Thursday, June 27, 2013

It was a very different time

Over and over, people press me about how Dahmer got away with the things he did, especially the  drinking. How, they ask, astonished, could he stumble through the halls of the high school drunk? How could the adults be so oblivious? Why didn't any of us kids speak up?

The events in this book take place 35-40 years ago. Many of the themes in My Friend Dahmer resonate with readers who grew up in subsequent decades, but the Seventies were a very different time than any that followed. Dazed and Confused, (above) Richard Linklater's  chilling and hilarious film about this era, is spot on in its portrayal of the Seventies. 

It's not that there was an acceptance of stoner behavior by the adults. It's simply that many didn't understand this behavior at all. This might have been the last era when a true generation gap was in play. Most of our teachers in 1978 came of age in the Forties or Fifties. Recreational drugs, outside of booze, weren't part of their experience. Veteran teachers at Revere High told me it was the Class of 1969, a decade before my class,  that changed everything. And you can see that in the old yearbooks I used as reference. The 1968 yearbook is full of cleancut kids in suits and ties, with neatly trimmed hair and big poofy bouffants. In the 1969 yearbook, it looks like a spaceship from San Francisco dropped into the center of town and passed out goodies and love beads to town youth!  These same veteran teachers state that year was when they stopped enjoying the job. They didn't understand the kids, their attitudes, or their views. It was all alien to them. This generation gap was in place throughout the decade, into my era. There were some younger teachers by the time I reached high school, fresh out of college, who had been hippies themselves. They were clued in and weren't facing this generational chasm.  Five years later, they took over schools completely, and that's when the "fun" stopped. Or, at least, when it stopped being so open and casual.

Revere High was known far and wide as Reefer High. A legendary senior prank (above) by an earlier class replaced the letters on the outside of the school to the latter. Those shrubs there btw were Dahmer's favorite drinking spot, one I depict frequently in MFD.

Drug use, and abuse, of course, is more rampant in today's schools than it was in my time. But the kids are craftier, and the drugs harder to detect. You can snort the contents of a prescription pill in a few seconds in the hallway, with no one the wiser, unless the kid flips out in class. The substances of choice at Revere were pot and booze. Maybe some acid, among the hardcore stoners. 

The adults weren't watching in My Friend Dahmer, simply because that's how it was. There were no locker searches, no drug-sniffing dogs, no metal detectors. There were no cameras in the halls or the classrooms. Revere didn't have security personnel. And our parents weren't paying much closer attention! There were no cellphones with built-in GPS. Kids were on their own, to do as they pleased, usually with no adult the wiser. Restraint was up to us, not forced on us by the adults. Now it so happens, I was a straight arrow. I didn't drink, smoke or do drugs. This also cemented my status as an unpopular band dork, but I'm thankful that was the path I followed. Especially looking out over the carnage the stoner life inflicted on those caught up in it: the heavy smokers who died horribly of cancer, those who lost decades to booze and drug abuse, and those who died from their excesses. It's a, if you'll pardon the pun, sobering role call.

 Thing was, even if you weren't a stoner, you operated by the Stoner Code. And the great rule of that code was: never narc. Ever! If you were branded as a narc by your schoolmates, your life became a living hell. You would friendless and in constant danger of a beating.

This was drummed in to us starting in junior high. As alarmed as I was by Dahmer's behavior, it never entered my mind to turn him in. To be perfectly honest, I wasn't going to risk my neck for him, especially by the end of our time together when he really wasn't very likable. I've taken quite a lot of shit for that from people that just don't comprehend what it was like in the Seventies. I tried to drive the reality of it home in the book– I feared I may have hit this theme to hard– but some still just can't grasp it.

Shortly after we graduated, things changed. Reagan was elected and he began the disastrous War on Drugs, which wasted trillions trying to stop the drug trade. It failed miserably, of course, but it dramatically changed the high school experience, because teenagers had no say in the War of Drugs. Suddenly, cops were in the schools, lecturing students and searching lockers. I well remember the very first locker search at Revere, around 1983 as memory serves. The local paper reported the haul of drugs, booze, and even a couple weapons, to a shocked populace in our small Mayberry-like (or so everyone thought) town. At the same time, teachers and administrators were trained to spot drug behavior and zero-tolerance policies became the norm. They couldn't stop kids from getting stoned, but they could kick out the stoners. Within five years, it would have been far more difficult for Dahmer to drink as he did. I'll bet, however, he would have adjusted to the new reality.

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