Where Were You While We Were Getting High

the pond at phillips exeter academy


It was really no surprise when things didn’t work out. If you’d had been able to interview John’s school advisor, Miss Keenless, you might have gotten a clue that his support system while attending the best prep school in the nation was lacking, to say the least. And a few minutes with the school “psychologist” would’ve convinced you that this school had hired a cheerful but slow gentleman for the position. In fact, it was the headmaster that was to blame for the strict discipline and intolerance for anything resembling good high school fun. In fact, it was the first and only infraction for all three of the young men who were expelled just two weeks before the end of the school year.

For John, the experience would prove all but insurmountable. As a freshman at his dream academy, he had worked his ass off to stay in school, to catch up in Spanish class (1st semester, second time around, he’d failed 1st semester in the first fall, thinking his brain was simply not powerful enough to get English out of the way.)

As John would write later in his memoir, “I was always trying to capture my life in journals and short stories. Of course, the little kid in the stories was always me and the situation usually transformed into science fiction or a thriller.” As he would’ve told you at the time, in his optimistic fashion, just days before the event, “I’m not as smart as these kids, but what I don’t have in horsepower I make up for with optimism and hard work.” Except he wasn’t really a hard worker in anything but reading and writing.

And the summer after he was expelled his mom made him take a full month of Spanish lessons from a young man who was a graduate student at the university, named Angel Jesus del Gado Gomez. He was from Spain, not Mexico, but he did not speak Catalan. He spoke plain academic Spanish.

That summer John would invite Angel to go waterskiing for the first time in his life, and he would almost lose one of his testicles in a freak accident involving the words, “Hit it” and a ski rope that he pulled too tightly against his crotch.


To be quite honest there’s a lot of this story I’d like to leave out. I’d like to tell you I got the girl and saved my dad, but that’s not how it happened. My care team says it would help if I’d journal about the whole thing, and not leave anything out. And I’ve just about given up on everything else, so I’m willing to give this try.

First off, I can tell you the meds aren’t like anti-depressants as much as anti-sleep pills. See, when you’re depressed all you want to do is sleep. All they want to do in the hospital is make you stay awake all the time and go to group, and art therapy, and walk around and shit. And to tell you what I know thus far, they’re pretty right about that. On the days when I stayed in, acted sick or something, I was more miserable than the days I spent on the out and about in the hospital, doing the routine, trying to convince the nurses and the doctor, the goddamn all-mighty Doctor White. What a fucking name. The guy was a Freudian. “So how does that make you feel? Do you want to tell me about your Father? Tell me more about those tears.”

“Um, hell no, my father’s part of the reason I’m in this nut bin. I’d rather not talk about him at all, but that’s part of the problem as well. It seems when you grow up with an angry alcoholic dad, you also grow up not knowing that anger is okay. See, as a kid, anger with my dad meant screaming and someone usually getting hit. And then more screaming and eventually crying, everybody except my dad, crying. That’s the only thing that made it stop, my dad’s rage. It was as if he felt a moment of sadness at our crying. Once the blood was shed, the shit usually quieted down. Or he left the house with a door slam and squealing tires of some fancy-ass car.

I know I’m getting way ahead of the story here, so let me back up a bit and tell you, this is about a young guy, getting to try his luck at prep school. Yes, I got in. Yes, I accepted. And yes, it was a kind of escape from my fucked up family scene. My parents divorced a long time ago. But my dad (well dads, you know how they are, you can’t quite get a different one if yours sucks, you have to figure out how to make due) was a real bastard. We had to make peace or die. Or, as my mom understood about me, get the hell out of dodge.

My mom is the hero in this epic tale. She’s the one who saw the damage my dad’s influence was having on me. He was a raving lunatic. So much so that I never let him drive me home. My mom dropped me off and picked me back up. But again, this isn’t about all that stuff that happened before school. This is specifically about my first year at school. Well, almost a year… Again, let me back up for a second and give this thing a proper intro scene.

I’ve been trying to put it into a movie script, maybe I can start there.

I’m happy as fuck and excited and scared all at the same time. I arrive at Boston’s Logan Airport like Huck Finn. I’m carrying a huge bag, before rollers (oh, yeah, this is a period piece, sorry, I forgot to mention, this happened in the great late ’70s. [queue The Day of the Eagle by Robin Trower.])

Now if you can imagine me like a fish out of water (That’s what they called freshmen, “fish.”) navigating Logan with my huge duffle bag and my sister’s old-ass snow skis. I was sure I was going to be skiing all the time, so it made me feel kind of sophisticated bringing them. I think it was a bit more like Don Quixote and his windmills, but we’ll go with the image for now–the opening scene they call it. So damn happy to find the chartered bus and get my seat. I forgot all about the skis and the damn bag for the hour wait and the hour to the campus. The school is in Exeter, New Hampshire.

And before I know it, I’m slogging my skis half a mile across campus to Merrill Hall and my first-floor corner room with my soon-to-be best friend, Dwight Martin, who was wearing his best Mott the Hoople look when I arrived all ass-akimbo into our room. He’d already grabbed the bottom bunk, so I was on top. And that’s it. Like, in the first five minutes, we’re best friends. After about 30 minutes of moving shit around and chatting our heads off, we head out and start throwing the football. Neither of us were jock enough to make the football team, but we were still football players.

I dreamed about playing on the football team, but I was not completely well. I was recovering from a pretty serious bout of mono. I was still having the blood draws and all that medical shit the week before I left Austin. Something about the mono had enlarged my spleen. Nothing to be overly concerned about, just a note, I was not 100% myself at the start of this journey. I was pretty low, actually, I just didn’t know it at the time. The excitement of the new school and the distance between my father’s rage and my dorm room kept the blues away, for a few weeks anyway.

Sorry, where were we? Oh yeah, best buds and roommate introductions. He was really into Alice Cooper’s music, and Mott the Hoople, and Zepplin, and The Dead. And I was with him on all of them but The Dead. Again, sorry, I’m off track. Let’s reset.

So, I start this, my first prep school experience at 14, feeling about 65 percent well. The one thing I’ve got going for me, besides the enthusiasm, is my new friend and all-around champion, Dwight. We made a pact, probably that first day, “We’re gonna kick ass at this school, and we’re gonna do it together.” See, really, we were both scared as shit of the academics and the grind of being away from our friends and families. It was great and horrible at the same time. But we had each other’s companionship, no matter what prep life threw at us.

And back at home, I was just glad to be out of the shit storm with my dad. He had married another alcoholic, see, and that’s really a big part of my problem. With my mom, my dad held back a bit. With his new wife (I never called her stepmom.) it was k-d-bar-the-door. From what I saw later in this story there were no limits. The whiskey was delivered weekly in boxes. One for him, Cutty Sark, one for her, no idea what she drank. The idea of them… Again, that’s going to come later, in the third book.


And so there was all this new stuff about prep school and being away from your family and all. We had to wear a coat and tie to breakfast, for Christ’s sake. That was a trip. Oh, and the fact that Dwight taught me how to drink coffee that first week. It was awful, but the kick was outrageous. So we put on our coats and ties and “went down” to breakfast every morning and got jolted up on Folders.

Actually, I was getting off to a rocky start in Spanish and doing really well in English. Even though I was from Texas, Spanish was kicking my ass. And Mr. Hectaño was no help. He was this puffy-chested little Catalonian man with a very thick, “th” accent, if you know what I mean. In his type of Spanish, and this was what he taught, the “t” sound was often pronounced “th.” He sort of spit at us when he spoke in his happy and boisterous way.

But it wasn’t his joyous teaching that was the issue, or the “th” sound, it was the fucking foreign language cluster fuck. I just could not get it. It felt as if something wasn’t working with my brain when I was in Spanish class. But it was just hard. And the school overall was really hard. I mean, I’ve been to a semester of community college as I’m writing this, and by my measure prep school is way harder than college.

Oh, sorry, I’m sort of breaking the fourth wall there. But I’m just reminding you of my actual life, now, here, in the hospital. Dr. White asked me about my dad again, and that got me thinking about him. I’m going to try and talk about him a bit later, but at this point, he was really a zero. No contact. He was pissed that I had left town. He wasn’t happy about it. But I don’t really remember having any contact with him until that Christmas when I went home for break.

So Spanish was kicking my ass and making me feel pretty damn stupid. But the English teacher, Mr. Pierce, was exactly the opposite. My first short story for his class was about my crazy fish tank and the two goldfish, Wilma and Fred. They have this great little life, in the story… In my room, they’re in this tiny little bowl, with no air pump or anything. Nice neon orange gravel that really showed their little poops.

In my short story, they have this whole life where Fred goes to work at the factory, and Wilma is a housewife, but here’s the twist. She’s the alcoholic. A fuckin fish. I thought it was so funny. I should go find that story and put it in here, it’s really pretty good. Mr. Pierce sort of went crazy on it, telling me I should consider being a writer. I don’t know if I should love the guy for that or hate him for that. I mean, writers don’t make any damn money. Everybody knows that. And I don’t want to be a fuckin loser English teacher or something. Oh, wait, sorry Mr. Pierce. You were awesome.

And so my life in spades is English and Spanish at the opposite ends of Heaven and Hell. And I was not able to make the tennis or football teams even though I was plenty good, the damn school physician advised against it. No extracurricular sports, just SPAZ. That’s what we called freshmen PE, spaz. It was actually pretty cool. In SPAZ you got to try every single fucking sport ever invented. Even girl sports like field hockey and macho-manly stuff like wrestling. We even learned to play squash, sort of a cross between tennis and racketball.

See the Winters up in New Hampshire are cold as shit. And this Winter came on like an el Niño or something. The entire campus kept getting shut down by the snow. Like the whole city would be shut down, and we preps would still be slipping along the narrow paths between the snowbanks to class. You’d think they’d give us a damn snow day or something. But no. Just class after class after class.

I sort of got into squash. Mom gave me money for a racket and Dwight and I started playing. We weren’t very good, but we had both been tennis players before, so we had fun. I liked water polo and soccer too when we played them.

So that was sort of my life for the first few months. Spanish = crying and trying not to freak out at Mr. Catalonia. Mostly trying not to lose my shit that my mind wasn’t capable of learning a new language. I liked to say I was barely getting a handle on my native tongue. And English was going pretty well. My second story for Mr. Pierce was about a little sister who goes off and thinks about killing herself while playing with her Ken and Barbie playhouse. Something about the red sports car that she kept to driving too fast and flying off the road into a ditch. (That’s sort of my brother’s story, again, not part of this book.)

I don’t know what kind of psychological bs that contained, but Mr. Pierce was a little less enthusiastic about that one. He liked it, and I could tell he liked me, but that one might have been too over the top. Like I shouldn’t have had a little kid thinking about driving off a cliff into the ocean or something. Or maybe he was seeing the foreshadowing. Like I was the little girl, or maybe Ken watching his girlfriend sail off into oblivion.

I think my other classes were like math of some kind, history (no idea what we studied) and science. But only the two bookends made any lasting impression on me. That and playing squash about every damn day right between dinner and study period with Dwight. I wouldn’t say we got good, we didn’t. But we had fun. And it was part of our pact. To keep physically fit and mentally strong, we said. Something like that. I can’t remember every detail. I think the meds here keep me a bit foggy to tell you the truth. But it was a pretty mixed semester before Christmas break.

By the way, it takes me forever to write this shit. I know it looks like all of about 5 pages or something, but it’s been about three weeks since I started writing. Dr. White read my pages, frowned at the part about him, and then did something very uncharacteristic. “Mr. Paige, I believe this is good therapy for you.” He complimented me. “I want to you free up more of your time on this project, let your mind reel, let go. Don’t hold back. I think we might really get somewhere if you keep with the journaling.” Well, it just about made me puke and feel proud all at the same time. And really not want to show Dr. White anything I wrote ever again. “Your English teacher was right, you have a gift.” He looked so snide over the top of his “cheaters” looking at me with that smile. I don’t believe him for a second. Because this week he also said something that scared the shit out of me.

“Mr. Paige, if your mom succeeds in getting you released from the hospital I believe it will result in one of two things, both of which do not work out well for you. Either you will kill yourself, or be back in the hospital in a year. You’re simply not ready to be out there again.”

All that and he’s telling me what a fucking brilliant writer I am. He’s a hypocrite. And his psychology is about 50 years behind the times.

Anyway, Dr. White and I stare at each other once a day for an hour. It’s really a horror show. About the only good thing about therapy is I get to walk across the campus (that’s what they call the big-ass hospital outside of Boston, the campus) by myself. Dr. White did clear me for “grounds” before my mom started trying to get me back out of this place. She says they just want to bill our insurance company and that I shouldn’t even be in here.

I don’t know. I’m not feeling all that okay, but I’m not feeling all together batshit crazy either. I mean, I’m doing this, I’m telling my story in complete fucking sentences and shit. How crazy could that be? I mean, yes, crazy shit happened, and I was pretty damn depressed at the end of it all, but suicide? Not my bag. Not my MO at all. Dr. White was trying to scare me. Well, it fucking worked.

Just now, I was walking back from my session and I stopped to sit under a tree. I was poking this huge ant bed with a stick and I just started balling out of nowhere. Crying like a little baby. And it wasn’t because he was telling me I’d be dead and shit, no I was crying because of my fucking dad. He doesn’t make it in the story and all.

Shit. Sorry. I mean, he doesn’t die or anything, not in my story. I mean, he’s dead now and all, and that was hard as shit a few years ago, but it was something about him that really got me balling when the damn doctor said that shit to me up in Boston.

“How does that make you feel,” he said over and over like a damn religious mantra. “How do you feel? Tell me where your mom was while all this was going on? And your dad, do you still love him?” He was a master at pushing buttons until a guy freaked out or got mad or started crying. I wasn’t going to give him that pleasure.

But something about the ants and the heat of the day and it was afternoon and I didn’t have much for lunch, and boom I’m crying my ass off like a little kid. Well, after that I really didn’t want to go back on the ward. I wanted to jump the gate and walk the fuck out of the place.

Of course, that wasn’t going to work out so well either. Kids tried it and were always put in solitary for days after they were found and dragged back in. Drugged into horse-looking mutherfuckers, too. Stelazine, I think they called the real heavy meds. I wasn’t going to give Dr. White that statistic for his chart, and I sure as shit wasn’t going to be a suicide statistic. But the short story, that I him told about, something in that story started the cogs rotating in Dr. White’s little Freudian brain. I could almost see his eyes glaze over as he started calculating the data.

He was like that, snide, analytical, and always looking at me over those fucking glasses. I’m sorry, I’m still a bit upset. I mean that was just about an hour ago, with the ants and the crying and fucking Dr. White telling me I was going to kill myself if I left his care.

Yeah? Yeah! Tell me, Dr. White, how’s that fit into Dr. Freud’s theory? I read some Freud. I got into some of his actual writings and I don’t recall him ever telling a patient that they might commit suicide if they left his care. He was a weird mutherfucker, but he’d never do that. So, Dr. White was a particular mutherfucker. And one that had his boot on my proverbial neck here in this great state of Massachusetts.

Sorry, I’m rambling. I should get back to the story I was supposed to be telling. Then I’m going to hide this fucking journal, cause I’m sure not going to give Dr. White more material for his charts.

I did have a conversation with my dad about the prep school the summer before I got in. I was at the beach with him and his wife and my mom called to tell me I’d gotten accepted. My dad was furious. He was also drinking quite a bit. He said a few things like, “When am I going to get to see you when you move way up there?” I don’t think that’s what he cared about. I think he was feeling sorry for himself and drinking alone in the dark. I went to sleep with him still grumbling in the living room. About 3 in the morning he woke me up.

“What the hell is this school all about?”


“I mean, I’ve asked you to come live with me. What more can I do? And you’re going to move away so I don’t get to see you?”

“Can we not get into this right now, Dad, I’m sleeping.”

“Sleeping my ass! I want you to tell me!”

“Tell you what, Dad?”

“Why you don’t want to live with me and SAM?” (That’s what he called his wife, those were her initials.)

“Dad, this school is my dream.”

“That’s not my question.”

“Dad, I’m going to this school so I can get into a great college.”

“College? You can get into college from here!”

“It’s a great opportunity, Dad.”

“You don’t love me.”

“That’s not it, Dad, you know that’s not it.”

And that’s when he kicked me in the thigh. I sort of bounced off the refrigerator at that point.

“You don’t want to live with me, fine, but I’m not going to pay for some fancy school up East, just so your mom can get you away from me.”

“It’s not about mom.”

“What did you say?” He was fuming.

“It’s not about my mom. It’s about you.”

“What about me? What the hell about me?”

“Dad, this is not a good time to talk. I can tell you’ve been drinking…”

“So what, you tell me, what that bitch put into your head?”

“I’ve just gotten accepted into the best prep school in the country and your yelling at me.”

And that about did it. He got sort of morose at that point. Just snapped shut, as if he’d been shut down. He slammed the door to my bedroom but was quiet for the rest of the night. The next day I took a Greyhound bus back home. I had no desire to spend the rest of my vacation at the beach with him and his wife.

But since I’d been at school, he wasn’t talking to me. I sent him a letter telling him I would be home for Christmas break, but I never heard anything from him. And I sure as shit didn’t call to say hello.

Those are the kind of things you try to forget about, not mull over and over. But I’m pretty sure I was sad about that interaction the whole semester. I mean, I wanted him to be proud, excited, happy for me. Instead, he got drunk and kicked me into the fridge. That’s pretty fucked up. Even Dr. White would see that. But of course, he’s not getting anywhere near this journal again.

So now I’m going to tell you about the girl. She was the daughter of some movie actor, and she was different from any girl I’d ever met. She was way smarter than me, and she liked to talk about literature and science and shit. And she wore corduroy. Lots of Winter tones in corduroy.

The Dream Academy > next | index

Spread the love