The TRUTH of How I Graduated from High School

I barely graduated from high school.  

School was a lead blanket and I preferred driving around town daydreaming.  Why did I skip school so much?  Well, the weak and corrosive part of me would justify it by telling you something dramatic and existential: that school is an absurd cult where well-intentioned teachers become the prophets and priests of an unpleasing religion; that school is a propaganda factory where young boys and girls are slowly eroded into productivity robots.

The TRUTH, though, is that I was an apathetic, distracted, unstable punk with a heavy heart and poor focus - too stupid to see any real benefit in learning about the Pythagorean Theorem or of the Battle of Wounded Knee. 

Well, anyways, the main point here is that I loved skipping school.  My final semester was the best.  By skipping only one class (Beginners Weightlifting) I was able to get 3 hours off every day. How? My weightlifting class was wedged between study hall and lunch. It was a beautiful situation that I fully capitalized on.  I went to the first day of Beginner’s Weightlifting, then never returned.

This all came back to bite me, though, at the end of the semester.  It was over 100 degrees at our graduation rehearsal (and it wasn’t even noon yet!). We were all restless and writhing in our black robes; each of us a walking sauna.  The discomfort was suffocating. 

Worse than the heat for me, though, was the fear of seeing my report card. Many of my peers already had their reports, and I was anxious to get mine. 

“Hey, where did you get that,” I asked.
“Over there at that table.”

There was a table under the shade of the bleachers where volunteers were handing out envelopes.  People were moving all around me with shouts and cheers and hugs and laughs.  I floated through the crowd in a numb trance. My problem was obvious. I had a 1.3 grade point average. That means my average grade in high school was a “D.”  D for Dread.  D for Dumb.  D for Dan.  

And, I needed to pass ALL my classes in order to graduate – including weightlifting (a class which I had skipped all year).  The lady at the table looked at me.  The “Grade-Giver.” The “envelope-passer of the highest degree" and she asked for my name.

I must have told her my name because she handed me my envelope.  I exhaled for the last time. There it was in my hand. My “report card.” My "performance measurement." My "academic outcome document" (AOD). My carbon-copied "adequacy statement." 

When I tore it open a bright red “F” floated out and levitated in front of me, then began draining the vitality from my spirit.  I stood there like a speed bump as the more-adequate-masses rushed all around me.

“There you are,” said my friend Brian. “I was looking all over for you. Did you get your grades?”
I looked at him without saying a word.
“Oh. Not good, huh? You gonna graduate?”

I had this sense that if I spoke any words I would start crying, so I just shrugged.

Brian was already trying to cheer me up. He said, “Hey, we got, like… 5 hours until the ceremony. Wanna go out to Prior Lake and see if we can find Dougie? Do a little water skiing? Cool off?”

My robe was clinging to my sweating chest so I pulled on it to create some airflow. It didn’t help much, though.

Brian nudged my shoulder. “Prior Lake, buddy. Come on.”

Dougie was our manager at the bowling alley that we both worked at.  He mostly worked evening shifts and spent most of his daytime hours on his boat on Prior Lake.  He always had various cocktail waitresses and bartenders out there with him, and he really knew how to foster a good time.  I nodded. “Let’s go.”

Brian laughed. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

Looking back on it now, it is creepy how happy Brian was in that moment considering he was only a few hours from dying.

I had failed the easiest class in public school history: Beginner's Weightlifting. Even Ronnie, the paraplegic, passed the class. In fact, he did quite well. But I failed it and now there was no way I would graduate. At that moment, as Brian and I were driving to Prior Lake, I was swelling with self-pity.

“What are you going to do,” Brian asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, looking out the window in a sad daze. “You know what really ticks me off is that I had to come up with $100 for that stupid class. Now I’m gonna fail AND I’m out $100.”

“Yeah, but that was your fault.”

He was right. It was my fault. You see, the weight room was trying to raise $1000 so they could install mirrors along all the walls of the weight room (so all the adolescent optimists could admire their muscle bulges and strike pompous poses). In an effort to raise the money the teacher required students to sell King Sized Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Each of us received 1 box of 100 candy bars. They were $1 each.

That was back in January (1992), the coldest month in the history of Minnesota. I put the box of candy bars on the seat of my truck and, in about 7 minutes, they were all frozen solid. Now here’s the thing: There are few things I have found in this world that taste better than frozen Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. They’re incredible! 

Over the first couple weeks of January I ate the WHOLE BOX! 100 Bars! 400 CUPS! So that’s why I had to come up with $100: to pay for the candy bars that I ate (all for a weightlifting class that I ultimately failed). In case the absurdity isn't obvious here, I had totally gorged myself with CANDY BARS that I was supposed to be selling for my FITNESS CLASS!

“Whoah! Look at all the people,” Brian said as he parked his car in the parking lot of the Prior Lake Public Beach. The beach was packed. We got out of the car and walked to the shore, looking out over the massive lake for any sign of Dougie and his boat.

With our hands above our eyes to block the sunlight we scanned the lake. “He usually doesn’t come over to the public beach side of the lake,” I said.

“Yeah, but… wait. Is that him over by the white mansion?”

We both stared intently at a speck of a boat on the other side of the lake. I said, “Yeah! That’s him!”  His boat was a unique baby blue color.

“Doug! Doug!” Brian shouted.
“What are you doing? There is no way in hell he is going to hear you.”

“What do you propose we do?”
“I think we’re out of luck.”
“Damn. It’s such a perfect day to water-ski.”
I nodded.
Brian got this devious look on his face. “We could swim across.”
I huffed. “Yeah right.”
“You don’t think we could do it?”
I pointed to myself. “I could do it, I don’t think you could though.”

Brian looked out over the lake a moment, then looked back at me. “Wanna try it?”

I gave a quick glance across at Doug’s little blue boat. I flicked some sand with my sandal. I exhaled slowly. I had failed Beginner’s Weightlifting... I had nothing to lose.  With an angst-laden shrug, I said, “Fuck it. Let’s do it.”

Trying to swim across Prior Lake without anybody knowing we were doing it was just plain stupid. And when we were half way across the lake the situation became morbid. If we did not keep paddling we would die. Like depraved slaves we were forced to keep straining, stroking, pulling, kicking. At some moment I realized that even if we did get to the other side there was no guarantee that Dougie would see us. And even if Dougie did see us, we would be too exhausted to ski anyway.

“This was stupid, Brian,” I said as I was taking off my shirt. In my growing fatigue the water-logged shirt had become too heavy and burdensome. I looked back at Brian, who was about 50 feet behind me. He had already taken his shirt off.

“I’m cramping up!” He yelled.
“We’re over half way. Hang in there.”
“I’m not going to make it! Help!”

I had never heard Brian’s voice take that tone. It was haunting; childish innocence mixed with terror. His head went under. I was too far away to do anything.
“Help!” I yelled. “Help!”

Brian’s head re-emerged and he yelled again, “Help! Help!”

When Brian’s head disappeared under the water again, I had the horrible sense that he had gone down for the last time. “Help,” I yelled again, but even though there were a thousand boats on the lake, none were in earshot.

Well, no boats, but a Jet Ski! “Hey! Help! Over here!” I was splashing and screaming and the Jet Skiier zipped towards me just as Brian came up for one last gasp of air.

“Brian! Hang on, buddy!”

I told the Jet Skiier that Brian was cramping up and was drowning, so he went to him. Brian grabbed the side of the Jet Ski and was slowly pulled back to the public beach. 

My assumption was that the Jet Ski would return to get me. He never came, though. He just left me there in the middle of the lake, waddling in the water like an idiot. A fatigued fool. An abandoned bobber.

At that point I was closer to Dougie’s side of the lake than to the public beach, and I really wanted to press on and complete the goal. But I also wanted to see how Brian was. That was my choice: completing the project or being with my friend. I resumed stroking water, heading back towards the public beach.  

Brian was fine. A bit shocked, but fine. In fact, later that afternoon when we were again in our black robes among the graduation ceremony crowd, he seemed quite sprightly. “It’s good to be alive,” he said. My feelings were not so bright. There I was at the graduation ceremony even though I had failed high school. I was an impostor.

“Are they going to let you go through the ceremony?”
“I don’t know. We'll find out.”

There were thousands of people at the ceremony. Students, siblings, parents, uncles, neighbors, and… teachers! Yes, there, by the Burnsville High School flagpole stood my weightlifting teacher!
I hurried over to him. He was a grouchy looking old man who seemed perpetually disappointed; definitely not the type you'd want to negotiate with, but I tried anyway.

“Hey, Mr. X, can I talk to you?”
He acknowledged me with a grumble.

“Mr. X, I have a problem. I need a D-minus in weightlifting in order to graduate. But I got an F. I was hoping you could change it to a D-minus.”

He scoffed and contorted like he was shrugging off a fly and said, “You were never there!”

“I know I missed a few classes, but you know that I lift weights and I am there after school all the time and it’s not like I’m asking for an A or anything, just a D-minus so I can graduate with my friends.”

He adjusted his cuffs, looked sideways out at the crowds, then looked at me with a very faint smirk. “Well… I suppose you did sell more Peanut Butter Cups than anybody else… okay.”

  • CATEGORY: creativity and related futility

  • 01-04-2013

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