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  • When I look back on all the crap I learned in high school
    It’s a wonder I can think at all
    Although my lack of education hasn’t hurt me none
    I can read the writing on the wall

    - Paul Simon, “Kodachrome”
    The song quoted above came out in my senior year of high school. The time I first heard it, I couldn’t have agreed more. Twelve years of formal eduction, eleven of which had been in the Catholic School system, and while I would come to appreciate a lot of the basics that I learned through that system that served me well in the future, compared to what a lot of people I’d work with got in the public school systems, I had not met one single teacher who inspired me to learn. Not one. I was about to meet one, in fact within a week of first hearing that song, I met the teacher who completely changed my life.

    His name was Henry David Thoreau. Yes, that one – the Walden Pond dude. The non-conformist. The one who the hippies of the 60’s had adopted as an Icon for turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. He’d done it 130 years earlier, only in his case, he’d tuned in and turned on to nature, while dropping out of society for awhile to live on the pond and write about it.

    I will be forever grateful to the teacher who introduced us. We had just moved to Connecticut from Pittsburgh. I had 3 months left in my senior year of high school. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to be able to graduate. I was determined to do everything I could, here in the 11th hour of my education, to not have to go to summer school. I needed a degree so I could join the Navy when I turned 18, which wouldn’t be until that November.

    My high school career had been a downhill slide. Freshman year, I had applied myself diligently and pulled down good marks, like I always had up to that point, but I dearly hated the all-boys Catholic High School that I felt imprisoned in. It was somebody’s idea of a cruel joke. Just when I had started to work up the courage to talk to girls, and had had a lovely summer between 8th Grade and Freshman year wooing Clare Tepe, my crush who lived across the street and with whom I’d had this shy dance going on for several years with each other, and finally, finally that summer, I had worked up the courage to walk across the street and ask for Clare, not her brother. (I’d been feigning friendship with Jack for years, just to be close to Clare).
  • That summer, we sat on her front porch swing, held hands, took quiet walks down the tree lined, red-bricked street that separated our houses, hand in hand, went swimming down at Moore Pool together, and it was clear that we liked each other. Then, high school started.

    She went to the all-girls Catholic High School a mile away in one direction, while I went to the all-boys Catholic High School two miles in the other direction. And never the twain shall meet. She dove in headfirst, got involved in everything and never had time to hang out, anymore. She was loving her experience.

    I dove headfirst into a mild depression, hating every minute of being surrounded by nothing but other boys all day long, and teachers who all were either total pricks (our word for them in Pittsburgh was “Jagoffs”), or so tired, old and bored they’d fall asleep in the middle of class (Brother Flavian was famous for this). A less inspiring educational environment you couldn’t conjure up. I quickly felt like I was not in the same league with Clare, and I withdrew into my bashful shell whenever I was around her, or other girls.

    Man, I hated everything about high school for the next 3 years. I have not one, single fond memory of that school. Not one. But, my 4 older brothers had all gone there, 3 having graduated and gone on to college, the 4th was two grades ahead of me, so I just always assumed that it was expected that I follow suit. An unspoken expectation.

    What “saved” me from my educational hell was booze and drugs. I discovered the wonders of getting drunk and high in the middle of my Sophomore year, and from that point on, I just didn’t give a rat’s ass about education. I had a good job in a restaurant, I’d ditched my nasty jock friends, for whom I was their favorite scapegoat, for friends I’d made at the restaurant, and began my education in the real world. In school, they played a lot of silly games and teachers were snarky and cruel and taught through fear tactics. I wanted none of it. I stayed the course, and pulled down grades just good enough to get through, as all I wanted was that piece of paper at the end of it all, that diploma. I knew that was important for my future, so that’s all I cared about. Other than that, I hung out with my new friends, and had a good time.

    I finally worked up the courage to bail on the Catholic High School for my senior year. When I told Mom and Dad my plan, they both agreed and thought it was a good idea. They could see how I was struggling at the Catholic School, and I had not needed to convince them – they went right along with it. When Dad got transferred to the Home Office in Hartford, Connecticut and had to move up that March, the plan was for me to stay behind and finish up school in Pittsburgh. I threw a big Keg Party at my house one Saturday night while they were out playing bridge, and 125 kids showed up. We had a big house, 13 rooms, but they were in each and every one of them, and it became my farewell party. My parents wanted me to move to Connecticut with them, certain I wasn’t ready to be on my own yet, after pulling a stunt like that.
  • And, that’s how I came to meet Henry David Thoreau. My new English teacher at Windsor High had us read a one act play, “The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail”. Then, we talked about it in class. I was immediately taken by the way he treated us like people, not like “students”. We had a discussion about the play, and it was a real, honest discussion, not him playing a game of “gotcha”, to find out who did or didn’t read it. He treated us like adults. I loved this guy! He brought that play, and Thoreau, to life for me. He recommended going up to Walden Pond, which was only an hour and a half drive away from Windsor or something like that, and the next week, I talked my Mom and brother and sister in going up there with me. There, I met the man. I walked in his shoes. The entire day we were there, I felt his presence, and I felt like he was speaking to me. No, I wasn’t hearing voices or anything like that. He just touched me. I got him. I went and looked at his mentor’s place, Ralph Waldo Emerson, where he had worked as his gardener and tutored his children. A whole world of intellect that I had done my level best to avoid and ignore for 12 years, suddenly opened up to me, and I just walked into it, like a kid in a candy shop, and looked around, in total awe of that world. “This is what I’ve been missing? Why didn’t anyone ever tell me this place was so, so freaking cool? They were all too busy scaring me into making good grades, passing this test and answering those questions. This is amazing!”

    I never looked back. I have been in love with learning from that day to this, and I give all the credit for this change in my mental outlook to that teacher, who took the time to explain a few things to us, and who treated us as equals – and, to Henry David Thoreau, who I feel took me by the hand and led me into a world of wonder that I have lived in ever since. Although I only visited Walden Pond that one time, spent that one day there, I have been walking in those woods, and fishing in that pond, mentally, ever since that day.

    Later, I would have another soul-opening experience with his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson – but, that’s another story.
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