I’ve always been afraid of breaking the rules. I will continuously go out of my way to make sure I’m abiding by whatever dictates happen to be in place, no matter how stupid or unenforceable. Because of this, I went to class on senior cut day, didn’t throw my hat at graduation, and never, ever went out without a hall pass. Trust me. I made Cameron from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” look like James Dean. The best description came from a former female classmate, who described me as “the safe boy.” I was that first kid that you could bring home to your parents, and that you dumped when it was time to find more exciting fare.
Mind you, this is not something I’m happy about. I think every obsessive rule abider like me really wants to be a bad boy who tears the tags off mattresses, eats grapes in the supermarket aisles, and passes on the right. Ultimately, I think the safe boys and girls of the world are simply nervous that once we start, we won’t be able to stop, and that rule breaking will eventually lead to breaking rocks and becoming someone’s bitch in Sing Sing. I confess, many of the things in life that I regret the most are those actions I didn’t take because I was too afraid of breaking the rules.
If I had to pick one time when I could go into the wayback machine and kick myself into action, it would have to be Westchester band camp during August of 1985. Tears for Fears ruled the record store, Stephen Spielberg the box office and Bill Cosby the airwaves. I had an awesome summer job that put money in pocket, color on my pasty skin, and muscle tone on my biceps. Even better, I had grown nearly three inches during the summer and I could see the world from a different, higher perspective.
Before I tell about my particular band camp experience, let me give all of the non-band geeks a general overview of what band camp is like. Band Camp is wonderful opportunity for the musically inclined. You get a vast collection of students from various schools, each wanting to learn more about music. There are dedicated teachers who have the time to explain their craft and provide individual attention. It’s a wonderful assemblage of talent that can be positively awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, all this is true only when your musical talent is not limited to crashing two cymbals together at somewhat random and usually completely inappropriate times. If that’s the case, then band camp really exists only to make you feel like an inadequate, talentless loser.
It was in that frame of mind that I wandered into the student lounge and found some guy playing the piano and a gorgeous red-haired girl watching him. The mope-meter went up another notch and I thought “I sure wish I could play piano so I could impress a girl like that” when the girl looked up, smiled, and said “Today is my birthday.”
Something else you should know about me. Aside from always following the rules, I never…EVER….EVER say the right thing these situations. Ordinarily, this scenario would play out like this:
Cute Girl: Today is my birthday!
Jim: “Did you know in ancient Etriria, they would celebrate your birthday by sewing live venomous spiders into your scalp?”
At that point, the female half of this conversation would say “Ah, right…I think I’ll just be going now” and I would spend the next decade asking myself “live venomous spiders? Really? That’s the best line you come up with?”
This day, however, would be different. On this day, she said “today is my birthday” and I replied – completely without thought, but with a charming smile and a cool voice – “great, can I be your birthday present?”
Alright, I know that may seem like a hopelessly cheesy line now, but in 1985, when you’re sixteen years old…that was the height of witty rapport. And it had the desired effect. The girl (Amanda, by name) smiled broader, gave me a wink, and said “if I get to unwrap you.”
From there romance bloomed. We spent hours together. At one point, we attended a dance and afterwards she suggested we go back to her room. I responded “um….OK,” my voice cracking across about three octaves like Peter Brady in the “Time to Change” episode…. “
At the time, West Chester had three dorms set up. One for guys, One for girls, and the third co-ed, with guys and girls staying on alternate floors to keep them from falling prey to hormones and loose morals (apparently because the powers that be thought teenagers couldn’t use the steps or figure out an elevator). Amanda was staying in the mixed dorm. We walked onto the elevator with about 10 other couples, all grinning in expectation. The only person on the elevator that wasn’t part of a couple was the 120 year old guard/elevator operator who fixed me with a icy-blue stare worthy of the old man in the “Tell-Tale Heart.” He said nothing, just stared and I could almost read his thoughts.
I looked at the old dude, then back at Amanda, then at the old dude, then at Amanda, and just as the doors were closing I yelped in a strangled voice “I…I…can’t!” and jumped off the elevator.
The last thing I saw was the look of astonishment on Amanda’s face as the doors closed between us.
I walked back to my dorm, trying to convince myself that I did the right thing because I knew…KNEW… that the people in charge, led by the old Tell-Tale Heart dude, were going to raid the dorms and kick out anyone they found on an opposite sex floor. I imagined having to call my parents to drive the 60 miles to come get me, and decided I certainly had dodged a potentially lethal bullet that would have ended with me kicked out of school and working in the coal mines for minimum wage. When I got back to my room, it was empty, and I ended up staying awake until 2 AM, waiting for my best friend (who was fearlessly spending time with his girlfriend in the co-ed dorm). By now, I convinced that he was going to get caught up in these imagined raids and would be stripped of his drum-majorship, lose scholarships, and end up working in the coal mines for minimum wage. Needless to say, none of this happened. My friend came back, called me an idiot, and went to sleep. The next morning, Amanda refused to talk to me, and a few rumors about my sexuality started making the rounds.
The complicated thing I ask myself now is do I still think I should have stayed on that elevator. It was easy to say yes when I was younger, especially before I had kids. Now that my children are teenagers – including one who is pretty much the same age now as I was way back in the summer of 85 – I wonder how irresponsible it is to espouse regret that my own 16 year old self didn’t take action when I damn well don’t want my daughters spending time alone with a horny, teenager in a dorm room 60 miles from home. Then I think how much I don’t want them to live with regret, and realize that they really are on the cusp of adulthood, and are at the point where they will start being able to make the right decisions. I think ultimately, my greatest regret isn’t that I made the right or wrong decision, but that I made it out of fear. And finally, I think that despite the dangers and risks, I would say to them “sometimes, kids, you just have to get on the damn elevator.”