I’m partway through making a new sewing project — a comfy jacket to wear around the house. Last night I settled on a decorative construction for the back — a golden ratio spiral made from fabrics spanning the last 21 or so years of my life. My mind keeps going back to an episode near the beginning of that period. Maybe telling that story will help.
It is very dark, and I am suspended by my back and feet in an unfinished space between two concrete walls. My legs are starting to tremble. One piece of a thin homemade rope ladder, made from twin strands of hardware-store shock cord, is wrapped tightly around my right hand, and it cuts off circulation when I put weight on it to give my legs a rest. The ladder stretches when I try to climb it, making the gaps between the steps too wide and messing with my center of gravity, so I am just using it as support and an extra bit of leverage while chimney-climbing the parallel walls. There are about four feet left to haul myself up before I get to the top of the cinder-block wall behind my back. Once I get there, I can pick my way along the top of the wall, scramble down a few feet to the massive I-beam that runs under the roof the width of the building, walk its length, pull myself onto and then along the top of another cinder-block wall, down a (real) ladder into a janitor’s closet, and then out into the science and math wing of my high school. I don’t think anyone can hear me here. If I slip or if the rope breaks and I fall to the sloped concrete floor maybe 20 feet below me, it seems likely that I will die.
I don’t remember the following minutes with quite the same clarity. When I try to remember exactly, all that comes is a feeling of sweat, exhaustion, fear, and adrenaline. I also don’t remember if it was on that excursion or on a different one when, exploring an adjacent corner of the school roof above the auditorium ceiling, I heard the click of a door latch and looked down to see the annoyed face of the newest janitor peering up at me. “What the hell are you kids doing in here?” she demanded.
When I got caught, the school administration learned a number of things, which I will try to summarize briefly. My friends and I had for some time been stealing things from various parts of the school to use in our explorations. We had learned how some doors in the school had wide gaps near the latch and could be opened with a bent butter knife. Other times my friends and I had been able to take teachers’ keys to let ourselves into places we weren’t supposed to be. When those strategies failed, I had around a 75% success rate picking door locks. Our motive for these explorations was at once the most obvious thing in the world and an impossible thing to articulate. Even now, the best I can do is to say that we felt our environment to be a sort of cage, a place designed more to extract and condition our compliance than to support us in good faith. Resisting that coercion seemed an end unto itself.
My friend had read about something called “institutional parasitism” that greatly appealed to us. The gist was that every large institution inevitably loses track of certain spaces and resources, and a canny and determined individual can identify and use these things without being accountable to the rules of the institution itself. My friend and I both read the beginning of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, an excitingly apocalyptic description of the narrator holed up in an underground bunker illuminated by stolen electricity. We totally failed to take on board the book’s larger message about racism, and decided that, as the oppressed masses in our high school, we wanted a bunker of our own. So we started to make one.
When we discovered the space over the auditorium ceiling, we waited for an assembly to collect all the students and teachers into the gym. Then we stole lumber from backstage, where the drama program stored sets, hauled it up a flight of stairs, into a janitor’s closet, up a ladder, out across the big I-beam, and nailed or screwed together a platform about six feet by six feet between two girders. When we had finished, we lay there on our backs, looking up toward the corrugated steel of the roof, and felt a deeply satisfying sense of our own agency; our ability to do something entirely for and by ourselves.
We were drawn to that place despite the fact that it was neither comfortable nor practical for our purposes. Getting to it required stealing a key or else picking a lock in a stairwell within view of a main corridor. Leaving required opening the door to the same stairwell from the inside, without knowing whether anyone was within view. Both of these were easiest after hours, when the risks were less. When we would get there, after the initial thrill wore off we would notice that there was really not much to do. I stole some extension cords from somewhere, ran them up from the janitors closet, and installed a black light at the platform, but it was still too dark to read comfortably. The specter of making one wrong move and crashing through the suspended ceiling to the floor thirty feet below made it hard to relax. With much less risk, I could have gone down into the auditorium and sat and read undisturbed in one of the chairs until the janitor came in to turn off the lights for the night. Or I could have gone home and read under the watchful eyes of my parents. As we tried to think of ways around these drawbacks, we set to exploring the other, potentially more secure locations we could reach, such as the walled-off crevasses in the spaces where the auditorium’s inner walls didn’t match the layout of the surrounding floors. Which is how I found myself stuck hanging from a thin homemade rope ladder with no one around wondering if I was going to die, and also, in that instance or one following it, how I got caught by the janitor.
Over the whole time this had been going on, I had assumed that if we were caught there would be consequences, but in the event I was surprised. I met at some point with a vice principal, who said that I and one of my friends (apparently chosen at random; I was the only one caught) were to serve detention one day the following week. I was never formally given a detention slip, which was convenient because it meant that I could keep the whole episode from my parents (no one from the school told them, as far as I know). Later on, one of the friendly janitors who had been tasked with disassembling the platform stopped me in the hall, admitted being a little impressed with what “someone” had been able to do, and held out my black light and asked if I wanted it back. As far as I knew I hadn’t officially gotten in trouble for (or admitted) having anything to do with the platform, so I lied transparently, denying all knowledge, and he smiled and said nothing and we both went about our day. And that was the last I heard of it.
This was the first time in my life, but not the last, when I was aware that some invisible and unwritten set of rules, very different than those in any code of conduct, had protected me from facing the consequences of my actions. Although I remember none of what was said, I had gotten the impression, during my conversation with the vice principal, that I was not to talk about what I had done or he would be compelled to deliver the punishment called for by the severity of the crimes. I felt myself in some sense on the same side as the man. By not creating any records of the incident, such as my actual detention slip, he was probably going to successfully avoid awkward questions about how it was allowed to happen in the first place. My friends and I were were more (my friends) or less (myself) good students, and the vice principal in question had no particular reputation for vindictiveness. It was in none of our interests that the truth be widely known, and as far as I know it never was.
This episode comes back to me wearing two different faces. One of its faces is what I felt in that moment in darkness — the feeling of being drawn by my decisions into a deadly situation and having no option but to struggle through it alone. The other face, which has by now blurred into an amalgam of the faces of many teachers, professors, bosses, and police, is the face of my own privilege and the illegitimacy of the system that gives it to me.
I still believe that my high school was primarily a place where children were kept out of the way while our parents did their part to create the one percent of rich capitalists about whom so much has recently been written. I still, in my heart, am proud of the spirit that moved my friends and I to rebel the way we did. I’m still terrified for myself in that moment when I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish climbing. I still have no doubt that things would have been different were I not a white student with a reputation for bookishness and friends whose parents had money and whose achievements made the school look good. And the mask that slipped that day on the vice-principal’s face — the mask that rules are rules, that justice is blind, outcomes fair, consequences deserved — has not really ever convinced me since, and still fails to do so.
At every stage of my life, including the recent and current ones, I have at times failed to live up to the standards I set for myself. It took me a very long time — into my thirties — before I really began to see how the things I say and do affect those around me. I think that the illusion of powerlessness in which I believed is a very strong and corrosive force, especially in white culture. It is the feeling that every system, from the schools and sewer systems in our towns, to the rides at an amusement park, to the police and the courts, is designed to accommodate any risks we are physically able to take and keep us safe and content no matter how strenuously we struggle. This illusion makes it seem that struggle has no effect, anger has no effect, inattention and carelessness have no effect — simply because those of us for whom the illusion is designed are insulated from consequence. But to the people conscripted to contain our struggle, to defuse our anger and clean up after our inattention and carelessness — the teachers and vice-principals and janitors, the people in the fast-food industry, the health care workers and people laboring in sweatshops — this illusion is laughable. No one is separate from this system in the way that I have believed myself to be. No one can disclaim responsibility. It is likewise impossible to unilaterally effect the change to something better or fairer. This has taken longer than I thought to write. I don’t know how to conclude it gracefully. But I have always felt like I should tell this story, maybe just as a way of explaining myself, and now I have.