Monday, April 11, 2011

Happy about what didn’t happen

When there’s a tragedy, to do with kids shooting up their schools or getting killed at a wild party, memories of my own free-wheeling high school days pop up. In the mid-‘60s, in my crowd we were so reckless with drinking, fist-fighting and driving cars, it’s hard to believe more of us didn’t meet the grim reaper in high school.

Still, it was a safer time in some ways, in that hard drugs and lethal weapons were not near the top of the list of risks my age group routinely faced in its teenage years. What street drug consumption was going on around Thomas Jefferson High School when I was there was not on my radar. The first time I was offered marijuana was just after high school in the summer of 1966.

By the time my daughter, Katey, was in high school 20-some years later, the culture had changed. Exotic fire arms and all sorts of drugs had become widely available to anyone with the desire to obtain them. Maybe high school is the time when we all learn to deal with danger, however it presents itself, one way or another.

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 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. As Katey received a good education at Open, the reader shouldn't take it that any put-down of the school is intended in this story.

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 had been at some of those parties. 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 certain group of precocious teenagers.

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.

Immediately, she became agitated. She 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.

While that was good news to me, I knew it wouldn’t necessarily stop the kids from hanging out in that crumbling fortress, 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 philosopher-in-chief 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. I wondered how many of them had actually been in the building, but I didn't want to tip my hand too soon.

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, into video equipment and other such philosophical tools. By the time we got back to his desk I had seen plenty and heard enough.

In the guru’s view, it appeared there was nothing intrinsically wrong with a middle-aged man corrupting 15-year-olds in the name of schooling. Beyond that, no matter how alarmed, or not, one might have been about his convenient sense of morality, the building itself was scary as hell.

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 Mitchem might look at a traitor.

Then I explained to him that I wasn’t there to bring him trouble over whatever 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.

Without raising my voice, I said from that moment on, I would hold him -- "personally" -- accountable. Yes, he must have felt that the threat of bodily harm had been implied. I was counting totally on him being a coward, at heart ... I wasn't disappointed.

Satisfied that the speechless philosopher had gotten the message, I got up and left promptly, before my tough guy impersonation wore too thin.

Later that day, I met with Katey to tell her about my visit to the warehouse. In so many words, I said I had good reason to believe the philosophy club’s professor 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 all scrutiny.

While Katey objected to a few of my characterizations and interpretations, she couldn’t deny that some of it was accurate. She was absolutely forbidden to go in the place again. Of course, I knew she could do as she pleased, so I hoped for the best.

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-driver faded into the mists. In the short run, Katey paid a bitter price for the clumsy moves her father made in his effort to protect her. She endured being ostracized from the supposedly cool kids group for a while. Not easy for a 15-year-old.

Now I know we were all lucky. Some of those kids may have learned a lesson the hard way, but there were no funerals I know of. 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 good while that I probably should have handled it differently. Now, looking back over time at this story of what didn’t happen, I've no regrets at all about this incident.

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