When I was 16 years old, I attended The Taft School in Connecticut. Taft is a prestigious boarding school that caters to the wealthy, but my brother and I managed to get an academic scholarship to reduce the cost significantly. My cousin, who was an ER physician at the time, picked up the rest of the tab.
I remember our first group dinner on the opening night. I felt out of place, like I'd made a mistake in choosing to enroll. But in the dining hall, there were some stained glass windows high above the tables we were eating at, and I looked up to one, and saw the fading sunlight streaming in, and my heart was filled with peace, and I had that brief moment that every single human being experiences at least once—that moment in which there is a quiet knowingness which says: It will all be OK.
When I met my roommate Greg, my anxiety dissipated even more. He was a cheerful fellow, with a huge smile and blissful eyes. And he was very tall, the tallest in our grade. Both of his parents were French, so he could speak fluently, and I always enjoyed listening to him talk on the phone with them. All in all, I would say that he was a prime example of what we call an outpouring of divine love in AYP, even though he had never practiced a day of formal yoga in his life. Some people are just born that way. They come in strong.
My brother and I quickly fell into a niche group of friends, a couple of whom were also on scholarship and located on the lower rungs of the financial ladder. We smoked pot in a variety of covert ways. We would stuff a plastic bottle full of fabric softener squares and blow the exhaled smoke through that MacGyver-esque filter, effectively masking the pungent odor from hall monitors and other looming authorities. Often we would walk off campus into the woods and get baked under the trees.
Greg never smoked pot with us. He once said to me: "You know, pot just changes your perception of reality, but it doesn't actually change reality." That stuck with me. It would be a while until I would truly appreciate the difference between passive and active surrender in regards to higher states of consciousness. But, at Taft, in addition to getting stoned on marijuana, I also drank plenty of alcohol, took psychedelics like LSD and mushrooms, and a few times even chomped on Ritalin and Aderol, which were prescribed like candy to treat the supposed victims of ADD at the school.
Taft wasn't merely a drug fest. I put some effort into academics, especially my writing in English class. My English teacher shared my writing with her husband, who was a teacher of upperclassman there. He approached me one night at dinner and said that my writing reminded him of Jim Morrison. What a compliment to receive! Since I was a scrawny teenager striving to be all mystical and cool, I lapped that feedback right up. [Now that I think about it—20 years later—I'm still striving to be all mystical and cool].
I also ran cross country, which, though I didn't excel at, was a godsend because the sport kept me active and grounded in my body. The cross country coach was a soft-spoken man. His physical frame was ideal for long-distance running. One day he asked me to come to his office. He said there were rumors of me smoking pot and doing other drugs, and the Dean of Discipline had instructed him to confront me about it.
I felt ashamed and cowardly about ratting my friends out, but I also didn't care much about their fate or mine. My temperament was a mix of apathy, angst, rebellion, and a romantic longing to become my own version of Jim Morrison. The fact that Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye existed as one of my role models didn't exactly help my predicament either.
Taft had a "two strikes" system, meaning that if you got busted once—strike one!—you were granted some leniency and a chance for redemption. If busted for a second time—strike two!—you were gone...expelled, kicked out, banished.
So when that first strike fell upon me, I knew there would be some leeway. The six of us got assigned various disciplinary tasks for the rest of the semester. One of my tasks was to be the caddie for the Dean of Discipline himself and to carry his clubs on the Taft golf course. One Saturday out on the fairway, as I was handing the Dean a 9 iron, he started making small talk.
What he meant by "sleeper" is that she was a girl who, while not being on the top of the list of popularity, was nevertheless worthy of being deemed attractive and desirable. I had never heard that term used before until that moment, but I instantly gleaned its meaning through intuition and Sherlock Holmesian deduction. The Dean wasn't a pervert. He was just a classic example of a macho New England boarding school faculty member who liked to appraise and celebrate his prized mares and stallions, since he was helping train them for the white-collar race they would surely encounter after high school and college.
On the note of attractiveness and bonding between boys and girls, there was a homecoming dance midway through the year. Greg lamented to me about how much he wanted to ask out a girl named Amy, but he was unsure if she would say yes. "Just do it, man!" I egged him on. Eventually, he mustered up the nerve to ask her, and fortunately, she said yes. His bliss was amplified an extra 100 watts.
I was unsure of who to ask, if anyone at all. I could always play the role of tortured poet and rationalize a reason to bail from the event. But before long, my dilemma was solved in an unexpected way. I was sitting in my dorm room, when a girl from the senior class marched through the door without knocking and stared directly at me.
In preparation for the dance, I asked my aforementioned cousin to mail me some pure MDMA (most commonly called "ecstasy" on the black market, and often cut with other chemicals when sold on the street). He obliged, and when the night of homecoming arrived, I swallowed my first-ever dose of MDMA, unbeknownst to my date. The drug bathed me in a euphoric glow, and my lovely partner and I threw ourselves into a frenzy of flirting on the dance floor.
The celebration was unfolding off-campus at a hotel in town, and all students were prohibited from wandering off the first floor into the upper floors of the building. Despite the forbidden boundaries set by the administration, Jane and I decided to push our luck and go exploring. We snuck into an elevator and rode to the 5th floor.
Jane was convinced we could find an unlocked conference room. Sure enough, we found one and rejoiced in our mischief. And there was a couch in there! We rolled onto the couch and started making out, and pretty soon, it escalated into us having sex—for my first time ever with any woman! Virginity lost, under the spell of artificial ecstasy and innocent surges for some semblance of union and intimacy. Though it was my first time, it was not hers.
What I most remember about that experience were the audible expressions of pleasure which came forth from her mouth, and how those audible cues prompted me to keep doing what I was doing, if not with more passion and finesse to take her further into arousal. And I also remember her telling me (both explicitly with words and implicitly with orgasmic noises) that I was skilled with my tongue.
After our foray into the forbidden territory of the hotel, we decided to go downstairs separately, as to not spark any suspicion. I walked to the bathroom to splash cold water on my face and look in the mirror. My brother must have seen me, because he walked in after me.
After homecoming, Jane and I attempted a relationship, but it didn't last long. At the end of the year though, we were memorialized as "Most Likely to Get Married" in the yearbook.
There were to be other flings and parties during my tenure at Taft, and one of the outings actually occurred at the prestigious Trump Tower in the middle of Manhattan (thank you, Mr. President, for your luxurious real estate). My cousin, the benefactor of my education and provider of high-quality drugs, booked a suite for us in Trump Tower over a long weekend. The train ride from Connecticut was relatively short, so a small group of us took the trip to indulge under the roof of the President's flagship property. In the hotel suite, we drank wine, liquor, and beer, and smoked blunts. We were growing increasingly rowdy. At one point, my friend Ben started vomiting into a brown bag right in the middle of the room. He was a big guy and sounded like a lion in distress, roaring gutturally. The girls started shrieking, and I laughed uncontrollably, despite feeling sorry for him at the same time.
After repeated warnings by the hotel staff to quiet down, we finally disbanded. My cousin had been secluded in another room the whole evening—whirling around in some kind of psychedelic, methamphetamine vortex and probably masturbating. I checked in with him at the end of the night, and he appeared semi-coherent, with his face showing a cherub-like smile and his eyes glistening like beacons underneath the thick fog of inebriation.
On another long weekend during the school year, my brother and I met my cousin in Manhattan to partake in the Million Marijuana March. My cousin's friend, Gilbert Baker (who incidentally was the original designer of the gay rainbow flag), was helping organize the rally. So we met up with Gilbert, who stuck us at the very front of the parade to carry a big banner petitioning for the legalization of pot. There were thousands of people trailing behind us: smoking joints, bowls, blunts and bongs, and creating a plume of smoke that hovered above the streets for many blocks. What fun to be part of the neo-hippie revolution!
Later that year, there was a documentary released called Grass, narrated by Woody Harrelson, and the film includes a brief shot of the parade, and if you look close enough, you can see me wielding the banner on the front line.
Back at Taft, I was still under probation, and had to meet with a counselor on a weekly basis. I remember the first session. She looked at me through her horn-rimmed glasses, studying me patiently and biding her time before commencing with the therapeutic dialogue. What she eventually said was yet another surprising curve ball to be thrown by a faculty member.
I don't remember too much about the consequent conversation that day or afterwards, but I do remember never feeling satisfied with her explanation regarding the true motive behind addiction and drug use. I would joust with her intellectually and emotionally, trying to get to the core of the matter, but she didn't speak the language of bhakti, and I was too immature to understand the dynamic properly.
Checkmate. I was pinned, cornered, done for! Strike two was imminent and there was no escape. I remember that moment of surrender vividly. It was very peaceful. Just letting go into the truth, regardless of the result.
Before being sent back home to Florida permanently, we were granted a meeting with the Headmaster. He told us that we were gifted and intelligent, but that we needed to figure some things out.
"If you don't get your act together, you'll end up working at a gas station," he warned.
Interestingly enough, my brother actually did work at a gas station for a short period a few years ago. Who would have thought that the Headmaster had clairvoyant and prophetic abilities? Maybe he was an aristocratic Albus Dumbledore, minus the magic wand and wizardly wardrobe.
On our last night at Taft, the upperclassmen came out of the woodwork to bring us bottles of liquor and made sure we had a blast. We scoured the whole campus, saying goodbyes and being treated like martyrs by our sympathetic comrades. The next morning, I was severely hung over. We were driven to the airport by an Irish janitor, who had a humble and ancient aura. We had conversed sporadically throughout the year, and his disappointment in our failure was palpable. I felt bad about letting him down.
By the time I boarded the airplane, I was vomiting into the sick bag and feeling gnarly. My brother was in much better shape. When we made it back to Tampa, we were picked up by my uncle, whose disappointment was similar to the Irish janitor's.
My memories of Taft are potent at times. At times, it seems like yesterday, though 20 years have passed. In this particular re-telling of some of the absurdities and highlights of my one-year experience, there is plenty of wholesomeness and goodness that I've left out. I guess part of the reason why I've focused on the shenanigans is to provide a contrast to my current life, which is certainly not exempt from its own version of shenanigans, but that is nevertheless being lived soberly and with different means of transcendence operating in the foreground and background.
One of my friends in AA once said: "We don't stop making mistakes on the spiritual path. But the quality of our mistakes improves. We just make better mistakes." I like that.
Thanks for reading, and thank you, Taft, for letting me mingle in your privileged world for a little while.
The higher power is in us.