother was so poor that she couldn't even pay
for me to graduate. Furthermore 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.
I feel very uneasy. This was like waking up and being told that
during the night a meteor had barely missed hitting Earth. I could
not imagine how humiliating it would have
been for someone to call me to the business office and explain I
would not get my diploma unless my mother paid up. After all I had
been through, wouldn't that have taken the cake?
I gave it some thought. Mom
was probably right... once someone had intervened to let me
graduate, there was no real 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
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 meal bill by 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.
served as the perfect ending to
four long years of High School Hell.
Ballantyne had said, I was one of a kind. There were
no other St. John's students like me. No doubt Mr.
Murphy would agree, but certainly not with the same
enthusiasm. I was certain he was glad to see me go.
What Mr. Murphy did not know was that underneath my
miserable sullen exterior, I nursed a burning desire to
someday repay my immense debt to my school.
St. John's had given me a
fighting chance in life. I would never forget that as long as