When I was in high school, the thing I disliked most was when folks would tell me, "These are the best years of your life." My
inevitable reply was, "Oh, I hope not."
I didn't much like high school. I had already decided what I was going to do with my life — or, at least, try to start
doing with my life. As almost none of what you officially learn in high school seemed relevant to my chosen life's work (a background in
Chemistry and Trigonometry is so essential to a career in comedy-writing), I looked upon those three years as an enormous "stage wait"...something
that had to be gotten-through before I could get on with my real life.
Still — in ways I only realized much later — my three years at University High had a certain value in learning how to
relate to others, how to get along with people, how to deal with those with whom you cannot possibly get along.
Not that I have those skills completely mastered today...but whatever I do right or wrong in those areas, I was worse in tenth
grade. Everybody was. The nice thing about high school is that it ends. You can make all manner of social mistakes, mess up and
generally make a royal jerk of yourself —
— and then, ten minutes after Graduation Day, none of it matters.
You move out of that circle and into a different circle...with new friends and new problems and new opportunities to make an idiot of
yourself. Perhaps, thanks to what you learned the first time around, you'll be a little less apt to make that happen. (And even if your
post-high school life includes some people who knew you in high school, there's an unwritten rule that they'll forgive you for all the stupid things
you said and did in high school. They have to if they expect you to forget all the knuckleheaded things they did back then.)
I have forgotten darn near everything I learned in the classrooms of Uni Hi. I took two years of Spanish and I can barely speak
three sentences of it today...none of it learned there, all of it learned from working with a Mexican cartoonist for twenty-five years. I took
two years of Chemistry and the only thing I remember is how many words I was able to fashion out of the abbreviations for the chemical elements
spelled out on the chart above the teacher. If you put Mr. Buck's Geometry final in front of me today and offered me a thousand bucks for every
question I could answer, I'd have to pray for credit for getting my name right.
(Speaking of Chemistry and finals: We had a Chemistry teacher named Mr. Payton who taught his class on a simple principle: No
matter what you did, no matter how hard you studied, you could not pass. He kept everyone — even the occasional student who had a genuine
aptitude for balancing Redox Equations or whatever we did — in a state of Perpetual Failure. Not one student in his five periods passed
his mid-term and, when a bunch of us took a blank copy of that test over to the school's other Chemistry teacher, Mr. Dennison, and got him to try to
fill it out, even he barely managed a D-. At the end of the semester, Mr. Payton would elevate everyone two grade levels — if you were at
an "F" level in his book, you'd get a "C" and pass — and he'd explain how he was doing us all a favor by teaching his class at a "college
level." I'm sure he honestly believed that. I'm also sure he was wrong. We all spent a lot of time, neglecting classes more
relevant to our future lives, cramming for his tests, memorizing things we'd forget forever right after the final and, in general, coming to loathe
the whole subject of Chemistry. The legacy of my days in his charge is that I know absolutely nothing about Chemistry, save that I never want
to venture anywhere near it. Nice going, Mr. Payton.)
But I do remember a lot of things I learned in high school...almost all of them, things I learned in the hallways and locker rooms and
lunch area about people...almost all of them things that I learned, either by screwing-up at something or by observing as someone else screwed-up at
something before I could.
I watched Tom Fishburn invent some of the most offensive ways ever to invite a girl out. Tom was not a bad-looking guy, not
otherwise repellent in any visible way...and yet, when it came time to suggest the possibility of dating, he had a way of not only getting his foot
in his mouth but cramming his entire shin, lower leg, kneecap and much of his thigh in there with it. One time, he confided in me that he had
conceived (and even rehearsed) the perfect approach to ask Cindy Blevins out and he walked up to her at lunch and said, "Let's go out Saturday night
and maybe one or both of our faces will clear up."
To this day, I have no idea why that sounded hip and appealing when he thought of it...or what phrase similar to that he might have
intended to say, instead. But history will show that Tom and Cindy never went out, neither of their faces cleared up any time soon...and I
began to perceive the folly of trying to win a lady with a "line" instead of just talking to her like a person.
(I wasn't always wise enough to adhere to that lesson, sad to say, but at least Tommy Fishburn provided some education...which is more
than I can say for Mr. Payton.)
And from Lewis Stanley, I learned the utter folly of lying. Lewis was incapable of telling the truth and everyone knew it; if he
said the sun was out, everyone would rush to open an umbrella. Had he been a little older, he might have had a fine career in the Nixon
Administration, for he was also incapable of keeping his lies going. He got caught on every danged one of them and, when he did, he
didn't know how to cut his losses and admit it. He'd defend every one of his fibs to the death, piling falsehood upon falsehood, saying
whatever he thought would get him off the hook at that moment. And, of course, he only got himself in deeper and deeper.
Like most liars, he tended to forget what he had said and to whom; he once told a group of us a long anecdote about meeting Joey
Heatherton (a popular TV-movie sex symbol of the moment) the previous weekend and being in her dressing room at CBS...and assorted intimations,
calculated to extract a little envy from others. A day later, at another lunch hour, he was asked to repeat the tale for others...and Lewis
simply was unable to reconstruct what he had said the day before. (Believe me: If you were a sixteen-year-old boy and Joey Heatherton had
changed her clothes in the same room you were in, even with a screen between the two of you, you would not forget a single detail of the
moment.) To further bury his story, the third time he told the tale of last weekend in the CBS dressing room, it was in a group that — he
found out, the hard way — included a cousin of Ms. Heatherton's who announced that Joey was in England for four months shooting a movie.
When you're young, every story — every Aesop's Fable — tells you that you should never lie because it's bad and it's not
nice and you wouldn't like it if people lied to you. All well and good. But they never tell you the best reason not to lie: The best
reason is that it usually doesn't work. Not on anything worth lying about, anyway. You get caught and, when you get caught, you lose more
than you might gain in those few cases where you got away with it.
This, Lewis never learned. But a lot of us did from watching him and the troubles he got himself into.
And, just to do one more of these, from Dean Effner I learned about the value of having a good reputation. (By the way, since I
just inveighed against lying, I want to make sure you all know that I've changed the names of all the classmates I'm mentioning. In order not
to possibly harm someone, I've put in phony names for all the people here...all but Mr. Payton.)
Dean didn't have a good reputation. He had a terrible one. He was a bad student, a constant breaker of rules, a real
troublemaker, as they say. I was the one with the good reputation: Spotless. My cumulative school record said I was a bright kid, an
advanced kid (I skipped a couple of grades), a never-get-into-any-kind-of-trouble kid. The worst thing you could find on there was that I had a
tendency to blurt out silly quips and puns in class and one teacher wrote, "...has an annoying tendency to catch teachers in mistakes and to be
That's what my record said. I'm not saying it was correct or even that it was something to be proud of (that kid, the one
depicted on my cumulative record, had a lot of problems that he had to work out to start functioning in an adult world) but that was what it said on
One day, as we dressed after a gym class, Dean — who, through the wonders of alphabetical locker assignment had the locker above
mine — decided to renew a trick I'd seen him perform on others. I took off one of my gym shoes and, before I could put it into my locker,
Dean grabbed it, threw it in his locker and slammed the door shut, thereby locking it inside. He said, "Give me a dime or you'll never get your
It was a slimy little trick because there was no good way to deal with it. If you called the gym teacher over, by the time he got
there, Dean would have opened his locker, taken out the shoe and pitched it across the tops of the lockers to elsewhere in the dressing
room...forcing you to go look for it and, at the same time, look like a sissy for "telling." On the other hand, you didn't want to give him the
dime and/or look like a pushover.
When he did it to me, I paused for a second to think of a clever way to deal with the situation and then I came up with one. I
punched Dean in the mouth.
This was not, nor has it ever become, my preferred means of dealing with problems. In over a quarter of century since, I have
engaged in what you might call fisticuffs a grand total of twice, both times because it was unavoidable. (I have, however, written about eight
hundred fight scenes for comic books.) I probably should not have punched Dean Effner but, at just that moment, it seemed like my best
As punches go, it wasn't a biggie; probably didn't hurt him at all. But he dove at me in response and we started to wrestle in
the narrow space between lockers while all the other guys, of course, started yelling, "Fight, fight, fight!" Coach Thurman rushed in, broke it
up, had us finish getting dressed and then delivered us to the Boy's Vice-Principal for appropriate discipline.
I don't mind telling you I was nervous, sitting there in his outer office. Dean had started the problem but I had thrown the
first (really, the only) punch. I mentally began constructing a way of telling my side of it that shifted as much blame as possible to
him. On the other side of the office, Dean was glaring at me and saying, "You're gonna get it...they're gonna throw the book at you...hitting
me like that..."
As it happened though, they didn't throw the book at me. I didn't even get to tell my highly-slanted version of what had
transpired. The Boy's Vice-Principal looked at my record and then he looked at Dean's record and then he expelled Dean from school.
There was no trial, no hearing, no appeal, not even a lot of discussion. To make certain he'd made the right decision, the Veep
polled a couple of Dean's teachers and a couple of mine. They all — every one of them — said that Dean was a fight-starter and that
the notion of Straight-"A" Evanier throwing a punch at someone was well into the realm of science-fantasy.
So I got off. I also got a helluva lot of congrats from classmates who'd always wished someone would paste Dean Effner in the
mouth. Moral of the story: A good reputation is sometimes the most valuable thing you can have in this world.
About three years later, I was shopping in Santa Monica when a kid walked up to me, identified himself as Dean and said, "You don't
remember me, do you? You got me thrown out of school."
"No," I said. "You got you thrown out of school. You're the one who earned yourself that sparkling reputation by stealing
dimes and picking on people. If it hadn't been the thing with me, it would have been something else."
To my surprise — I was half-waiting to see if he was going to throw a punch my way — the guy said, "You're right...I was
just begging for it, the way I was acting..."
I asked him what had happened to him after that day he'd been tossed unceremoniously out of Uni. He said they'd allowed him to
sign up at another high school on the other side of town and it was such a pain, just physically getting to and from school every day that he'd
gotten himself bounced from that one, too, for cutting classes. He'd given up on high school at that point and gotten a job in a gas
Recently, someone tipped him off that guys like him who hadn't finished high school were prime candidates for the Draft and that he
would soon be on his way to Viet Nam. He had decided to try and avoid military service and get his life on track where it had derailed; to that
end, he had just enrolled in a High School Completion summer course back at our old alma mater, University High.
He did not thank me for hitting him; that reformed, he wasn't. But he did let me know that he had no grudges about what had
happened. "If I'd been in your place, I'd have hit me too," he said.
That was the last time I ever saw the guy. He never showed for any of our high school reunions.
I'd like to think he went back to Uni and got his diploma and avoided the draft and got a good career going somewhere. High
school, I decided when I got out of it, is three years of social engineering. If you don't know how to read and write before you get there,
nothing they do is going to help you. The important thing is to just get through it in one piece, learn from your and everyone's mistakes and
then get on with your life. Dean, I'd like to think, did that. If he applied himself, he could have gotten through high school
Then again, he might have had Mr. Payton for Chemistry.