As I was driving along I-95 last month, I saw a clean-up crew dressed in orange jump suits working off their community service by collecting trash along the highway. As I drove past the gaggle of orange jumpsuits, I locked eyes with a young man in his late teens who had looked up to stare at the cars driving past him and something in his vacant glare struck me to the core…
As a sophomore in high school, my life changed drastically and I found myself at a crossroads. My mother had passed away and as the final months of the school year were ending, I had to prepare to move to a new town. Prep School and I were like oil and water, so my lack of friends was evident as I tried diligently to change my circumstances. So I started hanging out with a new group of friends.
Things were going well at first. I stepped away from my unique style in order to become one of the crowd and for the first time, I was finally playing by the rules. It was uncharted waters for me but it gave me a place to feel grounded while I juggled my changing landscape. And, I finally had a core set of friends.
One night, my friends and I decided to go on a pizza run. Ordering food and having it delivered at our school was against the rules. So the idea of ordering pizza brought along a new set of challenges. Pizza runs had become missions. If we got caught, we would be punished, we would lose money and there was always a lot of ridicule at the hands of our friends. A successful pizza run meant an after hours party in the dorm.
So we met in one of the rooms and put together the order. When it came time for people to put money in the hat, a new idea emerged. The game plan was to pay him with a check and cancel the check. That is when my new friends decided that the check should be written off of my account. I was caught between a rock and a hard place. I knew I should have declined and walked away from the scheme, but I didn’t. Things were finally looking up for me and I didn’t want that to change, so I said, “What the hell?! Let’s do it.”
We placed the call and set the time for the delivery. Because it was my check, I was one of the two people who “volunteered” to meet the driver at the football field. Once another volunteer was selected, we snuck out of the dorm and made it to the football field rather easily. But that was the case with pizza runs; we always made it to the rendezvous point with ease. Seniors always waited until after the food had been purchased so that when they busted you on the way back to the dorm, they not only punished you for being out after curfew but they kept the food for themselves.
As we waited for the pizza guy to show up, my nerves started to get the best of me and I had that feeling that something was wrong. I suggested that we abort the mission but as we discussed our options, the delivery guy pulled up to the meeting place. It was too late to turn back.
We quickly ran up to the window of the car and handed over the check. We loaded sodas and subs into our backpacks. We were methodical as we made the exchange of money and goods by the side of the desolate country road. Once we confirmed we had everything, the delivery car sped away and we quickly made a run for the tree line near our end of the football field. Out of the corner of my eye, though, I spotted flashlights heading in our direction from the other end of the field.
“S**T!” I said. “We’ve been spotted.”
“I haven’t been on this run before, what’s the escape plan?!” my friend asked.
My father was an alumnus of the school and had taken my brother and I camping near campus when we were kids, so I knew a few of the trails that led back past the pond, through the woods to the lower fields and back to our dorm. So I grabbed his arm and said, “Follow me” as the seniors were quickly advancing in our direction.
We hid in a thick patch of thorn bushes about twenty feet past the tree line as the seniors scoured the area looking for us. A couple of times they stood within feet of the bush we were hiding in. As they discussed where we had gone, we stayed low to the ground and slowed our breathing as our hearts raced. Trickles of blood slowly ran down our faces from running into the thorn bush to hide.
After what seemed like an eternity, the seniors gave up looking for us. We waited even longer before we ventured out of our hiding place. When we were sure the coast was clear, we started to make our way to the old trail that would bypass the main road back to the dorms. It was the long way home but with each step, my confidence grew. Escaping the ambush at the point of pick up greatly increased the odds of a successful mission.
It took a while to traverse the old trails but when we made it to the barn; the dorm was within sight. As we looked around for signs of seniors, we decided to split the order in half and take different routes back to the dorm. Half a run was better than no run at all.
Adrenalin was coursing through our veins, when we made our final dash back towards the dorm. But as we left the barn, flashlights lit up the night sky near the nurse’s house and a pack of seniors started running in our direction. We were busted!
We immediately retreated to the barn. “Now what?” my friend asked.
And with about thirty seconds to spare before capture, we looked for a way to escape but there was none. We hid as well as we could but there was no way to avoid being caught. We handed over our goods and were escorted back to our dorm by the seniors who had busted us. Fifteen minutes after we were back, everyone in my dorm flocked to my room to hear what had happened. My friend and I had both had been served with ten hours of service and would be spending the next couple of Sundays working them off.
The following Monday morning, I called my bank and cancelled the check.
A couple of weeks later, I was summoned to the Headmaster’s Office. I was sitting in a chair across from his desk when he walked in and I could tell that the conversation was not going to go well for me. As I sat there staring back at him, goose bumps popped up all over my body and my mouth went dry. A sheer panic went up my spine.
“Would you care to explain this to me, Mr. Veeder?” he asked as he laid my cancelled check across his desk in front of me.
My heart sunk. After a very long silence, I said, “To be honest, sir, I wouldn’t.”
“I had a very irate owner of the local pizza place in my office earlier today. He won’t press charges if this check is paid in full plus fees. I don’t think you ordered one hundred and twenty-five dollars of food for yourself, did you?”
“No sir, I didn’t.”
The Headmaster explained to me that he would like me to share with him the names of the other students involved. He also wanted me to rectify the bill. After a long conversation, I refused to provide names but I told him that I could have the money in a couple of hours. I was given a few hours to collect the money and reconsider my decision not too name the people involved.
I went back to my friends and asked them for their help. None of them knew what I was talking about. They weren’t a part of any plan to stiff the pizza man. As I knocked on each door and asked them to help me pay off the debt, reality began to sink in. I was on my own. This was my problem.
As I headed back to the Headmaster’s office, I realized that I was the stooge, the loser in the group. In other words, I was a chump. When I came to my crossroads, I thought I could change my stripes but a lesson in reality brought the entire charade crashing down on top of me. And as I walked the long solitary pathway toward the Headmaster’s office, I was faced with a few decisions as to how I would proceed.
I sat fearfully in his office and explained that I didn’t have the money to cover the debt. I was going to have to call my father. I also held firm and wouldn’t tell him who was involved. I may have been a loser, a stooge and a chump but I wasn’t going to sacrifice my principles. My friends may have turned on me but I wasn’t willing to turn on them in the process. I had made the decisions that caused me to be in the predicament I was in and I was willing to face my punishment like a man.
And I did. I was placed on probation. I was given multiple hours of community service and I was placed on campus restrictions. My father was called and when I spoke to him, he was angry and rightfully so. And he had more punishments to pass along as well. But the biggest punishment I received that day was the loss of My Father’s and the Headmaster’s trust and respect. Regaining their trust and respect was more important than anything else.
As I unlocked my split second gaze with that young man working in an orange jump suit along I-95, a chill ran down my spine. I could tell that there were others that belonged along the side of the road with him. I had been in his shoes many years before as I watched my friends walk by me as I served out my sentence every Sunday. But as I learned, I probably wasn’t their friend in the first place. I was the loser and I wore that “L” with pride over the rest of my high school career because it reminded me of the important lesson I had learned; be true to who I am. Remain true to my unique style and things would work out.