The Game Of Life: Column #4

Apr 14, 2009

My senior year of high school wasn’t exactly a watershed in my educational history. I don’t know if I’m actually smart, but I have several pieces of paper from various institutions saying that I am, which can at least fool my parents and any prospective employer. But during my senior year, my priorities went more like this:

1. Sleeping
2. Fooling around with my friends
3. Driving around aimlessly (Gas was like eighty-nine cents a gallon! I’m old!)
4. Avoiding anything that remotely resembled work
5. Listening to the Ramones

Since my high school didn’t offer nap time or a history of the Ramones class, I had to try to pick classes that would offer the least amount of actual work. My friend Troll and I poured over the class list to see what we could find. (Troll will probably pop up in a lot of these articles. His real name is Mike, but only his wife and his Mom call him that. His older brother’s (very apt) nickname was Ogre, so he became Troll after a brief and ill-fated stint as “Little Ogre.”)
            We were foiled in our attempt to take only art classes (Our art teacher—get this—actually cared about art and wanted it to be a “real” class. Many of us would later appreciate this, but, at the time, it was a real buzzkill.) It wasn’t looking good. Then we noticed the “You and The Law” class. It was taught by the band director, Mr. Harris. (I went to a small high school in the days before No Child Left Behind. Teachers often pulled double duty and/or taught classes they were entirely unqualified to teach.) I had some prior experience with Mr. Harris having been in band for a few years in middle school. These are the things I remembered from band class:

1. Mr. Harris ALWAYS had a bottle of Southern Comfort in his desk. Why none of the students drank any of this, I have no idea. But Harris was definitely tippling throughout the school day.
2. Mr. Harris had a complete inability to remember anyone’s name. Students, regardless of gender, were called “pal.” If he needed to refer to a group of students, it was “pals.”
3. Whereas most band instructors are at least somewhat versed in all of the instruments the band plays, Mr. Harris could only play the trumpet. He was pretty good at it, but he had no clue how to play anything else. I remember not being able to understand a snare drum part I had to play (I was a pretty rotten drummer in those days), and he told me “Just play ta ta tee tee ta!” This, so far as I can tell, does not actually exist in the drumming world. Harris was just yelling various syllables at me, hoping something would catch on.
4. He had a glass eye, which he would often take out to scare the female members of the band. This meant that the entire right side of the classroom was completely outside of his peripheral vision. We immediately moved all of the percussion equipment to the right side of the classroom and spent our days balling up our sheet music and throwing it into the tuba, much to the tuba player’s consternation.
5. Harris got the job by fooling the school board into thinking that he was going to make the band “big time.” There was, of course, no way that a washed-up old alkie was going to make a rag-tag bunch of no-talents from a small town “big time.” (This was reality, after all, not some band version of The Bad News Bears.) When we were really acting up, he would sometimes break down into fake sobs, claiming that his wife would often ask him, “Ralph, why do you do it? You should just retire!” To which he would reply, “I can’t do it! Some of these kids want to be big time!” He would then look at the class with a hangdog expression on his face and say “Don’t you? Don’t you want to be big time?” Some lame suckup flute-playing girl would always console him and tell him that we did indeed desire to be big time. Usually, in the background, you could hear the drummers laughing. He sure couldn’t see us, anyway....

            So you see why a “real” class with this joker seemed like a pretty good bet. We signed up and anticipated second hour senior year being one long nap. We were wrong about that; very wrong.

            Most teachers spend at least a little time preparing a lesson plan for their class. Not Mr. Harris. That would have probably cut into his SoCo routine a little too much. It’s easy to not plan for a band class, I would imagine. You grab up the nearest sheet music, toss it at the kids, tell them to play it. But “You And The Law”? I think you’d at least have to crack the textbook, maybe think of a writing assignment for us to do, at least a worksheet. I don’t think Harris even passed out the book to us. His way of conducting class was to rant and rave about whatever topic happened to be on his mind that day, (often gleaned from the newspaper that he stole from a hotel on his way to school) occasionally stopping to berate a sleeping student: “Hey pal, you listening?”
            In any other class, we would have been those sleeping students, but Harris’s rants were so incredible they kept us awake. He would often go on at length about how he was “close, personal friends with Tom Monahan! I’ve even been to Mass at his chapel at Domino Farms!” At age seventeen, I had no idea who that was or why I should be impressed. We just thought it was funny. (For those who don’t know, Tom Monahan is the founder of the Domino’s Pizza chain and a heavy contributor to Catholic charities. He was once embroiled in a legal dispute with the city of Ann Arbor over his desire to erect the world’s largest cross on his property. I have no idea what ever became of this. I drive by Domino Farms about four times a year—there’s still no giant cross. I guess liberal old Ann Arbor won.)
            He would often speak Spanish to the migrant kids whose parents worked the tomato fields around Blissfield every autumn. They were usually completely unresponsive, which I chalked up to their dislike of Harris’s blatant racism. One day, I asked one of them what he was always saying to them. His response? “We don’t know! It’s not Spanish.” Harris was just talking drunken gibberish to them!
            His only graded assignment was a weekly oral quiz that he just made up on the spot. There was never a week where he didn’t say this: “Okay... question number ten... Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb? I’ll give you a clue, pals... it’s Grant!”
            “You And The Law” was, obviously, an incredibly easy class to pass. Since we didn’t need to use any brainpower learning anything, and since we didn’t want to sleep for fear of missing some incredible nugget of wisdom from Mr. Harris, Troll and I took to note passing as a way of passing the time. We had quite a correspondence going, and we kept every page, since we knew we were bound for greatness and would eventually collect our ramblings into a book. (Troll’s first wife threw them out one day. They divorced soon after. Coincidence? I think not.) One day we were mid-pass when Harris yelled out, “You guys passing dope back there?” We were totally busted, and we didn’t want him to actually see this note, since it contained numerous disparaging comments and rude drawings about him and our classmates.
            In times of trouble, Troll and I often exhibit a frightening level of mental telepathy. Without looking at each other or giving any signal, we simultaneously responded “Yes sir.” He laughed heartily and said, “That’s what I like about these guys! They know how to play the game of life! Let me tell you about the game of life....”
            This was Harris’s greatest rant, his Rant De Resistance. We had heard it before, and we would hear it again. There were variations, depending on who he was ranting to and why, but it basically went like this:

(To have the proper understanding, you’ve got to picture Mr. Harris, a guy in his late fifties with a lifetime of drinking and smoking big cigars under his belt, kind of overweight, all red-faced with thinning hair, screaming the following sentences. He also had one of those janitor-type key rings that would drag his pants down, so he would be constantly hitching them up throughout the rant.)

“You guys need to learn a thing or two about the game of life! Let’s say you’re coming out of church some sunny Sunday morning and you see some freak walking around, looking all crazy. You’re dressed up in your finest suit or dress, hair combed, freshly showered. Who’s out of place? The freak is. That’s who! He’s not playing the game of life! But if you go up to Ann Arbor and hang out on the Diag looking like that, you’re going to be the freak! You wanna hang out up there, you gotta look the part! I see these weirdoes up there, they got their hair up like this (at this point, Harris would put his hands to his hair and indicate a mohawk), pants down to here, (his hands would go well below his crotch—this was the mid to late nineties, when sagging your pants was still in fashion, kind of.... remember, we were about to experience the Limp Bizkit revolution....) stuff in their faces, (no one was ever able to confirm this, but we think he meant piercings) joints hanging out of their mouth, and a skateboard under their arms! You go up there all dressed up, no one’s gonna talk to you! You’d be the weirdo then!”

(Obviously, we all wanted to find this Diag place as soon as possible. To kids who grew up in the small town of Blissfield, Michigan, it sounded like Heaven. One boring Friday night, some of us decided to road trip up to Ann Arbor (a whopping hour away) and see what all the fuss was about. We asked a few passersby for directions to the Diag and eventually found it. You know what it was? It was just a spot where the sidewalks crossed diagonally in a park and college kids hung out and did their homework. Nothing remotely interesting or counter-cultural was going on there. I can’t think of a time during my senior year when I was more disappointed.)

Anyway, resuming the rant:

“I have a black friend, name of Rayford Harris! We used to teach together! Kids called him “the other Mr. Harris!” They called me “The Blue-Eyed Soul Brother!” Bet you didn’t think old Mr. Harris could have a black friend! Well I do! (He was right—we did NOT think that “old Mr. Harris” could have a black friend. “Old Mr. Harris” was incredibly racist, and would often keep Troll and me after class to tell us racist jokes. I guess someone has to be a special kind of insane to be both racist and want to impress high schoolers with his imaginary black friends. There is also no way anyone has ever called Ralph Harris “The Blue-Eyed Soul Brother.” Ever.) Now there’s a man who knows how to play the game of life! When he comes to my parties, white-people parties, he’s polite! He’s all, “Yes sir, no sir. Let me get that for you ma’am!” But when I go to his parties, the black people parties, he acts black! He’s out there, slapping hands, high-fiving, shucking and jiving, and calling people ‘brother’! He’s not polite anymore! That’s how you play the game of life! (Yeah, really. It’s been suggested that I did not have the most quality high school education one could receive.)

            The game of life was essentially about fitting in wherever you found yourself. Mr Harris thought that Troll and I (and our gang of four other miscreants in the back of his room) played this game exceptionally well. Maybe he was right; we did pretend to like him and enjoy his stories.

            Perhaps the craziest day in Mr. Harris’ class was the day of the big fight. There was a student who sat a few seats ahead of me named Kenny. Kenny was a nice, quiet guy, but it was the kind of quiet that made you a little uneasy. You never knew when he might snap. We were pretty nice to him and usually offered him food if we had any, just to keep him on our side. Across the room sat a guy named Jay, but we usually called him Mr. Clean, since he uncannily resembled the fictional cleaning product spokesman, down to the white T-shirt, bald head, and earring. We rarely spoke to Jay. He didn’t think much of our antics, and he sat all the way across the room, right in Harris’ field of vision. We rarely ventured there.

            (To preface this story, you have to remember that Mr. Harris was ALWAYS, inevitably and without fail, late to class. There was never a day when he was in the classroom when the bell rang. We had him second hour, and the band room was all the way across the school. He had to choose between getting to class on time or fortifying himself with a few chugs of Southern Comfort and being late. It was no contest.)

            I remember the fight very clearly: Harris was nowhere around, as the bell had not yet rung. I was turned around in my desk, chatting with my friend Chris, when I heard that unmistakable tone of voice someone uses to psych themselves up for a fight. I looked across the room and I saw Jay coming, fast, towards Kenny. Kenny was getting up from his desk and saying, in an eerily calm voice, “Do it if you’re going to do it.” He did it, whatever “it” was. They started wailing on each other in a particularly brutal show of force. To this day I don’t know quite what made them fight, but I do know that whatever it was, there was no love lost between these guys. It seemed like either one would have been entirely satisfied to kill the other. They started crashing over desks. I turned back to Chris and said something to the effect of, “We should probably move because they’re about to do the same thing to our desks.” We moved. They did the same thing to our desks as we huddled around with the migrant kids, watching the fight go down.

            Kenny had maneuvered Jay into a headlock and was pummeling his face. Blood was spraying everywhere, landing in big puddles on the floor and dripping all over our overturned desks. I had never seen anything like this in real life. Kenny’s punches slowed, then stopped. His glazed-over eyes cleared up, and he said something like “I’m gonna let you go, okay?” to Jay. He released him from the headlock, and Jay reared up revealing a severely broken nose and blood covering his white shirt. (Did you ever see that Rollins Band video where Rollins breaks his own nose on his knee at a concert? It looked exactly like that, only substitute Mr. Clean for Rollins.)

            Jay said “This ain’t over!” and stormed out the door. Kenny righted his desk and sat down in it as if nothing had happened. As the dust settled and a very awkward silence loomed, Mr. Harris walked through the door and yelled, “How come you guys are standing around back there? Come on, let’s get in our seats!”

            This would be an entirely normal thing for a teacher to say at the beginning of class, even for one as lax as Mr. Harris. Normal, that is, if the floor wasn’t covered in puddles of blood and several rows of overturned desks. Jesus, one of the migrant kids, said he didn’t want to sit in his desk because it was covered in blood. Mr. Harris’ response was a classic: “Yeah, yeah, que pasa señor!” (To Harris’s credit, this was actually Spanish. Totally unrelated to the conversation at hand, and blatantly racist, but Spanish, nonetheless.) Several other students attempted to tell Harris about the fight to no avail. He wasn’t in a listening mood. Those of us with unbloodied desks turned them over and sat in them, and those who couldn’t, sat on the floor out of Harris’ field of vision. He never noticed.

(What makes this especially bad is that our high school had exactly one hallway. Harris HAD to have passed Jay in all of his blood-covered glory walking down the hall. How he passed a student who looked like an extra in a slasher flick, a student who was supposed to be in his class, and didn’t notice, I’ll never know.)

            Near the end of class, our principal came to the door. (We called him the sidewinder, due to his propensity for walking sideways. He did not enjoy this nickname.) He knocked and said “Ralph, can I talk to you?” Harris got this goofy grin and said “Sure thing Dave! Be right there!” (He loved to show us how “in” he was with authority figures. He apparently never got the memo that KIDS HATE AUTHORITY FIGURES!) He walked out and we all laughed, knowing that he was about to get reamed out for not knowing that there was a huge fight in his classroom and not reporting it to the office. Sure enough, he came back in the classroom and said, “Why didn’t you guys tell me there was a fight in here?” One of us said, “Jesus told you all about it. You just ignored him,” but Harris was already walking out of the classroom, holding his head, mumbling “I’m in so much trouble...” to himself. We had ten minutes left in class, which we enjoyed very much, unsupervised by Harris or any other teacher.

(A few days later, both Jay and Kenny had returned to class and they never said a cross word to each other again, as near as I can tell. I remember asking Kenny about the fight and him telling us that he “blacked out” for a while during it, only coming to when he was savagely punching Jay in the face. We redoubled our efforts to keep him on our good side after that, only referring to him by our new nickname for him, “Kenny the Killer,” when he was well out of earshot. Kenny would later go on to murder his mother in a fit of rage, making our nickname for him both prescient and unfortunate at the same time.)

            One day, we were sitting in class when I noticed Troll had a big bag of donuts that he planned to eat during VIP Period. (VIP was a “study hall” between our second and third hours of the day. You were supposed to use it to get extra help in classes you were struggling with or to finish homework. We mostly ate donuts and attempted to find the teacher with the most relaxed VIP rules.) I was hungry, having skipped breakfast, and didn’t want to wait all hour to steal donuts from Troll. So I said, “Hey Troll, give me a donut.” He hemmed and hawed about it, both because he didn’t want to share his donuts and because eating during class was strictly forbidden, but I finally got him to give in and relinquish the donut. He figured he might as well have one too, and soon we were splitting the bag between our friends in the back of the class. Harris went right on ranting, never noticing us chowing down. We thought we would be busted at any given moment, until someone remembered that we were on the side of his glass eye, and he probably couldn’t see us.

            Never ones to do anything halfway, we decided that if a big bag of donuts shared illicitly during class was a good thing once, it would be a great thing if we did it everyday. There were five of us and five days of the school week, so each person was assigned a day to bring in food for everyone else. (I was deemed “most responsible,” so I got Monday. My buddies reasoned that I was the only one who could remember to bring in food after the weekend. They were probably right.) We started simply—a Pop Tart here, a donut there. We were still operating under the assumption that we would be busted at any moment, so we wanted food that was easy to transport and hide. (I also strongly suspect that many of us forgot that we were supposed to bring food until we were on the way to school, and donuts were readily available at several stops on the route to BHS. This was in the days before cell phones, so there were no reminders via text or anything. We actually had to remember stuff!) Eventually, one of us (and it’s lost to history who exactly) got brave enough to bring in bagels and cream cheese. This really opened the floodgates. Eventually, we were having multiple bowls of cereal and kicking the milk jug across the floor to each other, much to our classmates’ consternation, as we were not sharers. There was talk of bringing in Troll’s Dad’s portable griddle and making pancakes. We took to calling our little group “The Breakfast Club,” in honor of one of our favorite movies.

            How did we get away with this? In any other class, we would have been busted before I had finished chewing that first donut, but this was Mr. Harris. A man who didn’t notice huge pools of blood on his classroom floor wasn’t going to notice a few wily students chowing some cereal in the back of the room. We became so bold that we didn’t even attempt to hide the food in our backpacks anymore. We’d simply walk into class carrying whatever supplies we needed for the day. The attention paid to Mr. Harris dropped to almost nothing as we enjoyed breakfast everyday. One day, I was just biting into a bagel covered in cream cheese when I heard Harris yell, “Why are you eating in my classroom!?” We went into full panic mode. Half-eaten bagels were stashed in backpacks. Knives stuffed in pockets. The cream cheese, in the middle of being kicked across the floor to another student, was left in the open. We hoped he wouldn’t see it. I looked up.

            I thought that he would be there, looking in front of me, our little scheme all unraveling before my eyes. I envisioned a long walk to the office, perhaps a detention. I could do the time. That was nothing. I just didn’t want to stop eating breakfast in Harris’ class. We looked forward to this every day. But Harris wasn’t anywhere near me. I looked over. He was nowhere near any of the “club” members. He was all the way across the room, simply screaming in the face of this tiny, little girl with a sucker. He snatched up the sucker and threw it away, going on a long rant about how there would be no eating in his class. The girl kept trying to get a word in edgewise, pointing over at us, (with food now hidden and all eyes on Harris, as if we had been paying rapt attention the whole time) but Harris wouldn’t let her speak. She finally blurted out, “But Mr. Harris, those boys bring food everyday! And you never say anything to them!”

            Harris’ response? “Oh, sure. You always want to blame your troubles on someone else! It’s not your fault! My pals over here haven’t done anything wrong! You see, they know how to play the game of life...”

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