On being invited to talk to students at a school I was expelled from
I got an e-mail a couple of months ago that read: “Hi Josh, My name is Jennifer Wolfe, and I’m the AVID [Advancement Via Individual Determination] teacher at Emerson Jr. High.”
“Jesus, am I still in trouble?” I wondered. I was expelled from Emerson Junior High (in Davis) 20 years ago.
But I kept reading and realized that she wanted me to tell her students about my writing career and how I got here.
“Dodged that bullet,” I thought. I hated school—skipped classes, smoked cigarettes and made fun of fat kids. When I finally got kicked out, it was over a game we played called “rugby,” which was nothing like traditional rugby because, well, we made up all the rules. In our version, whoever had the ball would be pummeled, strangled and punched in the face until he started crying. It was a fun game for hormonal eighth-graders, but once the principal got wind of it, he came out to the field to end our sport for good.
Our principal had a tiny red face and freakishly good posture. I’m not proud, but I called him Gay Hitler, because his hair was so anally parted to the right. Anyway, when he stormed onto the playing field, I knew the day would end badly.
He struggled to grab the ball and I tried to provoke him to hit me. We got into a scuffle. It ended in a meeting with my parents and finally an expulsion from the Davis school system.
So the irony of being asked to lecture a class full of ninth-graders at Emerson did not escape me. On the day I was supposed to address the class, I pulled into the parking lot and felt sick. What was I going to tell these kids? That I left high school, took a bunch of drugs and sat on bar stools to become a literary drunk for 11 years?
What kind of lesson is that?
I was so nervous during my talk that I don’t actually remember what I said. I read a couple poems, let an F-bomb fly and apologized profusely. When I finished talking, I looked up and was surprised to see that all the kids were still there. The teacher was there, too. I felt horrible for not being able to spin an uplifting tale of redemption and after-school-special moments.
A couple of days later, there was a letter in my mailbox.
It was from one of the AVID students. Inside was a poem and a little note that read. “I could tell that you were nervous about your speech and that was fine because you still did such a good job. … Most of the guest speakers we have heard told us only the good things in their lives, though I am sure that all of them have made bad decisions. If adults try to tell us what we should and shouldn’t do with our lives without being honest about their life then, well, that is just messed up.”