The problem was, things changed quite a bit when I got to high school. What was a middle school filled with country boys and church goers piled into the high school that also took in the kids from Fort Leonard Wood, the army base outside of town. The almost all-white middle school became diverse freshmen year and the result was not always perfect.
I have talked to my wife about Waynesville High School, and I can tell you that, while we shared a building, we went to two different schools.
Hers was calm and ordered. It was filled with good kids who just wanted to learn. There was a feeling of hope in the air and, for the most part, good things happened there. It is where she found herself, where she found her tribe, and the things that happened there made her a well-adjusted teen blooming into adulthood with no issues and no fears save those that adulthood brings.
We had tribes, too, but they were violent.
I won’t call the black kids a gang. I know what a gang is. This was not that. But they saw the faces around them and they knew racism was a force in this area. They gathered together to form a front. Those who didn’t go into sports went into a group of violent malcontents that had each other’s backs to the end. They were tight and they had a system to keeping themselves safe.
The wrestlers were their own kind of tribe. Wrestling was not a season, it was a lifestyle. If you were in that group, you were a lifer. They had each other’s backs and often would protect the preppy boys who stepped over the line with others. You never wanted to mess with the wrestlers. In ’91 before grunge hit, that tribe was known for their flannels. If you saw a fit boy with clean pants and a clean flannel, you were looking at a member of a crew.
Then there was a group of kids who were just bad. They weren’t bad people but they wanted bad things. They had just come into their bodies. They were getting bigger and wanted to shove people around a little. They wanted to hit something and feel that thing hit them back. They usually spent a lot of time on their cars. Hung out in the parking lots of stores and businesses. I would find this crew and fall into them my sophomore year. But for my freshmen year, Shadow was in the Waynesville High School Mafia.
He dressed well. Dress shirts, black pants. He wore a black blazer and black boots. He wore a golden ring on his pinky finger and a black trench coat, and he was for hire. He had a group of friends who dressed like him and they were for hire. Shadow was muscle.
See, the wrestlers were tough, but when the season started, they were helpless. Babes in the water when it came to defending themselves. If they were caught fighting, they were off the team. If, for any reason, a wrestler hit a kid anywhere in town during wrestling season, they lost everything. So the other tribes would come out and pick. Pick on their girls, pick on them. They would get disrespectful and start pecking away at the confidence of the wrestlers.
This was where we came in.
When a girl was being messed with by a boy she was not interested in, when she was getting scared or being physically harassed, the wrestler came to us.
Me, Spike, and Nozzle were the muscle that kept order. I had hooked up with Spike during the summer. He was a well-feared, well-respected junior my freshman year, and he told me it was all about reputation. Most people didn’t even need one. The preppy kids could stay insulated in a world where their clothing was important and their shoes being scuffed was the worst problem they would have. The intellectuals. The band kids. All of them lived in a school where they didn’t have to have a reputation to keep themselves safe, but I was far from that.
When D had picked me up, he had not made me one of them. He had not turned me into a popular kid. And when we walked into high school, we were still best friends but he had a separate life, a separate experience than me.
I got in fights. Most of them were quick little spurts of violence that put a kid down fast with no fanfare. A few quick hits, a few hard words, and you moved on. The fights I was in didn’t usually draw a crowd. They came and went with a kid hitting the ground, being stomped once, given a quick threat, and then we were gone. A swift cut. A deft hand that put things right, or made them very wrong.
A knife was handed to me one day. If you got caught with one, you were expelled, and one of the Latino kids was being chased down by the principal. He needed to get rid of what he was carrying or he was never coming back. He stuffed the knife in my hand as he came around the corner and I palmed it. I got it back to him the next day at a gas station. He said he had my back when I needed him.
In ways like this, I was collecting markers. Aimes was dating a wrestler, and a creepy guy started stalking her. Her boyfriend couldn’t do anything about it, so he asked me to get involved. I would have done it for Aimes without thought, but her boyfriend insisted it be his favor.
The hit was fast. Slammed the kid against the bus, hit him three times in the face, twice in the chest, and swept his legs. “Leave Aimes alone,” I grunted at him, and before anyone knew I was there, I was gone.
The Waynesville Mafia lasted half a school year. Lasted one semester before I had a falling out with Spike and Nozzle. But in that one semester, I had made a name for myself. The tough kids knew who I was. Shadow had made friends with most of them by doing little jobs for them, and they had our back. When new kids came in, my name was whispered in their ear. My legend was built in a semester, and lasted the rest of my high school career.
With about forty quick fights, Shadow had scared off all bullies.
Hardly and Aimes were horrified by the entire thing. Hardly and I had not lasted past eighth grade. When the summer came, we had just stopped calling each other and I was single again. When my semester of violence ended, I went to Aimes, telling her I was still in love with Hardly and I was going to try to get her back. Aimes told me not to try. Told me Hardly was building a high school leading to success. Hardly was not going to take a guy seriously who didn’t do his school work and was petulant and violent. She told me Hardly was not for me and to leave it alone.
So I did. Hardly became a friend. A valued piece of the puzzle. When I felt terrible about myself, when I felt stupid or worthless, I would go find Hardly. She would yell at me for throwing away my education. She would yell at me for hanging out with terrible people and doing terrible things. She would tell me she did not approve. I can see her face snapping all these things to me right now as I sit here typing this.
I came to her when things got too bad, just to hear someone tell me I was better than how I was acting. I came to her to hear her say things like, “You’re so smart. You’re so creative. Why are you doing this to yourself? Why are you throwing it all away?” I came to Hardly to hear the voice of a concerned person who loved me. She saved my life more times than I can count, because the first two years of high school were so dark, and so painful, that suicide was with me all the time.
It watched me from a distance. It waited for me to be weak. The fact that I survived the first two years of high school is proof to me of the power of Artist, and Hardly. Because without them, I would not be here.
Hardly saved my life with her frustrated disapproval and her demand that I do better. I wish I could tell her that.
This chapter is from Reality of the Unreal Mind, Vol. 1: Teardrop Road, available on Amazon.