There was a moment, during my sophomore year of high school, when I grew up.
By my 15th birthday, I’d already dropped acid, been busted for shoplifting from JCPenney, and lost a friend to a heroin overdose — all while enrolled in one of the most prestigious public high schools in the country: Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, California. I was on a bad path and determined to stay there, and I had a nemesis who kept getting in the way. His name was Mr. Byrd.
Mr. Byrd arrived at Monta Vista High in 1993 by way of Brooklyn, tasked with keeping the kids who were on the margins of our nationally ranked school from falling off the page completely. Our town was a suburban idyll, its leafy streets lined with modest midcentury ranch homes. It was affluent even before the dotcom boom, but it was decaying from within, and you could see it in the student body. Friday nights were for house parties, where there was always someone in a back bedroom selling nitrous balloons for a buck from a tank they swiped from their dad’s dental practice. Senior year, a bunch of jocks got busted robbing a string of local banks, and just before Byrd was hired, one of the most popular girls at school was murdered by a jealous boyfriend on Super Bowl Sunday.
Mr. Byrd had his work cut out for him. We used to call him the “narc,” even though he was a grown man and nothing at all like Johnny Depp in 21 Jump Street. A six-foot-four, honey-voiced black man in his thirties, Byrd was different from the other vice principals and school administrators, who were so hopelessly unhip that it seemed like they were born old. Byrd got it; he was someone a kid could confide in about that racist comment they heard on the bus or that hookup last weekend that maybe wasn’t quite so consensual. Despite his nickname, Byrd rarely narced us out or even punished us for our transgressions. His style, as I remember it, was softer. Often it was just a look that said, “I see you, and you’re making a bad choice.”
The Day When I Grew Up was Career Day 1994, which, naturally, I ditched. When I was two blocks away from school, Mr. Byrd’s broken-down Plymouth Volare station wagon pulled up beside me. What I did next still makes my cheeks go red: I took off running, like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. I got away with it, but the next day at school, Byrd gave me The Look. He treated me like someone who oughta know better, and pretty soon I became someone who did. I quit smoking weed, studied harder, went to college. By the time my 20th high school reunion came around last year, I’d grown into a well-adjusted, sober, employed adult.
I felt compelled to go find Mr. Byrd and tell him about how he affected me and all those other punks whose lives he touched all those years ago.
I’ve been thinking about Mr. Byrd a lot lately. And not only because I’ve started smoking again. I’ve been wondering how my life might have turned out if he hadn’t been there, standing in just the right place at just the right time. This nostalgia usually strikes when I’m in, say, an airport or the waiting room at my doctor’s office, watching daytime TV. If that seems like an unusual time to think about my narc, it’s because Mr. Byrd is actually a very famous man these days. He’s Judith Sheindlin’s long-serving bailiff on Judge Judy.
I felt compelled to go find Mr. Byrd and tell him about how he affected me and all those other punks whose lives he touched all those years ago. To tell him I’ve been smoking, in the hopes that he’d give me that disapproving look like he used to and smack the cig out of my mouth. But mostly to find out what we meant to him, this man who meant so much to us. So I booked a flight to Los Angeles.