I hardly remember this event. It happened in the auditorium. That is all I remember. I think my parents and Dwayne and Mama Grant showed up for my graduation. I don’t remember going across the stage, who was valedictorian, any of the speeches, where I sat, the practices or the aftermath. I think some of the graduates planned a trip to the beach. My goal was to walk, get it over with and never look back. I never planned to see any of my peers again and couldn’t care less if I ever did. I didn’t have anything against any of them. School was a dreadful thing and 12 years of it created a certain accumulative “trauma” in my soul and all I could think about was walking away from it, building my life without any of the restrictions of teachers or the predetermined reputation that my brothers gave to me because they went ahead of me and by the time I got to the class many of my teachers already had in their head what I was going to be like. The world was going to be a different place for me. It was a place free of all encumbrances…so I thought. The politics of school was very frustrating. This was my motivation to skip half my senior class days. I had checked out in the 10th grade and the next two years was simply marking time.
School was a popularity contest. It was for the strong, the attractive and the athletic. It was not for people like me. I was not attractive, athletic, smart or popular. I was lumped into that group of kids least likely to succeed. And once you get in that mix there is no way you can get out while in the system. My only hope was to get out of the system and the prejudice that abounded in the system. I walked right off that stage and into the work world. No beach for me. No sentimentality either. I finished my time and I was out of there. I had no functional parents, no teacher support, no friends and no future…unless I carved it out for myself. Needless to say, I went into the work world with a significant chip on my shoulder.
The cool thing for me was that I was now the quarterback, the person in charge, the president of the class. I elected myself and I had a game plan. I was going to make a million dollars by the time I was 30 years old.
Being the fourth brother it would seem there was little trailblazing to do, but because my two oldest ones were in prison by this time and the third one was in the Army, I was the first of the five to graduate. I suppose since the first three didn’t make it to the finish line it was generally understood (or at least anticipated) that I would not make it either. In that sense it was a big event for a “Thomas boy” to graduate high school. God has been kind to me. My life has had many hardships, but he has protected me from a lot and has given me much.
I am doing way better than I deserve.
DECA stands for Distributive Education Clubs of America. I’m not sure what that means. What it was however was an organization where senior high school students got credit for having jobs during their senior year. I received school hour credit for working a job. I went to school around 8:30 or so and got out around noon or so my entire senior year. I do not remember what classes I took in those morning hours. I assume it was two classes. The truth is I skipped half or more of those days during that year. One of the classes was my DECA class. We met at the last morning hour, I think, and they supposedly prepped you for the workforce. I hardly showed up, but did show up enough to keep folks off my back. I suppose the reason no one really said anything is because it was my last year and there wasn’t a lot of purpose in doing anything. I wasn’t bothering anyone. I was not going to go to college so just let him go seemed to be the attitude. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the attitude was something else. I really do not know. However, I was out of class half as much as I was present.
My schedule looked something like this. I would get up and go to school. The time was probably around 8:30 AM to be in class. I would go to one or two classes and then my DECA class after that. I would leave and have the afternoon free. Typically, I would go to the theater and watch a movie and then around 4 PM I would go to work and work until midnight. Hardees would close at 11 PM and then there would be one hour to clean the place up. I would go home, sleep until 7 AM or so and then do it all over again. I had the money and movies were not expensive in those days. It killed some time. It kept me out of trouble and it kept me in an anti-social state which was my preference. I suppose I could have done other things, but there was not much to do in Monroe and I didn’t have any real friends at that time. Everyone from first grade to now that I ran with was planning their next life. Some of them were going to college and others were arranging their future work careers. There were a number of them that were farm boys and they were busy doing that. So I took my cues and did the same. I was moderately successful in my small world as a Hardee’s restaurant employee.
By the time the 11th grade came around I had pretty much settled down. I’m not sure if I was using drugs by this time. If I was then it wasn’t much longer before I quit. The reason I did drugs was not a matter of addiction. It was more about fear of man than being drawn to the drug itself. I would drink and do different drugs because that is what my family did, it was the only crowd I could hang around, seemingly no one else would spend time with me and there was some gratification from getting high. The gratification was not that important. The other liabilities to drugs were weighing much more on me. I quit. It was stupid and certainly not worth it.
I quit drinking, drugging and stopped cursing as well. My hair had peaked out around my shoulder blades. I began cutting it shorter and shorter. These were the elemental steps of self-reformation. It was time to wise-up. I think Robby was in prison by this time. If he was not, he was about to go. Joey may have been in prison by this time as well. He made it into the 12th grade, but went to prison before he could finish. Two brothers in prison, it was not a good sign for me. Gary made it into the 12th grade, but he fell by the wayside as well. It seemed as though the door was locked to graduation. Three brothers had the opportunity and all three of them failed. Gary ended up joining Army. He would say Monroe was a bust. Here we are 30 years later and he would still say something similar. What he still hasn’t got is the problem is in the heart, not our external world. It wasn’t about Monroe; it was (and is) about the heart.
The eleventh grade was uneventful. I do not remember much about it. I can only remember one class and that is vague to me. My life was heading outside of school by this time. I wouldn’t be able to remember the 12th grade if I had not been part of DECA. DECA was related to my work. Otherwise there was not much to retain regarding my school. I was going to turn over a new leaf and anything that didn’t seem worthy to retain I was not going to bother with. School was one of those things I discarded. After 11 years of torture I was ready to walk away. The only regret to this decision is that I have lived to see that better education would have been a good thing for me. I threw the baby out with the bath water. However, at that time I was thinking I didn’t need school and the thing that I excelled at was work and therefore I am going to go out, get a job and become a successful person. Work was my out. Prison took my two oldest brothers and the Army grabbed the third one. Work grabbed me. At the end of the day it did not matter who got us. We were angry kids who were very frustrated and we were looking for an out. I found my out. My approach seemed more respectable, as well as Gary’s approach. At the end of the day we both ended up with dysfunctional families of our own, divorced and starting over one more time 20 or so years later.
I learned how to make time bombs in the 10th grade. We would take a smoke bomb and put a filter-less cigarette on the end of it. We would light the cigarette, place it on the stem of the smoke bomb, place it in an inconspicuous place and about 10 minutes later it would go off. The one time I did this that I remember was at the door of Mrs. Bolden’s English class. I set it up, went inside and became the model student. That should have been a hint that I was up to something. I was actually paying attention and acting interested in the class. About 10 minutes into the class smoke began to bellow under the door and out in the hall. It was a big time mess. I think the alarms went off and we had to evacuate the class. It was the perfect crime. They never knew I did it. About 20 years later, after becoming a Christian, I went back to Forest Hills to find Mrs. Bolden to apologize to her. She was a meek, nice and unassuming teacher. I shouldn’t have done that. I could not find her. She was probably dead by that time.
Another time in her class I was doing purple microdot. It was an acid. It caused you to hallucinate in some of the wildest ways. I was setting on the end row, next to the wall. My head was laying on the desk and all of a sudden I saw the desk going up into the air in a roller coaster type motion. It was really wild. I said something about it, but I can’t remember what happened after that. I think Mrs. Bolden ignored it. I think she had a clue about what was going on.
I had a specially made jacket with several inside pockets. This was my drug jacket. I would go to the restroom at break and open it up and folks would shop for what they wanted. It was mostly joints of various sizes and brands. Robby supplied me with the drugs, I would give him the money and make a little profit on the side. It was careless days for sure. We lived out in the open, more or less, with our drugs. It was a different culture than today.
During the 10th grade I began skipping school a lot. This was the fruition of my “I don’t really give a damn” days. I was angry and frustrated with life. I decided I would do whatever I wanted. This attitude was short-lived. I was arrested and put in jail. That was a good thing. As fast as I went up, I came back down to earth and begin to think of another strategy for my life.
The one big positive highlight was sitting in my typing class with Mrs. Russian was my substitute teacher. She was trying to get to know us and she asked us our names, first, middle and last. She asked mine and I told her and she wrote this on the chalkboard: “R. L. Thomas”. She stepped back, looked at it and said, “You are going to be famous someday. Your name sounds important.” I never forgot that. It was probably the most encouraging thing to happen to me during these years. Many years later I went back to Monroe and tried to find her as well. I think I did. I called her (or a lady named Mrs. Russian) and told her the story and that I’d like to come visit with her. She thought I was a kook and would not tell me where she lived. She was probably 70 by that time.
This was a momentous grade. Oh, where to start…
I was detained in my typing class for a good reason, which I do not remember at this time. However, it made me late for my biology class and Mrs. Williams sent me to the office because I was late. We called her “Ruby Lips” because she wore deep red lipstick and had big lips. She also has very white skin and blue hair. She was old. I used to say she reminded me of the American flag. Anyway, I went to the office and since I didn’t have anything else to do I took out a book and began reading it. This was one of those rare moments when I was really minding my own business and not doing anything wrong, really. Mr. Hargette came into the office and asked me what I was doing. I said I was reading a book, which was a smart (and obvious) answer. This made him angry. He slapped the book out of my hand and it went sliding across the floor into the other office. He began hollering at me. He said I was a “Thomas” and that I would never amount to anything. I was trash, always will be trash and I was just like my brothers. It was in some sort of surreal, numb shock. I wasn’t afraid, but it was a very real and odd moment. He said what many of my teachers thought and I think this thought was more pervasive than I was aware of at that time. I don’t remember what happened after that. He didn’t hit me.
In the first three days or so of my 10th grade year I was in my typing class. Jimmy Roberson and I began to laugh (snicker) at something. It was one of those moments where the more you do for it the worse it gets. I don’t remember what we were laughing at and it probably was not funny. We were trying not to disrupt the class and I don’t think we were. Mrs. McAfee, the wife of the East Union principal, stopped the class and began to scold us. She said to me, “I had your brothers and now I have you. I’m not going to put up with it.” That stung. It really hurt. It cut deep. It was like I was in this trap and I couldn’t get out of it. It seemed at that point that I sort of gave up. They wouldn’t let me be an honor student at East Union and now the ban was continued at Forest Hills. This was one of my most significant highlights of the 10th grade. I was sad and angry.
We began doing “wind trips” in the 10th grade. A wind trip is when you breathe deeply 10 times and somebody comes up behind you and gives you a long bear hug. You pass out at that point for about 10 seconds. I did this many times. One time I did it at the door of Mrs. Williams’ class. I passed out and fell into the room. I awoke a few seconds later. I don’t remember what Mrs. Williams did. Maybe nothing. Some things were so bizarre that the best response is probably to do nothing. She did nothing.
Loraine Maria Roldan was an exchange student from Mexico. She stayed with some Hispanic Americans who had been living in Wingate for a long time and were friends of Gary, at least the girl who was in Gary’s grade. I can’t remember her name or the family’s name. Somehow they had Loraine come over for one year and she went to Forest Hills High School. She was in my class and I promptly fell in love with her. I still have some of her stamps, cards and things in a scrap book. She was not particularly pretty and a bit overweight. However, she was different and she did not judge me as a Thomas. She talked to me as a person, the person I was. I didn’t have to fight through the history that was in place regarding our family. I didn’t have to fight through 9 school years of mistakes. She saw me, we talked and we liked one another. I’m quite sure I liked her more than she like me. However, being the socially inept person I was there would be no way I could judge such things. It was a fun year from that perspective.
I don’t thing much else went on that year. It was a normal, uneventful year from what I remember. This was the time when I had just finished my Judd’s Restaurant career and went on to the Dairy Mart and just before my Hardee’s career.
Forest Hills was a good school and it was fun to be there. There was not as much pressure on performing from my classmates. We all got lost in the crowd. The small group that came into first grade was now swallowed up and our strengths and weaknesses were not as glaring. The popular guy’s strengths were not as intimidating and my weaknesses were not as conspicuous. To some of the upper classmen I was Robby’s little brother. It was not as pressurized and it was also a new start. It was the first time since the second grade that I had been around so many students four years older than me and when I was in the second grade I didn’t notice them (the six graders) at all. To come to Forest Hills and see these big teens was a different kind of experience. I felt like a little kid in a young adult world. Bobby Myers and Johnny Lowery and Tommy Lowery were so grown up. They appeared big and had it all together. It was a fresh new group to be impressed with and intimidated by. Intimidated, but not in a bad way. I was not competing with them. They were not peers.
It was all new. In some ways I could carve out my own life w/o the expectations of being a failure because of my pedigree. In other ways the self-fulfilling prophecy of being a failure was in full force. By the end of the year Loraine was leaving, the newness had worn off and I was about to become an adult for the first time in my life.
Eighth grade was like the seventh as far as my teachers. I do not remember them. I do remember getting in a fight with Joe Little. We called him Little Joe Little. He was a skinny black boy. I don’t remember if this was the 7th or 8th grade. I don’t remember what we were fighting about. It was in the restroom. I was doing okay until he grabbed my hair and started tossing me around. My hair was long, cool, but a definite disadvantage. We had to go and see Mr. McAfee the school principal. He paddled us. It was a painful experience. When we went back to our class we were walking through the auditorium and I asked Joe if the paddling hurt. He laughed and said it did. We became best of friends from that point on.
One time in class a student had their arm up in a straight-arm position with their hand up against the wall. They were blocking my path. It was a girl and I think it was Teri Absher. I told her I wanted to get by and she said “No”. It was all tongue-in-cheek. I walked and pretended to get clipped at the neck by her arm and fell on the floor. She laughed and several of the people watching laughed as well. It was at that point I learned I could fake people out with pranks and humor. I learned I was funny and could make people laugh. That is where it all began.
Sometime during this time we did a school play. This may have been the sixth grade. The teacher wanted me to be the orator of the school play because she said I had the ability to project to the back row, I was a good speaker she said. These two things put together stirred something in me though I had no idea how it was going pan out in my life. I certainly didn’t think I would be a public speaker as part of my career.
I met Jimmy Roberson during middle school. He was an athlete. He later went to UNC to play football. I don’t think he made it to the pros. His dad was a champion weightlifter. Jimmy became one after college, though I’m not sure if he ever placed like his dad. He was a huge boy, physically. We had a brief life of crime together. We stole the money bag in a local liquor store. The owner kept his money bag in the cooler. We saw it while buying some wine and then made a plan to steal the money. We did. The cops pulled us while in Monroe and we set the cups full of money (we were counting out our haul) underneath the car when they weren’t watching. They took us downtown. When Jimmy pulled the car out he rolled over the cups and the money went in a 1000 directions. I think we were in the 10th grade at this time.
The eighth grade was uneventful I think. Next year: high school. That was a big deal.