I am almost always late for appointments, birthdays, and getting Christmas presents off in the mail. Since tardiness is part of my personality, at some point during the summer I ordered four Classic Rockers t-shirts to serve as 18th birthday remembrances for my special young friends.
I had appointed myself professor of Rock and Roll, and drafted these three young men as my students. They were a captive audience because I rule the radio in my house. If they were going to spend time with me, they had to understand my attachment to my music, the lyrics, and how it was back then. Otherwise, even they might sometimes consider my behaviour abnormal.
Robbie's birthday was the first of all of us, and, of course, his t-shirt arrived last. Gabriel and Jay had received their Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones t-shirts when they were inpatient at Timberlawn.
The day Robbie's Doors t-shirt arrived, I donned my new John Lennon "NYC" t-shirt and pulled out the hibachi, charcoal, and lighter fluid. Jay was staying at my house that day, and he planted the idea in my head. I love to cook outside.
When Robbie and Gabriel arrived at my house, late that afternoon, I pulled my last $10.00 bill from my wallet, and sent the guys off to the store for eats. They decided on hamburgers, buns, and chips, since the budget was limited. Pizza deliver cost $20.00. They understood the necessity of stretching food money, and they seemed excited when they drove off in Robbie's truck for the grocery store.
As they were leaving, Jay said something about getting what they needed for a blunt. I'd heard him talk about blunts before, but I had no personal experience with what he was talking about. He found what he needed.
By the time the fire was going good, orange ashen embers glowing, the guys got back with the food. Jay immediately grabbed the stater fluid, and poured liquid which became a roaring inferno. I've known people to lose face hair if they aren't careful in situations like this, and Jay was making me quite nervous.
"Watch out, Ms. Shelton! I'm going to make the charcoal flame up one last time."
I cringed, and walked into the yard about 20 feet. I wasn't taking any chances with my long red hair. As long as the flames didn't catch the wooden support post, or catch on the underside of the patio roof which was attached to the back of the house, we wouldn't have to run in and call 911.
I have a fascination with, and fear, of fire. I enjoy a room full of candles any evening, and find my mood mellows in the soft flickering light of a dozen or so votives. But I can also remember falling face first into a campfire.
When I was a kid, I remember I'd gone fishing with my dad at a beach near Port Aransas, Texas. The waves had chopped off a chunk from the sand dunes, and I practiced my best Superman landing, jumping in the air about a foot and a half.
My sense of balance disappeared before my enthusiasm for hopping waned. I fell in the fire hands and feet, followed by the rest of my body. So much for playing Superman.
I don't remember the extent of the pain, but I do remember getting a tetanus shot. My foot was pierced by a couple of rusty nails as I stumbled away from the fire. I flashed on that event, staring, entranced, by the leaping flames of the fire.
Jay stood flammable fluid bottle in hand. He flipped off the snap lid, and squirted. Flames shot about four feet in the air.
I visually scanned for the end of the double length water hose, and mapped a direct path, in case the flames caught.
The three of us eased closer to the fire after Jay closed the lid on the starter fluid and set the bottle down. We settled into comfortable positions around the fire, curling up with the blankets, throw rugs, and pillows I had brought from inside. We all stared silently into the fire until the flames again died back into an orange ashen glow.
I wondered if the charcoal would consume itself before the hamburger patties appeared. It seemed that Gabriel and Robbie had been inside a long time. The fire was ready for some juicy red meat.
"The fire is ready for the food. Is the food ready for the Fire? I'm going to supervise and let the three of you be chefs tonight."
I decided I should let them have the opportunity to cook. At ages 17 and 18, they were perfectly capable of cooking hamburgers on the grill.
Robbie and Jay scrambled to their feet, and bolted through the garage and into the house. Gabriel and I remained at the fire, now a tamed ashen glow, formed into a rectangle by the cast iron hibachi.
Except for the light from the fire, darkness shrouded us. After a few minutes, Gabriel broke the silence. His voice started my peaceful reveries.
"I'm dropping out of school."
Gabriel and Jay had met while attending the Dallas Can Academy during their freshaman year of high school. The Can Academy is a last chance school for most of its students. These teens have a variety of unbelievable problems, and they still work at getting a diploma.
Gabriel had never been the academic type. He opted out of special ed classes in middle school because, he said, regular classes were "better." I suspected that his peers had given him shit about being in the "dumb" classes. He passed his special ed classes.
When he attended the neighborhood high school, after completing the classes for eighth grade, he failed more classes than he passed.
Many times I'd offered to help Gabriel with his English and history work. I ocassionally tutored students by appointment, and often worked with some students for many months.
I missed the atmosphere of a school building, and football games, and student council activities. A teacher gets a more well rounded perspective of a student if he sees him outside the classroom, doing fun things. I guess it works the other way around too.
Each week when Gabriel came to help me with my house chores, I always asked what was happening in school. I'd taught English and history in every grade from six to twelve.
I always winced visibly when Gabriel announced how many classes he'd failed that semester. I could easily imagine him in the classroom.
I imagined his face plastered to his desk, making some kind of distracting sleep sound. If he were awake, he'd be trying to play invisible. If he knew the answer, he wouldn't raise his hand. When he were called on, he'd usually have no clue as to what the class discussion was about.
I could tell from our working together at my house that he didn't have a real long attention span. His short term memory wasn't very good either.
If Gabriel were coaxed into classroom discussion, he would usually come up with some wise crack that made everyone laugh. Sometimes it's easier to make people laugh than it is to know the right answer.
It's very difficult for students with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) to focus their attention for as long as regular classroom teachers require. Mainstream classrooms always have more students, so each one receives less individual attention.
I always tried to explain to Gabriel if I had some insight about his situation at school. Sometimes he appreciated it. Sometimes it was like water off a duck's back, my words went right on by.
About 4:15 on the afternoon of 9/11, Gabriel showed up at my house unexpectedly. I'd been glued to the television, recording history as it happened, since awakening at 9:20 that morning.
I was in the classroom teaching the day the Challenger exploded, and the events of that day would certainly weigh in memory of all interested in the space program.
When you experience such strong emotions, sharing those emotions with one, or a group, there's a bonding of the heart and soul.
Gabriel came in to the living room after giving "Elvis," my big affectionate dog, a rawhide treat as a distraction.
He said breathlessly, "The kids at school were saying World War III is about to start."
"It's already started," I said. "Nothing like this has ever happened in my lifetime. We've been struck in the middle of the contiguous United States. It's unbelievable that this could have happened. The world will be a different place from now on."
I felt comforted from Gabriel's visit that day. I hoped he felt better after he left my house. We talked a lot.
The only time he's ever let me help him with work was when he was reading Edgar Alan Poe. He says he finishes his work in class.
I knew that meant he focused his attention long enough to write something down on a piece of paper and turn it in. He seldom even carried books to study outside class. That's the way it is with your non-academic types.
Now he was going to give up on his dream, or his mother's dream, of a high school diploma.
"Are you going to try for your GED?"
Gabriel sat, eyes transfixed to the orange embers which glowed brighter with each whisk of wind.
"Yeah, Eastfield College offers a class to help you get ready to take the GED. After that, I can take the mechanics classes they have."
Gabriel had thought this through. I agreed that he needed to get on with his life. He could spin his wheels trying to pass classes for years yet. He and Robbie had started school together, and Robbie had already graduated. Gabriel still hadn't passed all his sophomore level classes.
The American educational system requires that students know certain things. Gabriel wasn't able to prove he was learning what school needed for him to know.
"Have you talked to your mom about quitting school?" Due to his study habits, of lack thereof, I had known for some time that Gabriel was more likely to drop out than to graduate. I hadn't acknowledged that to him. His mother had guided him into the Can Academy in hopes that he could finish with a high school diploma. If she could accept Gabriel going for his GED, I would certainly encourage him.
"She didn't like it much when I told her at first. She said she'd try to get used to the idea."
Jay and Robbie returned to the patio with the hamburger patties and chips. The rustle of the bag and crunch of chips filled the quiet of the dark night.
Jay reminded Gabriel that he was supposed to be home by midnight. Since he was staying at his parents' house again, he was trying to follow their rules. It was a Wednesday night, so Thursday morning still meant going to school.
"Dude!" Gabriel exclaimed. "What time is it?"
"If I were you, I'd be walking home about now," Jay said in reply.
Gabriel moved like a person just waking from sleep. When he realized he was about to be late, he moved pretty much faster. We bid him adieu, promising not to save him a hamburger. If he wasn't going to be there, "Elvis" had dubs.
I walked Gabriel through the house and unlocked the screen door for him to leave.
"Good night, sweet Prince. Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say Goodnight until it be 'morrow," I said, quoting the balcony scene from Romero and Juliet.
"What Dude?" Gabriel turned as he walked down the sidewalk towards his home.
"Goodnight Gabriel." He wasn't overly familiar with Shakespeare, and I wanted to get back to the fire. Jay was still causing havoc with the lighter fluid.
I shut the front door, turned the lock, and called for "Elvis" to go back outside with me.
When I returned to the patio, Robbie and Jay both had unfamiliar expressions on their faces.
"How's the cow doing?" I asked.
"It's doing fine, Ms. Shelton. We wanted to ask you a question."
Jay often prefaced important questions with these words. It was his way of making sure he had your attention.
I suspected Jay was also a non-academic type, but he excelled in those life skills known as street smarts. He had to in order to stay alive.
"You can ask anything, Jay." I'd had a couple of glasses of wine with my Sprites, and I was enjoying the evening.
"We wanted to ask, since it's Robbie's birthday party and all, do you want to smoke a blunt with us?"
Although we'd gone through many packs of cigarettes together, I'd never smoked pot with them. I'd admitted to them that I'd smoked before. Now was the time of reckoning.
I noticed again the blanket of the dark night, and the smell of hickory smoke saturating the air.
"If I smoke with you, are you going to lose respect for me? Are you guys actually two young undercover cops setting me up for a bust?"
They laughed so loud I was afraid that they would wake the neighbors. I was getting paranoid even before I smoked.
I swore them to secrecy before I accepted the invitation to smoke.
Robbie and Jay had taken out the tobacco from a cognac flavored cigar, and refilled the paper casing with marijuana. A blunt, I could see, was basically a marijuana cigar.
The wine may have affected my judgment.
"Light 'er up," I sighed dramatically, with excitement and abandon.
Jay clicked his blue lighter, and puffed until the huge joint was lit. Robbie was poking at the almost done burgers on the grill.
"Here you go, Ms. Shelton," Jay said politely as he handed me the blunt.
We sat, illuminated by the glow of the fire and a flashlight Robbie was shining on the meat. He busied himself removing the burgers, so that I'd be the second to smoke.
I took the huge joint, placed it to my lips, and inhaled. I was surprised I didn't start coughing. I held my breath as long as I could before I exhaled.
The smoke wafted from under the patio roof, disappearing into the blackness of the night.
I took another hit. The smoke tasted of sweet familiarity. I passed the joint to Robbie, but he waved me off.
"You have to smoke this like a Mexican. Mexicans always take a couple of hits before they pass it. Relax. You're among friends. Smoke up. A blunt lasts forever."
By the time I was allowed to pass it, I was feeling the effects. Just as Jay had suggested, I was indeed relaxed. I wasn't worried about anything at all.
All of a sudden, I was starving. I reached for the hamburger buns and bar-be-cue sauce. Jay did the same. Robbie choked, laughing.
"Did you get the munchies?" he asked. We all burst into laughter. The grilled burgers tasted especially good.
We ate and smoked. Then we smoked some more. The blunt never went out, and it burned down very slowly.
"Elvis" got everybody's last bite of food. He wouldn't have gotten anything if he hadn't recognized the words "last bite." You couldn't disappoint "Elvis." He waited patiently, face as close to the food as possible.
The dog even seemed to be enjoying the marijuana smoke. He always walked away from cigarete smoke, but he seemed to be following the blunt around.
When the food and smoke were finally finished, I moved the blue vinyl chaise lounge out into the yard. I wanted to watch the stars.
Clouds passing overhead reflected in the light of a quarter moon. I occupied myself by visualizing animals and facial expressions in the night sky. Jay and Robbie remained, talking on the patio in low tones. My chair was about a dozen feet away from them.
I was one of the dudes. At some point in time, I realized that "dude" referred more to a relationship between people than it did to gender. They considered me to be one of the dudes in their social circle. I was flattered.
I listened in on a conversation that didn't concern me.
"I had to talk to her on the phone forever, then I had to screw her before she'd go out with him. I might need to call her up again."
"Yeah," the other voice said. "We're going to have to do something to help him. Does he have any condoms?"
The voices faded into the rustling of the leaves in the wind. The night air felt refreshingly cool. I closed my eyes.
"Ms. Shelton, I have to go." Robbie startled me.
"I have to take my sister to school at 7:30 in the morning. I just now remembered. I've got to go home now."
We'd planned for everybody to keep all their clothes on and sleep on a sofa, since I had several. I planned to sleep in my own bed with "Elvis," as usual.
"Well, I understand your situation. Are you okay to drive Robbie? Do you want me to make you a cup of coffee? You can at least be a wide awake stoner."
I had no idea what time it was. I focused my eyes on my watch. I had been asleep for awhile.
"It's been hours since we smoked, Ms. Shelton." I'm just sleepy now. I don't think there will be much traffic at this hour. I'm okay to drive home. It's not that far."
I insisted that Robbie take a cup of orange cappiccino with him. Hours had passed since the blunt burned up. Dawn was only a short time away.
I walked Robbie to the front door, and told him to drive carefully. He started his little white truck, and drove off into the night.
Returning to the back yard, I found Jay and "Elvis" asleep on a large woven rug he'd retrieved from the garage. I got a blanket from inside, and threw it over the sleeping Jay.
It was so unusual to see Jay still and quiet. Neither of us had gotten a full night's sleep since he had been staying at my house.
We were both manic, feeding on each other's frenzy, and had little need for sleep. The night before, we'd been up till 3:00. I was glad that Jay could sleep if I couldn't.
In the dim light of the moon, Jay looked so innocent and angelic. He lay on his stomach, his head falling off the furry turquoise stuffed Cyclops he was using for a pillow. The white beads encircling his neck reminded me of earlier days, hanging out at the beach with surfers.
Being with the guys made me feel like I was seventeen too. I was experiencing the Janis Ian song all over again. For me, high school was a time of happiness, friends, security, and big dreams of making a perfect world.
It was a time of conflagrant emotions. When I became involved in something, I gave it 100% of my effort. I could never just join a club. If I wasn't president, I was some kind of officer.
I always dreamed of being somebody. In high school I had planned to enter the life of public service, and politics. But by now I had too many skeletons in my closet to undergo public scrutiny. My concept of my place in the world had been so naive.
Jay stirred under the blanket, then stretched his arms and sat up.
"I'm going to the bed," he announced. Either from the effects of the pot, or his sleep, he stumbled across the yard, and into the gargage.
Finally I saw through the window that he had arrived in the back bedroom which he had slept in the night before.
I had left the miniblinds in that room partially open. I watched Jay go through his trusty backpack, and I averted my eyes lest I be privy to a changing of clothes. When I looked again, Jay was talking on the telephone. Ten minutes later the light went out in the room.
"Elvis" settled down in the garage, finally catching a snooze. He couldn't sleep when there were boys around.
I returned to the moonlight bathed chaise. Pulling the blanket up opver me, I closed my eyes, thought about the night's activities, and smiled. It had been a good night. The beginnings of daylight crept on the eastern horizon.
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