When I was 15, I single-handedly ruined a fellow student’s life with a poorly chosen John Steinbeck quotation. His name was Drew, is still Drew, I assume. I met him on the first day of high school, because, to my great chagrin and disappointment, he was my freshman year roommate. I was starting at a fancy boarding school in New England, and I assumed every day would be Dead Poets’ Society meets A Separate Piece meets School Ties. And I wasn’t Jewish, so no problems there. I was coming from a small town known best for having an enormous rocking chair on the town green and a nicer-than-average Caldor. I anticipated moving in with some sort of dumb, blond Adonis, someone with the kind of tousled blond hair that always looks like he just came off his boat, someone who might invite me to stay at his cottage in Bridgehampton and after we go swimming in the moonlight it’s like, oops, what if we need to shower together. Or something.
But I got Drew. Drew was a musician. Actually, he was a very talented guitarist. So talented in fact that he felt the need to cultivate an eccentric, rock star persona on campus. His favorite activities included the following: a morning ritual of wearing a puke green bathrobe and a beanie (which he never removed) to the dining hall to enjoy his version of the Breakfast of Champions, a full, unsliced, untouched Macintosh apple between two pieces of bread (which I am fairly certain he threw in the trash the moment no one was looking). He also enjoyed stealing bottles of A1 Steak Sauce from the dining hall and dropping them from various heights onto the linoleum in our bedroom. The goal was to see how high they could be dropped before they broke, not realizing that each successive drop ruined the control in the experiment. His favorite pastime was known only as “alone time”; I was not allowed in or anywhere near our room during “alone time.” This ritual involved Drew standing in front of our oscillating fan, drinking a beer, and masturbating.
So while Drew was carefully curating this cult of personality of an eccentric musical genius, I did my best to distance myself from him, as I was also deliberately cultivating my own persona at this new school. I wore all the right clothes and said all the right things to put forth the image of the perfect, New England blue blood, and Drew did not fit into my plans.
Unfortunately, Drew’s carefully curated quirkiness began to get him into serious trouble. He was suspended in 2004 for cyber-bullying (he was way ahead of his time on that one). One of the boys on our floor left his AOL Instant Messenger signed in on his computer, which, if you went to boarding school, is basically catnip to bored, teenage boys. Drew went on to this computer and sent a beautiful masterpiece of an instant message to a user chosen at random; all it said was the words “Suck my dick, Bitch.” Unfortunately, the person he sent the message to was this kid’s poor mother, and Drew was promptly suspended.
A few months later, Drew was suspended a second time for doing what all great rock stars do: selling drugs. At our high school, if you were suspended twice, you were forced to face the Deans’ Committee to defend your character. If you were unsuccessful in that defense, you were expelled. The Committee was made up of a jury of your peers and not your peers: students, faculty, deans, and dorm prefects. You were also allowed to choose a fellow student as a character witness to defend your honor. Drew, for reasons unbeknownst to me and God and anyone else, chose me.
Of course, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to rid myself of this parasite who was constantly sullying the perfect preppy image I was attempting to create for myself. But I’m not a monster. I sort of was when I was 15, but kind of like those cute ones from “Ahhhh! Real Monsters” and not Freddie Kruger or whatever. In fact, I carefully crafted and composed my statement, believing that if I was impressive enough of a speaker, Drew would be saved. I went in to the Headmaster’s Office, an ornate, walnut-paneled room furnished with chairs whose value is matched only by their uncomfortableness, and I began my stunning oration. My brilliant beyond brilliant idea to prove the worth of my roommate was to cite his virtuosic musical talent, a talent he had never once contributed to any sort of organized function for the school or other people. I quoted that most esoteric and unplumbed of texts, The Grapes of Wrath. The quotation I chose was when Steinbeck refers to playing a guitar as “a most gracious skill” one could have on the road. Of course, he was referring to the idea of migrant farmworkers’ gathering together and finding some sort of comfort and hope amidst their terrible plight and not a troubled kid selling drugs at a posh boarding school.
Unfortunately, Drew was promptly expelled. I suddenly realized that defending another person’s character is not about you but about defending another person’s character. And if you’re going to be defending another person’s character, you should probably know something about said other person’s character. When the Deans began to ask me about Drew’s personal life, I realized I didn’t know anything about him or the reasons why he had gotten into so much trouble. I didn’t know about his parents’ recent divorce, or about his mother’s attempted suicide, or about his copious antidepressant prescriptions. All I could say when they asked me about his mental state was, “Oh. Yes. He is sad. Sometimes.” I can only hope to put a positive spin on things by thinking that maybe going to a different school or being closer to home was exactly what Drew needed. So I want to say, Drew, wherever you are, I’m very sorry. And also: thank you. Drew helped me see that I was really the one pretending to be something I wasn’t (an All-American, Norman Rockwell, casual yachting enthusiast) while he was the one being his authentic, troubled self. I also want to thank Drew for the greatest gift he gave me, one that I realized promptly as I exited the ornate Headmaster’s Office in my pleated khakis and school tie and awful penny loafers. He gave me the opportunity to sit in a terribly uncomfortable chair while pleading with a panel of bespectacled New England academics not to expel my high school roommate, and you can’t get any more Dead Poets’ Society than that.