Way back in the day, when I was 16, I learned something very important. And I don’t mean how to drive because if you’ve ever been in the car with me you know I was born driving. No, this is the story of my expulsion from high school and my subsequent graduation from the same school and how that led to my realization that adults often don’t know what they’re doing.
It started when I was a mere twig of a girl, just a 15 year old sophomore. My friend Rachel and I were in the library cutting class (cuz that’s where dorks go to cut class) when we came up with the idea. It was simple really: The debate club (which featured a particularly Anthony Michael Hall in 16 Candles type of guy who I’m pretty sure Rachel liked) had a process for writing on legal pads during debates. They called these ‘flow pads’ and Rachel and I thought it would be a great idea if we started a ‘flow book’ for ourselves and anyone else who was interested.
With that goal in mind we set off across the street to Rite Aid to get a notebook and a bunch of sparkly gel pens. We decorated our book and wrote the rules inside the front cover:
1. You must never use your own name. You must always write under a pseudonym. There is no limit to how many pseudonyms you can use in the book.
2. You can’t hang onto the book. You must write and pass it on to another student.
3. This book is a diary. Write anything and everything you are feeling.
4. DO NOT tell anyone your pen names and don’t reveal anyone else’s.
5. Anyone who wants to can be a writer in the book.
Those seem like simple enough rules, right? So what could go wrong?
It was so much fun. I had 7 pseudonyms going, one for virtually any emotion I might want to express. And I was honest. We all pretty much knew who everyone else was; you’d know who gave you the book and that they were the last one to write in it. Matt Davenport was a fantastic artist and his entries always had amazing drawings. My entries were always in funky ink colors. Even though I tried to use different handwriting for each of my alter egos, I was pretty much the only one who did the funky colors thing. And Amy Atwell could be counted on to rant about the school’s administration and how she wanted to cut them up and put their pieces in her locker.
No one took any of it too seriously, we were just having a good time. The book became a sought after commodity and for a fairly shy and nerdy kid like me it felt great to be the creator of something that was in demand by every demographic of the school’s society. The number of writers grew so large that you might have to ask around all day to find out who had the book.
Then one day Rachel left the book behind in her french class. Her teacher read it and took it to the Principal’s office and that’s when things got out of hand.
Rachel was called in to the principal’s office where she promptly pulled the singing canary act and named the name of every single student who’d so much as touched the book. As co-founder that led to me being called into the office.
Amy got called in too. And it was what she wrote that really set the administration off. They didn’t take well to being told that their work overseeing the students was not being done to a satisfactory degree.
All of this happened before it was trendy to shoot up your high school and if anyone ever laid eyes on tiny, pale, 48 pound Amy they’d never believe she could harm a fly.
The crazy train had left the station, though, and we were all on board. The administration decided that several of us should be expelled and that everyone who set pen to paper in that book should be suspended. Parents were up in arms; they didn’t see what was so bad about what we did. Then the local news got wind of it and everyone in the not so small town of Reno knew our business.
4 of us ended up getting expelled; Rachel, me, Amy and one other girl, Heather. I honestly can’t remember why Heather was included. Maybe she used the sailor mouth brand of language that I was fond of at the time (and that I still favor). Rachel and I were out because we started it all. I don’t think I have to tell you why they wanted Amy out.
My mom runs a before and after school program in 3 elementary schools in Reno. Back then she was only in one school but she was a big social networker before we did that online and she was terrified of how my expulsion was going to affect her business. I really felt bad about that, but to be honest I wasn’t really ashamed of what I had done. I felt kind of… rebellious and awesome.
When I got to McQueen High School, the school that took me in, I was an instant celebrity (man, I hope that wasn’t my 15 minutes). Because my story had been on the news every high school in the Reno/Sparks/Carson City area had Flow Books springing up like weeds in an unkempt driveway. And everyone at McQueen High School wanted me to write in their books. But I’d promised my mom I wouldn’t and I didn’t. Well, I might have written in one but that’s it. Maybe two. But not consistently.
I was at McQueen for a year, experiencing life as a Person Who Fits In, and enjoying it. Then, one cold winter morning on my drive to school, I hit a patch of black ice and lost control, getting hit twice by an oncoming truck. My parents’ car was totaled and I had no way to get to school.
After our expulsion Heather had filed a lawsuit against the Reno High School administration and while that case wouldn’t be decided (in our favor) until we were 21, the feeling of the school board and the community was that it was wrong for the administration to have expelled us.
And so, a year after I left the school in a hail of controversy I came back, very very quietly. My first day back I was called in to the Principal’s office and I could feel the waves of hate for me emanating from him. He told me that he was watching me and that he hoped I was going to be on my best behavior. I promised. He told me not to talk about what had happened and if someone should ask me to write in a book I was to refuse. I promised.
And that was when I realized that adults don’t have all the answers and don’t always know what they’re doing. What a scary lesson for a teenager, because if they don’t know what they’re doing then I won’t know what I’m doing when I’m an adult. And I don’t. Like everyone else, I do the best I can and hope that I’m making the right decisions. And it’s not so bad. Just like having all the answers to a quiz takes all the tension out of passing a class, it also takes away the sense of accomplishment that you’ll have when you pass it on your own.
And that’s the point of this whole story: just a reminder that no one knows what they’re doing and we are all doing the best we can. And, of course, a reminder that sometimes the rebellious kids aren’t wrong, they just want to be heard. I mean, that’s the cornerstone of all the great teenage movies of the 80’s and 90’s and it’s an important lesson we shouldn’t forget as we get set in our adult ways.