Friday, September 12, 2014

Skipping School: A Young Man's Visit to City Hall

Robert Ellis
While I enjoyed college very much and graduated summa cum laude, something about high school just didn't agree with me. Yes, I was one of a handful of students who wrote and edited our high school newspaper, but at the time my family life left a lot to be desired. One night I went with friends to see the movie FIVE EASY PIECES. (Curiously, in an earlier post I had said that I didn't think a film could move me to the point of personal change, yet here's one that actually did).

After watching FIVE EASY PIECES I was never the same. I went back the next night by myself. The film was even better a second time around. It's probably a safe bet that I saw something of myself and my circumstance in Jack Nicholson's portrayal of Robert Dupea. The existential man living in a world with no purpose, no meaning or hope.

Jack Nicholson in Bob Rafelson's FIVE EASY PIECES
I started reading Camus. I bought a movie camera and began making my own films. But even more, I started skipping school to go to movies in downtown Philadelphia. This went on for more than a year until one afternoon I realized I'd seen every movie playing in town. For whatever reason, somehow I ended up at City Hall. At the time, the Criminal Justice Center hadn't been built, and criminal and civil cases were tried in the courtrooms here at the hall. I sat through two murder trials before catching a train back to the suburbs. The first trial would have been horrific for anyone. But for a teenager on the run, it changed everything: a man had come home from work and caught his wife in bed with his best friend. He kept a shotgun in the closet. He surprised them. He shot both of them before they could even get out of bed. He shot them dead, and from the crime scene photos the prosecutor was showing the jury, there was blood everywhere.

I took a deep breath and settled back in my chair. I could see the murderer sitting at the table with his attorney right in front of me. He must have sensed that I was staring at him. He turned and our eyes met. This was real life, and not a movie. I was a seventeen-year-old boy. 

FIVE EASY PIECES (40th Anniversary Poster)

I went home, my mind reeling, and wrote a short story based on the trial. And then I made a huge mistake. I turned the story into my English teacher! Today, I would have been kicked out of school, and who knows what else would have happened? My teacher, a very gentle woman, read my story and gave it an A, but said that it would require a parent teacher visit. In fact, she had already made the arrangements, and would be stopping by the house that very night.

After an hour of listening to my teacher, and then my parents, all trying to figure out if I was okay or not, they reached a final judgment. I had been pronounced sound in body and mind. In the end I had to agree to stop skipping school. In turn, my teacher agreed to give my future stories an A, but said that it was unlikely she would ever read one again. After she left, my parents seemed to shake it off. They'd read the story I'd written, and thought it was good.

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