I’m sorry for vandalizing your schoolhouse.
This happened in 1985, when I was a freshman at Red Bank Regional High School. Red Bank Regional as you know, draws from the towns of Shrewsbury, Red Bank, Union Beach and Little Silver, where I lived. It was fall, not too long after school had started, and we kids from different towns were still getting to know each other. I was on the soccer team with a guy named Scott who lived right across the street from the Shrewsbury elementary school. Scott’s mom went out a lot, and his red-walled kitchen became a place where groups of 14 year olds would gather to drink the liquor we’d stolen from our parents’ liquor cabinets.
I remember that night, having a chug race with a mix of vodka and gin from a plastic soda bottle—like older, more experienced idiots do with cups of beer at keg parties. I was amazed how easy the stuff went down. It was like water, really, after you’d already had a few sips. Soon we were all high-fiving, and laughing really hard about something, we didn’t even know what. Scott, I think, passed out, because he wasn’t along when a bunch of us stumbled out into the night. It was nearing winter, and the cold air opened my eyes wide. Certain shapes came crisp and distinct, even as my line of sight tilted back and forth like a seesaw. A tree, our bikes in the driveway, the long, brick façade of the school. Someone had spotted an open window in one of the ground-floor classrooms and we thought it would be fun to crawl through and go inside.
It was fun. Sneaking around a school at night was always fun. I’d done it before, back at Markham Place in Little Silver. Slipping out of a dance, or after a play or something, running around in the dark, the red fire-exit lights at the ends of the hallways making everything feel like a jailbreak. The sense of danger, I suppose, that was what was fun.
This night, though, was extra fun. Because the fun-centers in my brain were lit up full blare with gin and vodka. Everything was great! I was getting to know these new kids and doing a good job of acting tougher than I ever felt. I was impressing them with my willingness to chug stolen alcohol and break into a locked school building. Nothing I could do could be wrong.
Our sneakers squeaked on the floor as we crept into the hallway. At first we tried to be quiet, but then someone kicked over a garbage can and a whooping went up and we started tearing stuff off the walls. Posters, art projects, bulletin boards. It was wild and wrong and I knew that latter part somewhere in my conscience. I remember justifying it to myself by the thought that this was a school, where we were. I hated school. School was prison. Every day I went, I wished I didn’t have to. My parents, the teachers, the laws that mandated I attend school forced me to do this. School was the enemy. Destroying school property, any school’s property, was a victory for the good.
We split up in the chaos and I found myself alone at the end of a long stretch of hallway. I could hear the shouts and curse words of the kids knocking stuff over elsewhere in the building. There was a row of class pictures on the wall—every year’s graduating class, I’d imagine, posing out in front of the building’s main entrance. They were large pictures, maybe two feet by three, framed in glass, and mounted between two grooved metal tracks. I pushed one, and it slid like a sliding screen door on a porch. I pushed it further, into the picture next to it, and pushed that one into the one next to it, and pushed some more, and then some more, and all the way down at the other end of the hall, must have been a hundred feet away, a big, glass-framed picture fell out from in between the two metal tracks and smashed on the tile floor. What a sound it made! My heart leapt. I’d discovered something that seemed so wonderful, so lucky. A special gift from the world to me. Soon I was running, pushing the pictures as I ran, the blood pumping hot in my ears, adding to the noise of the shattering glass, one frame after another—Smash! Pause. Smash! Pause. Smash!—amplified and echoing down the empty hall. Is there any sound more exhilarating to a 14-year-old boy’s ears than shattering glass? There is not. It was better than the sound of Eddie Van Halen playing “Eruption.” It was better than the synthesizers in Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.”
When I reached the end of the hall, the huge pile of pictures and broken glass, I stood there for a moment, panting, admiring my work. How many pictures had it been? Twenty? Thirty? Fifty? A lot. Then a couple of the other kids raced around a corner, panting too, as excited as I was. “Holy shit!” was all anyone could say. We ran back to the window, climbed out, ran to get our bikes and pedaled away fast. We were all laughing, all just repeating “holy shit!” for a while, before we started bragging about what we’d done inside. We were proud of ourselves.
Yikes. Just writing that. It’s not something I feel proud about any more. It was a very bad thing to do. The next morning, I got a call from Scott. The cops were at the school. They’d already come to his house. Then I got a call from one of the other kids I was with. His mom was on the Shrewsbury Board of Education. People were saying something like $10,000 dollars worth of damage had been done to the school. Obviously, if anyone was to come asking, none of us knew anything about it. Well, actually, one of the kids suggested that if the cops did come asking, we should say that we saw a couple of black kids from Red Bank riding their bikes around the school; there were no black kids who lived in Little Silver or Shrewsbury. It makes me very sad to think about how well that might have worked. I said that I was uncomfortable with it, though, and a round of phone-call arguments ensued, in which black kids were not always referred to as black kids, and I was referred to as a pussy. There’s a lot of ugliness in the suburbs.
No one came asking, thankfully, and we didn’t hear more much about it. But I still feel guilty about it. I have a kid now. He says he hates school, too. And I really want him to like it.
The book Public Apology, a memoir based on the Awl column (but made mostly from new, never-before-published material) comes out March 19th through Grand Central Publishing. (Preorder it here!)
Dave Bry has a lot to apologize for.