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The hell what is wrong with us

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If my THC-scorched memory serves me correctly, Grade 5 was the first time that the system officially gave up on me. Notice of that came one morning after recess, when I returned to the classroom and found that my desk had been moved — to the principal’s office.

“Here — you deal with him,” Ms. Stockton had said, dropping me ear first on the coffee table of a bewildered administrator.

“And what am I supposed to do with him?” he called out to a slamming office door. I’m sure we sat there and stared at each other for a while — like two escaped convicts chained at the ankle. Perhaps Mr. Gordon was mulling over how long it would take for tracking dogs to find the body. In the end, he just helped me drag my desk in from the hallway, and butt it up nose-first against his. It was a low-stakes game of chicken that the poor man would soon regret.

Of course, it didn’t help his cause that the job of a principal (much like a warden’s) doesn’t leave a lot of time for desk polishing. This guy spent about as much time in his office as a P.E.I. politician does in the legislature. Which left me with plenty of time to catch up on all my schoolwork, meditate on the error of my ways, and ponder my future, et cetera, et cetera. Did you know that until the early 1980s, public school administrators were allowed to smoke in their offices? Amazing.

So after I had liberated Principal Gordon’s entire stash of No. 7 cigarettes, they moved me to the library for my next life lesson in crime and punishment: a locked storage room. Unfortunately, the sentry whose task it was to incarcerate me there for two hours at a time neglected to do a proper cell inventory before locking me down. And that’s how I learned about the varied and interesting uses of a laminating machine — including what an awesome fort the World Book Encyclopedia makes once you get it all glued together.

“Don’t look at me,” Dad said when Mr. Gordon tried to nail him with a $400 book repair bill. “You’re the one who locked him in a broom closet.”

Unfortunately, it’s always been that way for me. I do what I want, whenever I want, and then just wait for the bill to arrive. It’s a truth that has broken a hundred hearts, terrorized a litany of bank staff and even cost a man his life. And it gets worse.

After 20 years of state-funded psychotherapy, a hundred self-help books, and the kind of deep thought that only a concrete cell provides, I’m not even a yard closer to knowing why my brain works this way. As Stamper once said, maybe I’m just lucky. But what I am clear about is that nothing in the crime and punishment model has ever succeeded in sucking out the poison. Back in the aforementioned schooldays, poor Pops beat me with an inch-wide belt until he just couldn’t stomach it anymore. Maybe you should ask him, but I don’t recall it making much of a dent.

By the time I was 17, I was locked up in the toughest wing of the toughest provincial jail in Canada — the infamous Oakalla. Murders, riots, beatings. Whatever. For my 20th birthday, I spent four weeks in an Albertan segregation cell that featured no clothing, no mattress, no blanket and no books. That’s where I learned to sing.

I’ve been shot by the police (twice), stabbed by a drunken convict, beaten up every three days for weeks on end in a segregation cell by a gang of rogue prison guards, and nearly killed in a prison escape. My parents disowned me, my first wife left me, and at least one of my siblings still thinks I’m the antichrist. If any of this was supposed to teach me a lesson, the only one I can come up with is that life is fun, then it’s hard, then you die. No big revelations there.

But just when the night could hardly get blacker, something happened that few folks can wrap their heads around — even today. I decided I was done. My life had become an overcooked cliche that even I was bored with. So I started looking around for an alternative — and found a universe full of them.

I started reading — and writing. I explored spirituality. I became a volunteer tutor and peer counselor. I embraced restorative justice, and brick by brick, patiently rebuilt most of the bridges I had nuked in an earlier life. I even became a parent. Why? For the same reason I turned the World Book Encyclopedia into a two-hundred pound waterproof citadel: it just felt like the right thing to do. Sorry, Dr. Phil.

The last thing I remember from that day thirty-five years ago, was sitting with my Dad outside our house, in the cab of his truck. It was day one of a two-week suspension from school, and I was waiting for the usual whack in the side of the head. But this time he just stared at me and sighed. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he said to no one in particular. Then he got out, closed the door behind him and left me to find the answer.

Everything and nothing, Pops. Everything and nothing.

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