All stealing is comparative. If you come to absolutes, pray who does not steal?
- Ralph Waldo Emerson,
Essays: Second Series (1844)
As they turned onto Lancaster Avenue, the high school came almost immediately into view. It was set back beyond a large rectangular field. The field was used for all manner of things including practice for the marching band, field hockey and other sports. There were two baseball diamonds on opposite ends of the large space, and many of Dan's little league games were played here. Pick-up games of football were often played here when Dan was in high school. This was also the spot Dan and his friends carried DiFazio's Porsche into the mud.
But it was the weeks of band practice during August and the fall that Dan spent the majority of his time in this field, usually the eastern end that bordered Mifflin Boulevard. This was where the band learned the routines they'd use throughout the year at halftime for Mifflin's football games, which were held at Albright College in those days because the school did not have its own football stadium. There was one now, behind where the old junior high school had been, but Dan had no idea how long it had been there.
The giant stage door for the auditorium opened up to the side of the field, with a large truck bay for deliveries. This was generally where the band came and went for practice during the school year. The band room and other music rooms were all located behind the auditorium, in a separate corner of the building, bordered by the cafeteria and kitchen. This location presumably was chosen so that any noise made by the various musical groups would not filter into the classrooms in the main part of the building.
Dan did reasonably well in school with almost no effort. His home life made homework virtually impossible to do and he spent as little time there as he could, especially once he could drive. Luckily, he was adept at remembering what he needed to and he usually wrote his essays, book reports, or whatever in the hours before school began. He once wrote an assignment for his 8th grade English class in the last fifteen minutes of his science class the period before English, which had ended early for the day. A jealous busybody who was also in his English class ratted him out to his science teacher, but he simply told her that if Dan could do his work then, there was nothing wrong with that and she should mind her own business. He very much enjoyed rubbing his "A" in her face when she received only a "C+" for her efforts.
Dan usually became involved in school programs that required him to be there early and/or be there as long as possible after regular school hours. That's how he came to be involved in Spring Swing, his school's annual Broadway musical production. It's why he played on the tennis team, was on stage crew and volunteered for as many band and choral groups as he could. That's also how he came to be the uniform manager for the band in his senior year. This position gave him his own tiny office in the school and because of how expensive the uniforms were. Besides himself, only three people in the entire school had a key to the uniform room. His senior year, Dan kept his books and other personal effects there and had his own desk there. He took to having his meals there sometimes as well. And on a couple of occasions, he and Donna had fucked there, too. On the top shelf of some very tall wooden shelves where the band helmets were stored, they kept the old drum major hats, which were fuzzy oversized affairs. But every year they bought a new one for band, so the previous ones were stored out of the way. They made an ideal hiding place for Jack Daniels, since so few people had access to the room and fewer still ever had a reason to climb the ladder to the dusty top shelf. So it came as quite a shock when he discovered the bottle missing one day after the room had been painted without his prior knowledge. A group of delinquents with loads of detention were painting rooms in the school after hours in lieu of just sitting there doing nothing. He assumed one of them had found the bottle and stolen it. He was pissed, but he couldn't exactly report that a bottle of liquor on school property had gone missing.
His senior year, he also had Mr. Herzog, Jodi's father, for social studies. One week, Mr. Herzog, who was also the audio-visual instructor, brought a video camera to class and each day filmed a few of the students, asking them banal questions and then the whole class watched the videos the next day, generally laughing at the efforts. Supposedly, the point of the exercise was to show how people were seen by others versus how one saw themselves. But at the time, Dan thought it was just an excuse to waste a week. When it was his turn to be on camera, Mr. Herzog began his usual line of questioning, about what your interests were, how you spent your time, inconsequential stuff like that. When he asked Dan what he liked to do on the weekend, he hadn't thought much of it, at least not until the follow up questions veered sharply from the normal questions.
"Do you like to party?" Mr. Herzog asked, in a flat tone.
"Yeah." Dan had answered sheepishly.
"What about alcohol. Do you like to drink with your friends?" This time Mr. Herzog's tone was more upbeat, but also more accusatory.
Dan froze. No one else had been asked this question, he thought. "Um ... sometimes." He admitted.
"What do you like to drink, beer? Or perhaps something harder ... like Jack Daniels? "Mr. Herzog speculated.
Later, when he watched the tape with the class, he could see his face go white at this question. He was convinced Mr. Herzog must have been the teacher supervising the delinquents who had found his bottle of JD. Thoughts raced through his head. If he knew, why was he just toying with him. Would he be expelled? What would his parents say? What was going to happen next? The next couple of days, Dan was in a perpetual state of uneasiness and anxiety expecting to be called to the principal's office at any moment. Load noises made him jump for no reason. So did booming voices. He had become jittery. The few friends he'd told kept a wide berth so as not to be implicated with whatever happened to Dan.
But nothing happened. No punishment was meted out. Mr. Herzog never said another word about it, though he simply had to know. To this day, Dan never knew why he got off so easy. Perhaps Mr. Herzog thought putting Dan through such fear and anxiety was punishment enough. He certainly didn't bring any more alcohol to school after that. Mr. Herzog was a very large bear of a man; tall and hairy and a little overweight. He was an imposing figure. People didn’t cross him. Maybe that was why his hot daughter Jodi didn’t have a boyfriend.
For as long as Dan could remember, he’d had a love/hate relationship with school. He loved learning and knowledge of almost any kind, but the regimented nature of school and the naked, unquestioning obedience that was not only expected but demanded made Dan want to rebel at every step. It was just in his nature to question all things, and this won him few friends in high places at school, at church or anywhere adults didn’t want to answer to mere children. Where this nature came from was a mystery to Dan. Neither of his parents were particularly rebellious and in fact as childhood sweethearts they were pathetically conformist in almost all things. His grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, in fact everyone he knew was as normal as Dan wasn’t. It had always been a disconcerting fact that he never fit in to his own family. He always felt like the black sheep although he never really did anything particularly terrible to earn such an appellation. Perhaps everyone felt that way? Or maybe it was being terrorized by an alcoholic psychopath for a stepfather? He never be sure what cause it, Dan only knew that he rarely fit in anywhere, despite his best efforts.
Dan remembered reading that when mandatory school provided by the state didn’t actually start until shortly after the industrial revolution. And it was done then to create semi-literate workers for all the factories that were springing up everywhere. And at the time, people knew it and many rebelled against it. They felt that their sons and daughter were being stolen from the farm and trained to be factory workers, which, as it turned out, was true. After that time there was a mass exodus from the country to the city and most of these urban immigrants were employed in the new industrial economy.
So once again, business was the catalyst for an unprecedented social change. And that’s why to this day children are not taught how to think for themselves, how to judge critically or any of the basic practical skills they’ll need as adults. Instead kids are taught to memorize facts and regurgitate them usually out of context, how to follow instructions, how to sit still for long periods of time, how to behave and how to be loyal to an arbitrary organization, in this case the school itself. All of these so-called skills translate directly into those needed to hold a factory job or any unskilled or semi-skilled job. And today as budgets for education are slashed the programs to go first are invariably the arts and humanities. What little attention that’s paid to creative learning is not necessary in business and thus may effectively be discarded by their training facilities. Dan shuddered to think what would happen to a generation raised ignorant of any real knowledge of art, music or poetry. How many cultural features of our society that in many cases defined us as a people would simply die away as the only remaining practitioners did likewise.
But it also seemed like every generation whined that subsequent generations were wicked and ignorant of traditions that mattered to their parents. Was that merely a natural course of events or did history move in patterns as some argued. Morris Berman, for example, in his “Twilight of _______’” wrote persuasively that that was exactly what was going on and that we were just beginning the long slide into another dark ages. It certainly was a tantalizing theory that explained much. The rise in religious fanaticism and the suspicions cast on anything intelligent came to mind. We now lived in a society that virtually celebrated ignorance and stupidity. It was reflected in our elected officials at the highest levels, the lack of sophistication in almost every media intended for the masses, and in our entertainment and pop icons. At all levels the intelligent or clever was marginalized or pushed completely out of the way.
And all this ignorance had its roots in our education; our public school system. It was always quite a shock to hear how much emphasis was placed on education for all sorts of opportunities in the world, from colleges to jobs to choosing friends. Yet there was absolutely no correlation between intelligence and education. Take an idiot and send him to Yale and you won’t create an intelligent person. At best, you’ll get an educated idiot. That this is not more widely acknowledged speaks to how well this indoctrination into a flawed system works for a certain class of people. It truly isn’t what you know, it’s who you know and it’s always been that way.
Dan rebelled against this indoctrination at every turn. He refused to be obedient. He wasn’t so rebellious that he was expelled from the system. He knew he had to work somewhat from within it as opportunities were next to nothing outside of it. So he found little ways to be his own man and not conform. He noticed the tendency in his peers to do just the opposite. Give them the chance to be free and choose for themselves and they invariably went along with the herd. Even most people who considered themselves to be non-conformists were in many ways conforming to some alternative conformity. Take Goths, for example. Most, if not all, Goths strive to an ideal look and attitude and so most are simply conforming to that ideal rather then the preppy, or jock, or nerd, or whatever. They may consider themselves non-conformists but they’re just fooling themselves. Real non-conformity is just doing what you want and answering to no ideology, which is difficult in a world that seeks to categorize and label everything.
Not that Dan was immune to peer pressure. He also wanted to have friends and not be ostracized in his world, which largely consisted of his neighborhood, his church and school. So, like many people, he cultivated a few close friendships and sought his way through the many cliques that existed in his school without really belonging to any of them. And it worked to a point. In elementary school he had not yet learned how to do this and instead was ridiculed by many for his individuality. Children are, of course, savage and incredibly cruel. It’s one of those hard truths that confounds our sensibilities. It’s a lesson we forget at our peril because those same children become our peers as adults. At any average PTA meeting you’ll find former bullies, former jocks, former nerds, and former band geeks all more or less mixing with ease. But look more closely and their natures likely haven’t changed all that much. This will be especially true if they all went to the same school their children now attend. Under those circumstances, most will never escape the bounds of their place in the school hierarchy.
Change seems to require relocation. In feudal times, people rarely traveled more than a few miles from where they were born. And look how long it took for feudal society to change. Ignorance kept people in an unhealthy and unfair system. It wasn’t until after the plague killed off much of the working stock and out of necessity people began traveling farther distances that things began to change. So while it may not be intuitive, travel appears to be an absolutely essential part of personal growth. Dan shuddered to think what he’d be like today had he stayed in Shillington. But speculation was impossible. He was who he was today specifically because he had left town. He could never undo that. It was part of who he was now, as much a part of him as his past that he was now confronting. And it occurred to him that he’d been away about as long as he’d lived in Shillington. He’d lived there from age five until he was twenty-five, or about twenty years. It was twenty years ago that he’d fled to California. So half his life had been affected by small town Pennsylvania and the other half by big city California. And much of his past was confronting his new self in ways which were making Dan feel increasingly wearisome. He was no longer comfortable in his old skin, but people he knew before his slow transformation could only see the old Dan. They could not even comprehend the new one. For them, his identity was frozen at twenty-five with all the immaturity and insecurity that implied. So while he could understand why people treated him a certain way, the new him was driven crazy by it. It was that same feeling you got when visiting an old teacher years after you were in their class. You could never shake the feeling that they viewed you in exactly the same way as when you were seven or ten or however old you’d been. Given the chance, people wouldn’t or couldn’t allow for changes in people.
Dan viewed graduation with his usual duality of feelings. He was, of course, thrilled to finally be able to escape the cage of his home life, his small town and small-minded surroundings and the stifling conformity. But he was also nervous about leaving the comfort of familiarity. It’s the old saw about the devil you know. Sometimes, the unknown seems far more dangerous. At that time, he had no idea that his escape then would not be successful. He could not have known that Trixie and his family would pull him back in little more than a year after his high school graduation. It would take another six years and his mother’s murder to finally make his liberation permanent.
The other complication brought on by his graduation was the growing feeling as he reached the age at which he was considered an adult, that he had been robbed of his childhood. When he looked around and saw the happiness of the parents and other kids in his class, he felt he could not share their innocent enthusiasm for their future. Perhaps this was because of what had gone on before for Dan. He and his mother shared a rare détente at the ceremony and while she seemed genuinely happy for him, she knew, as he did, that the event also marked his imminent departure. He knew he should be sensitive to her feelings at this time, but his sense that she had played a part in stealing his childhood by marrying, and then staying with, Rick made it all but impossible. In hindsight, he realized that was an immature reaction but, like many regrets he had about this time in his life, he could do nothing now to change it.