Monday, July 06, 2009

No regrets about this incident

When there’s a tragedy, to do with kids shooting up their schools or getting killed at a wild party, memories of my own tumultuous high school days pop up.

In the mid-‘60s, in my crowd we were so reckless with drinking and driving our cars -- and the daredevil stunts -- it’s hard to believe more of us didn’t get killed in high school.

Still, it was a safer time in some ways, in that hard drugs and weapons were not near the top of the list of risks we routinely faced at school. By the time my daughter, Katey, was in high school guns and harder drugs were much more available to kids. However, one episode from my daughter’s freshman year in high school clearly stands out as a time when something terrible could have happened … but we were lucky in that it didn’t.

Katey went to Open High, here in Richmond, where the students were allowed to take a wide range of classes in locations away from Open’s Jackson Ward location, then at 00 Clay St.

A few blocks from the school’s downtown headquarters, there was a large dilapidated warehouse-like building that was being rented out by the room as cheap art studio space, and whatever…

At this time, I was still somewhat plugged into the artsy night life scene in town. So when colorful stories from the wild parties in the aforementioned old building began to circulate, they easily found their way to my ear.

In the process I discovered that my daughter was involved. When I inquired discreetly about the situation, my attention was soon focused on a group that was congregating in one of the building’s larger rooms. The group called itself a “philosophy club.”

It was headed up by a big-haired character who drove a cab and taught an elective philosophy class at Open High. Actually, the class met regularly in the leader’s bachelor pad in the aforementioned building. From what I could gather, his place had become something of an anytime hangout for a group of teenagers.

In the guru’s view, it appeared there was nothing intrinsically wrong with a middle-aged man seducing 15-year-olds.

To learn more I went to see the principal of Open, ostensibly to ask her some questions about me teaching a film-appreciation class there. During the conversation, I inquired casually about the aforementioned philosophy class.

She became agitated and asked me what I knew about that particular building and the philosophy club. At that point I held back what I had heard. Instead I asked her how much she knew about the club’s leader/teacher.

The disturbing details of what she blurted out next were similar to what I had been told. When I confirmed that I had heard similar rumors she got more upset. She confided that she had already decided that day to pull the plug on the edgy philosophy class at Open.

While that was good news to me, I knew it wouldn’t necessarily stop the kids from hanging out in the old building, behind its locked doors.

I knew I needed to pay a call on the self-styled pedagogue, but that proved harder than it should have been. No one answered the door. So, I left off a message that I wanted to write an article about the club’s good work with alienated teenagers. The guy went for it and called me on the telephone.

We set up a time for me to visit.

The so-called “philosopher” gave me a tour of the huge, dungeon-like space. It had been years since I been inside that building; it struck me as worse looking than I had imagined. He assured me most of the parents of the full members and novices were quite happy with him, because they believed that with his patter he was connecting in a positive way with their hard-to-reach children.

Yes, the youngsters partied sometimes, he admitted with a wee twisted smile. But they were doing so under his enlightened supervision. Plus, the novices were also learning the value of hard work by hauling off tons of the building’s ambient rubble as part of their initiation into the club. He said the Libertarian in him then bartered their labor with the landlord, to pay his rent. That way he could channel more of the money the members raised, through their various projects, to video equipment and other such philosophical tools.

By the time we got back to his desk I had seen plenty and heard enough. No matter how alarmed, or nonchalant, one might have chosen to be about his convenient morality, regarding the corruption of innocence, the building itself was scary as hell.

Yes, that building could easily have served as the setting for a parent’s worst nightmare.

Sensing the time was right, I interrupted his self-serving presentation. Abruptly, my tone changed.

Borrowing from the miles of gangster movie footage I absorbed during my days as manager of the Biograph Theatre, I narrowed my eyes at the startled man the way Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum might look at a traitor.

Then I explained to him that I wasn’t there to bring him trouble over whatever twisted, or illegal, shenanigans had already gone on in there. What I was there to say was that I did not want MY daughter in THAT building again.

Calmly, I said from that moment on, I would hold him personally accountable. He seemed to get my drift. The threat of bodily harm, while not stated, was implied.

Having said my piece, I left before my tough guy impersonation wore too thin. Later that day, I confronted Katey, telling her about my visit with the bogus teacher.

In so many words, I said I had reason to believe the philosophy club’s less-than-perfect master was a garden-variety child molester. A sicko who was using access to drugs and the building’s tomb-like privacy to lure children away from any and all scrutiny.

While Katey objected to a few of my characterizations and interpretations, she couldn’t deny that some of it was true. At the end of our talk, she was told she was forbidden to go in the place again.

Subsequently, when the warehouse fakir told his followers that Katey Rea must be kept out, well, some took it to mean she was a squealer. That became a bigger problem when the school’s principal called the cops a few days later to investigate the whole mess.

Because I had been spotted by club members, when I paid my courtesy call on their leader, they jumped to the conclusion that Katey’s father was the whistle-blower; she was blamed for their trouble. It was mostly a bum rap, but it stuck.

It wasn’t much longer before the philosophy club, itself, was 86ed from the warehouse. The cab-driving guru faded into the mists.

In the short run, Katey paid a bitter price for the clumsy moves I made in my effort to protect her. She endured being ostracized from the supposedly cool kids group for a while. Not easy for a 14-year-old.

Now I know we were all lucky. Some kids may have learned a lesson the hard way, but there were no funerals.

Katey learned a firsthand lesson about the vagaries of cliques -- never again was she a slave to her fear of an in-crowd’s wrath.

When all this went down, I was improvising, doing what my instincts told me was right. But since it caused Katey some trouble, I worried for a while that maybe I should have handled it differently.

Looking back on this story of what didn’t happen, 24 years ago, I'm happy to say to Katey's two children, Emily and Sam, that their Doo-Dah -- my grandfather name -- now has no regrets about this incident whatsoever.

5 comments:

Scott said...

Where is "the warehouse fakir" now?

I am not doubting your story, but I would like to note that Open High is today considered one of the best high school programs in Richmond AND in the nation.

Unfortunately, despite community opposition, it is scheduled to move from its current location in the historic Grace Arents school building in Oregon Hill.

F.T. Rea said...

Scott,

I think he moved the philosophy club into another location, in Jackson Ward, for a short spell, then left town. Don't remember ever hearing about him again.

This piece wasn't intended as an indictment of Open High, and I don't think most people would see it that way. My daughter received a fine education there.

Over the years, Open High must have used a hundred, or more, lay teachers. This weird guy was the only one I ever heard about that was a bad apple.

paul_h said...

I was hoping this would end with a satisfying broken nose, but your way was probably better

HEK said...

Oh, Terry, please don't tell me this might've been who I think it could've been if this warehouse place was the Dairy.

This individual -- the cab driving philosopher -- moved to Northern Virginia, started a cable show where philosophic debates were held, and carved a niche for this kind of thing. He died in 2004.

But I'm hoping it wasn't this guy. This being Richmond, though, I can't help but think it must've been.

F.T. Rea said...

Harry,

Yes, sounds like the same person.