The Truth of How I Graduated High School

I barely graduated from high school.

It didn’t help that I skipped classes all the time. Why did I skip school so much? Well, I’m tempted to say something dramatic and existential, like: school is an absurd cult where well-intentioned teachers become the prophets and priests of an unpleasing religion, or that school is a propaganda factory where young boys and girls are slowly eroded into productivity robots.

The TRUTH, though, is that I was an apathetic, distracted, unstable punk with a heavy heart and poor focus — a young sociopath, really, too stupid to see any real benefit in learning about the Pythagorean Theorem or about the Battle of Wounded Knee.

I loved skipping school. To a boy in his teens, skipping school is one way to get close to heaven. As you exit the school parking lot you enter a euphoric leisure, into a parallel dimension floating just above those still on earth, those still stuck in the carnival of monotony and obligation. Here, in this liberated land, you can read your own books, do your own research, and think your own thoughts. Did you know that the Old Testament word ‘prosperity’ translates literally as ‘leisure’?

My final semester of my senior year was the best. By skipping only one class (Beginners Weightlifting) I was able to get 3 hours off every day. How? My weightlifting class was wedged between study hall and lunch. It was a beautiful situation that I fully capitalized on. I went to the first day of Beginner’s Weightlifting, then never returned.

It all came crashing down on me, later that semester, though. On graduation day we had morning ceremony rehearsals at 9am. By 10am it was already approaching 100 degrees, and the black robes turned us all into bipedal saunas.

My own discomfort was amplified by my fear of seeing my report card. Many of my peers already had theirs, and I was anxious to get mine.

“Hey, where did you get that,” I asked.
“Over there at that table.”

There was a table under the cool shade of the bleachers where volunteers were handing out envelopes. People were moving all around me with shouts and cheers and hugs and laughs. I floated through the crowd in a numb trance. My problem was obvious. I had a 1.3 grade point average. That means my average grade in high school was a “D.”

D for Dread. 
D for Dumb. 
D for Dan.

And, I needed to pass ALL my classes in order to graduate — including weightlifting (a class which I had skipped all year). The lady at the table looked at me. She was the “grade-giver,” the “envelope passer of the highest degree,” and she asked for my name.

I must’ve told her my name because she handed me my envelope, and I exhaled for the last time. I massaged the envelope, the “report card,” between my fingers for a time, dilly-dallying, trying to shrink the moment. Trying to tame the roaring anxiety. “My academic outcome document,” I said sarcastically in my mind, trying to minimize it all through sarcasm. “My carbon-copied adequacy statement.”

When I tore it open a bright red “F” floated out and levitated in front of me, then began draining the vitality from my spirit. I stood there like a speed bump as the more-adequate-masses rushed all around me.

Brian on his motorcycle

“There you are,” said my friend Brian. “I was looking all over for you. Did you get your grades?”
I rotated my devastated self to face him.
“Oh. Not good, huh? You gonna graduate?”

I had this sense that if I spoke any words I would start crying, so I just shrugged.

Brian was already trying to cheer me up. He said, “Hey we got like 5 hours until the ceremony. Let’s go out to Prior Lake. See if we can find Dougie and do a little water skiing. Cool off.”

My robe was clinging to my sweating chest so I pulled on it to create some airflow, which didn’t help much.

Brian nudged my shoulder. “Prior Lake, buddy. Come on.”

Dougie was our manager at the bowling alley. He mostly worked evening shifts and spent most of his daytime hours on his boat on Prior Lake. He always had various cocktail waitresses and bartenders out there with him, and he really knew how to foster a good time. I nodded. “Let’s go.”

Brian laughed. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

Looking back on it now, it is creepy how happy Brian was in that moment considering he was only a few hours from death.

As for me, I had failed the easiest class in public school history: Beginner’s Weightlifting. A course created for dumb jocks to keep their grades high enough to play. A course meant to inflate the school’s overall GPA so they could qualify for government funding. Students were supposed to get As.

But I failed.

And now there was no way I would graduate. At that moment, as Brian and I were driving to Prior Lake, I was swelling with self-pity.

“What are you going to do,” Brian asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, looking out the window in a sad daze. “You know what really ticks me off is that I had to come up with $100 for that stupid class. Now I’m gonna fail AND I’m out $100.”

“Yeah, but that was your fault.”

He was right. It was my fault. You see, the weight room was trying to raise $1000 so they could install mirrors along the walls of the weight room (so all the adolescent optimists could admire their muscle bulges as they struck melodramatic poses). In an effort to raise mirror-money the teacher required students to sell King Sized Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Each of us received 1 box of 100 candy bars. They were $1 each.

That was back in January (1992), the coldest month in the history of Minnesota. I put the box of candy bars on the seat of my truck and, in about 7 minutes, they were all frozen solid. Now here’s an important truth: there are few things in this world that taste better than frozen Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. They’re incredible!

Over the first couple weeks of January, I ate the WHOLE BOX! 100 Bars! 400 CUPS! So that’s why I had to come up with $100: to pay for the candy bars that I ate (all for a weightlifting class that I ultimately failed). In case the absurdity isn’t obvious here, I had totally gorged myself with CANDY BARS that I was supposed to be selling for my FITNESS CLASS!

“Whoah! Look at all the people,” Brian said as he parked his car at the Prior Lake Public Beach. We got out of the car and walked to the shore, looking out over the massive lake for any sign of Dougie and his boat.

With our hands above our eyes to block the sunlight we scanned the lake. “He usually doesn’t come over to the public beach side of the lake,” I said.

“Yeah, but… wait. Is that him over by the white mansion?”

We both stared intently at a speck of a boat on the other side of the lake. I said, “Yeah! That’s him!” His boat was a unique baby blue color.

“Doug! Doug!” Brian shouted.
“What are you doing? There is no way in he’s going to hear you.”
“What do you propose?”
“I think we’re out of luck.”
“Damn. It’s such a perfect day to water-ski.”
I nodded.
Brian got this devious look on his face. “We could swim across.”
I huffed. “Yeah right.”
“You don’t think we could do it?”
I pointed to myself. “I could do it, I don’t think you could though.”

Brian looked out over the lake a moment, then looked back at me. “Wanna try it?”

Me and my truck at Burnsville Center

I gave a quick glance across at Doug’s little blue boat. I flicked some sand with my sandal as I calculated the distance. I had failed Beginner’s Weightlifting — I had nothing to lose. With an angst-laden shrug, I said, “Fuck it. Let’s do it.”

Trying to swim across Prior Lake was risky. Doing so without anybody knowing we were doing it was just plain stupid. And when we were halfway across the lake, things began getting tricky. We had to remove our shirts because they constrained our mobility. We were getting tired. But we were right in the middle. In the deepest deep. If we did not keep paddling, we would die. Like depraved fools we were forced to keep straining, stroking, pulling, kicking. At some moment I realized that even if we did get to the other side there was no guarantee that Dougie would see us. And even if he did, we would be too exhausted to ski anyway.

“This was stupid, Brian,” I said. I looked back at Brian, who was about 50 feet behind me. 
“I’m cramping up!” He yelled.
“We’re over half way. Hang in there.”
“I’m not going to make it! Help!”

I had never heard Brian’s voice take that tone. It was haunting, like childish innocence mixed with terror. His head went under. I was too far away to do anything.

“Help!” I yelled. “Help!”

Brian’s head re-emerged and he yelled again, “Help! Help!”

When Brian’s head disappeared again, I had the horrible sense he’d gone down for the last time. “Help,” I yelled again, but even though there were a thousand boats on the lake, none were in earshot.

Well, no boats, but a Jet Ski! “Hey! Help! Over here!” I was splashing and screaming and the Jet-skier zipped towards me just as Brian came up for one last gasp of air.

“Brian! Hang on, buddy!”

I told the guy on the Jet Ski that Brian was cramping up and was drowning. Brian grabbed the side of the vessel and was pulled back to the public beach.

My assumption was that the Jet Ski would return to get me. He never came, though. He just left me there in the middle of the lake, waddling in the water like an idiot. A fatigued fool burbling in the waves like an abandoned bobber.

At that point I was closer to Dougie’s side of the lake than to the public beach, and I really wanted to press on and complete the goal. But I also wanted to make sure Brian was okay. I resumed stroking water, heading back towards the public beach.

Brian was fine. A bit shocked, but fine. In fact, later that afternoon when we were again in our black robes among the graduation ceremony crowd, he seemed quite sprightly. “It’s good to be alive,” he said, still glowing from his serendipitous baptism. I was happy he was okay, but my mood was not so bright. I failed high school and was now an impostor, a false-graduate among the good, decent students of Burnsville Minnesota.

“Are they going to let you go through the ceremony?”

“I don’t know. We’ll find out.”

There were thousands of people at the ceremony. Students, siblings, parents, uncles, neighbors, and… teachers! Yes, there, by the Burnsville High School flagpole stood my weightlifting teacher!

I hurried over to him. He was a grouchy looking old man who seemed perpetually disappointed — definitely not the type you’d want to negotiate with, but I tried anyway.

“Hey, Mr. X!”
He acknowledged me with a grumble.
“Mr. X, I have a problem. I need a D-minus in weightlifting in order to graduate. But I got an F. I was hoping you could change it to a D-minus.”

He scoffed and contorted like he was shrugging off a fly and said, “You were never there!”

“I know I missed a few classes, but you know I lift weights, and I am there after school all the time and it’s not like I’m asking for an A or anything, just a D-minus so I can graduate with my friends.”

He adjusted his cuffs, looked sideways out at the crowds, then looked at me with a very faint smirk. “Well… I suppose you did sell more Peanut Butter Cups than anybody else… okay.”

For more stories about my adolescent stupidity, please follow me on Twitter: @thatdankent