“Here dad, let me help you.”
The young man sitting across the table from me took the form from his father and carefully filled it out. His dad couldn’t read or write. Couldn’t do it at all.
“I don’t want to be like that.”
It was more than just a thought. It was visceral.
At that point, I knew for sure I had to get out of Fort St. John, go back to the coast and finish Grade 12. I had been saving from my job in the radiator shop, but now I saved hard. I didn’t go out, stayed in my room mostly. There was nowhere to go but the bar anyway and it was usually 30 below outside and blowing.
I had to go back to school. If I failed, it would be strike three for me.
Strike one had been initiated by the BC Quest program in Grade 11, my educational Waterloo.
Going back to regular classes at Prince of Wales High School for my final year just hadn’t sat well after the freewheeling, relaxed and loose atmosphere of the wilderness education program the year before.
I didn’t thrive and for the first half of my senior year I was just pretty much waiting for it to be over, It was starting to look like I might not make it.
When a buddy urged me to join him at a wilderness school and goat farm that was a 13 kilometre boat ride up Powell Lake on the Sunshine Coast, I jumped at the idea.
My poor parents, at their wits’ end, eventually and reluctantly agreed that maybe … maybe this would help me graduate.
I quit Prince of Wales and headed off into the bush.
We didn’t know it a the time, but over the next year we gradually came to the realization that our goat farm could more accurately be described as a cougar ranch. We lost one goat after the other, sometimes two at a time. The educational component turned out to be equally compromised.
Yeah, there was some schooling, mostly by correspondence, but the farm was definitely my strike two. I made some effort, but everyone else was working in the barn or hiking up a local mountain, and, when summer came, swimming in the lake. So was I.
I left Fiddlehead Farm eventually, without graduating and, after spending a couple of weeks living in an unwitting friend’s garage loft, headed north to Fort St. John to seek my fortune.
And now, dollar by dollar, I was building my war chest to eventually come home and — somehow — finish what I started way back in Kindergarten.
I made that move, when I was ready and one day found myself at a ramshackle collection of huts at 12th and Cambie in Vancouver.
It was called Total Education, an alternate school run out of Eric Hamber. Teacher Richard Neil welcomed me to his class — all couches and pillows on the floor — and eventually became my mentor, my Go master and fondly remembered friend.
Some months later, it was in the back yard of his house that I, dressed in tuxedo, cape, white gloves and cane and surrounded by a class of 12, finally accomplished my goal and graduated from high school.
It was a first, halting step towards eventually getting a post-secondary education and becoming a contributing member of society… ha ha, just kidding, I’m a reporter. I get it. But at least I’m not on welfare.
So you guys in high school, I guess my message to you is this: if an addled, rebellious hippie like me could keep it together enough, eventually, to graduate, I bet you can do it, too.
I know the school year may seem long and the frustrations, disappointments, heartbreaks and even failures can grow to something that seems overwhelming and you might want to quit, but you know what? Don’t.
Stick with it and do whatever you have to do over the next few months to get that piece of paper.
Take it from me. It really is worth it.
Neil Horner is the assistant editor of the Parksville Qualicum Beach News and a regular columnist