As I look back at the end of my senior year of High School, I remember my friends sort of celebrating my fights, after the fact. During this time of my life, as much as I used violence as a solution, I never went out of my way to look for a fight. The fights just seemed to have happened. Other guys our age would get in to heated shoving matches and allow for a mature diplomatic solution. Rarely did it ever turn violent for others, however it did happen from time to time. For me on the other hand, once guys raised their voices at me or shoved me out of anger, I felt I had to swing or my life would end. If I felt threatened in any way, if I felt there was a threat to my friends or God forbid a threat against my sister… I was at war.
I knew what it felt like to be picked on and I believe, in retrospect, I was sensitive to other kids being picked on. Any sort of intimidation aimed at someone I knew enraged me. My job in life, or so it seemed, was to protect the underdogs. This wasn’t something I was conscious of at the time. I didn’t believe my life had any direction. I believed my friends looked at me as someone who would have their back, if they needed it. They never needed it. My friends would host parties at their houses, sometimes, and when it was time to clear kids out of the house, that’s where I came into affect. I don’t remember any kid rebelling against my telling them it was time to leave. My friends weren’t little, by any means, however I remember them as good students who loved sports. I never felt I had to protect them. Instead, my friends were just that… my friends. I was grateful for real friends. My life had turned around 180 degrees from when my family moved after the sixth grade.
Once I received my college placement exam scores, my plans for the future opened up. I had some options now. I could now approach my parents and ask them about college. Mom was already asking me everyday if she thought I would graduate. I had to pass every class of my last semester senior year in order to get a diploma. Every day she would ask me. Every day I would reassure her. Every day I was panicking more and more. My parents tried every route to guide me academically. They offered me money for good grades, sent me to summer school, grounded me for failure and praised me for average. I just couldn’t stay focused enough during any class. I thought about Elle almost every day. My life was a mess, I knew it, but I had no idea how to pull myself out of it. I smoked weed, sometimes, before school by now. There were days when I would come to school and run into a female friend who would ask me for weed. There were plenty of days I left school to go smoke weed, watch cartoons and escape life.
I applied to every state university in the state of Illinois. Because of my low G.P.A. and behavioral problem record throughout my academic career I was accepted into only one school: Western Illinois University. I had no idea how I was going to pay for it, what I was going to study or even how I would get to the campus by the first day of class. All that mattered now was actually graduating H.S.. If I could somehow pass all of my classes then I too would have a plan.
I had five classes my last semester of High School. On the last day of school, at the end of each class, our teacher would tell us our grade. I needed to pass all five classes in order to graduate. At the end of the day I had failed three classes. Two teachers gave me a D instead of an F. The first of the two teachers let the class vote on my grade. The class voted unanimously to pass me. The second teacher, once I informed her I had been accepted to a university because of my college placement exam score, switched the grade from F to D. I offered to kiss her, however she informed me that would not be necessary. The third class was accounting. Our accounting teacher was the varsity football coach. I had over a dozen detentions my senior year. Also, I was assigned “in school suspension” for ditching classes just as many times. Coach O’Neil, the accounting teacher/varsity football coach, seemed to draw detention duty every time I was assigned it. He also was aware of my suspensions. When I approached him and informed him of my future plans to attend college he said to me, “if you can’t do the time… don’t do the crime”. There ended the discussion and the answer was I failed.
I felt like I was drowning. I not only couldn’t attend college but now I wouldn’t be able to graduate. My mama was going to be devastated. I had promised her over and over again that I would graduate. My plans were now over. Every student who put in the work to graduate was now celebrating, talking about parties and graduation. I was going to be a seventeen year old high school dropout.
My friend Jim pulled me aside. He informed me that he and Coach O’Neil were pretty close. Jim was an ‘All Area’ football player (an award given to the best football players in the area). He was built, naturally, like a much more muscular version of myself. I never saw him work out with weights outside of football or wrestling, yet he had about thirty pounds of muscle on me. I worked out regularly with Dads old exercise plan. Jim just was naturally strong as an ox. Also, he could drink a case of beer over the course of one night and still walk. I watched him do that almost every weekend. He was the nicest guy you would ever meet, however, once he got onto a wrestling mat or strapped on a football helmet he became a fucking beast. Off the field and off the mat he was a gentile giant. He was the ying to my yang. I didn’t have his athletic ability. He had never been in a fight. I considered his parents as an extension of my parents. Mr. and Mrs. K. knew more about me, from me, then my own parents did. Jim said he would talk to the Coach and try to get him to raise my grade. He said it casually like asking someone for a pencil. Our final report cards would show our grades and they would be handed out at graduation ceremony practice after school.
My final report card had two C’s and three D’s. I graduated High School because of my friend Jim.