Book One: A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS
PART TWO: HIGH SCHOOL HELL
THE FINISH LINE
Written by Rick Archer
2015, Richard Archer
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
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.
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
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
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
Why my choice for the world's best mother
had suddenly become acting
mother to a boy who was a complete stranger.
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.
a lady who had no obvious reason to be at that grocery store had showed up in a place where
she didn't belong.
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.
had appeared out of nowhere at the exact time in my life
when I needed her the
childhood of the school's most prestigious parent turned out to be
just as miserable as my own.
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.
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
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.
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
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 Mrs.
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 our meeting 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 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
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
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.
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
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,
'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
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 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,
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.
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
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 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
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
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?
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
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
my awkwardly tangled legs car
pinned between the seat and the steering wheel.
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
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 my Guardian
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
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
All I knew was 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 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
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
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
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.
weeks ago Mr. Murphy and I had a serious run-in. The
confrontation took place just days after the stolen gym clothes
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
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."
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.
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.
achievement awards were presented for excellence in all
sorts of categories... academics, sports, drama, leadership
and so on.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
By cheating, I had
tainted my victory. How could I have been so
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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."
"Why are you telling me
"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?
already graduated. I have a signed diploma.
What are they going to do to me if the bill still
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
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.
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
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.