In sixth grade, we had the fear of drugs put into us by a D.A.R.E. officer. His name was Officer Ren and he was the father of one of my classmates. He told us D.A.R.E. stood for Drug Awareness Resistance Education, but locally it also meant Do As Ren Expects.
Officer Ren was actually a pretty cool dude, and my whole class really did want him to be proud of us. One definite way that we could let him down would be to do drugs. Any and all drugs, but he really wanted us to be aware of the hard hitters – your heroin, your crack, your PCP.
In the most anticipated class of the series, Officer Ren passed around a case of narcotics. They were sectioned off and pinned down like butterfly specimens. You know, like how you find drugs in the real world. There were rows of little bags filled with what looked to be spices pulled from my mom’s cupboard. But they weren’t spices, just like the medicine cabinet pills we were warned about in first through third grade were not candies. As I understood it, drugs took many innocuous forms. Once indoctrinated into the D.A.R.E. program, a simple trip to the kitchen became a terrifying moral dilemma. What if I meant to salt my corn on the cob and accidentally overdosed on cocaine? It all felt very possible. My life hummed with danger.
Ren told us we’d see these drugs again, but next time they’d be in the hands of some dealer, slinging powders outside the high school. I recall him saying, “They’ll pop out at you from behind trees and force you to do drugs.” He painted a terrifying Wild West scene of what life would be like outside the safe confines of my elementary school. I never heard my older brother talking about these brazen drug pushers, but figured Officer Ren was a man of the law, and would know best.
When I got to middle school I approached trees with caution, yet remained unsuccessful at meeting local junkies. Some of my more advanced classmates must have been starting to experiment, although it was only the sexual escapades that made the rumor mill. I must have heard at least 25 hand job-blow job stories between the ages of 12 and 14. There was the one with the bathroom stall and the angry math teacher, the one on the back of the bus, the one in the tent. They were like stupid Friends episodes, if all the gang ever did was give each other hand jobs.
Officer Ren never told us about that kind of stuff. Perhaps he should have. A handful of girls got pregnant junior year, but they seemed to be doing okay not getting addicted to speed.
I did not drink or touch boys in middle school. I respected the D.A.R.E. vow, but it’s also not like I ever had a chance to do that stuff. Okay, I did, but this is what it looked like: an unlocked bar stocked with the most stringent whiskey and old man liquors you will ever encounter. It was my friend’s dad’s bar, and as a 27-year-old I would very much like to have it in my apartment. As a do-gooder teen, my friends and I used it to pretend we were meeting secret admirers for dates. This may explain why boys were not an issue: We would rather role-play with our crushes than actually talk to them. This was also happening right as AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) became popular, which further enabled our weird non-relationships with the other sex.
AIM gave way to a fake confidence I had never known. LaxBoy8421, an untouchable, creased white hat in real life, was my equal online. All I had to do to talk was click a screen name, type, and hit send. I didn’t have to deal with making that long, death row walk to Jake/Chris/Evan’s locker, where any number of embarrassing things could happen. I could carefully plan my words, and say funny things like “sarcasm is just one of the many services I offer lololol.”
But the real world was still the real world. The same boy I’d riff with in chat boxes about the merits of uncooked cafeteria cookies, I’d ignore in the halls. We’d both look the other way. I wanted to have a real relationship with a boy, but I didn’t want to look anyone in the eye.
I took a swig of Manischewitz in the basement of Sam Friedman’s house when I was 15. That was my first taste of alcohol. It was anticlimactic. I didn’t get hooked on it instantaneously, like Officer Ren had said. Though I kind of wish I had. I could have been the first teen kosher wino. But I didn’t like the taste, and I didn’t drink again until after high school.
The first time I got drunk, I was 19. I was contending for the biggest cliché award by getting wasted on St. Patrick’s Day. But before that, in my pure high school years, still under the watchful eye of the Lord and the influence of Officer Ren’s teachings, I began to experiment ever so slightly with boys.
The first boy I ever hung out with alone was the same kid to tell me I was beautiful over AIM. He would later leave a smashed up video game in my locker, as a symbol of what he was willing to give up if we got back together. His parents were divorced, and I’d go over his mom’s creepy sterile McMansion and sweatily palm a handshake with his stepdad, who had adult braces. Down in the basement, we spent the summer watching the weirdest selection of movies and TV ever compiled: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, The Human Stain, Family Guy, and Runaway Jury. There were just a few. At the end of each, we’d turn to each other like clockwork and put our faces together for a time that felt adequate. It was just a thing to do, not before or during, but immediately following and then never again until the next week.
I don’t know if that’s what Officer Ren expected of me. The authority figure in him would probably be pleased with our Mormon courtship. But cool guy Ren would probably shake his head, wondering why we couldn’t just be spontaneous and in the moment like the couple of freewheeling teenagers we technically were.
I’ll tell you why I couldn’t be a freewheeling teenager, Officer Ren. I once hid in a closet when my brother brought his friend over, because I couldn’t handle talking to boys. I was late to every class the first half of 7th grade because I couldn’t figure out how to unlock my locker, and regularly broke down crying until a kindly math teacher took me in and showed me how locks work. I didn’t wear socks with my shoes at an outdoor marching band competition in high school, and could not forgive myself for weeks after. I viewed the Sadies Hawkins dance as a real-life house of horrors, filled with undulating shirtless torsos and infinite ways to prove to my classmates I was not in fact human, but a pile of old newspapers poorly impersonating a girl. To say that I was wound tightly would be accurate.
My strong desire to be in control is the number one reason I waited so long to cut loose. I did not like the idea of doing something I wouldn’t remember the next day. That seemed terrifying. I’m glad I didn’t realize then that alcohol could have perhaps helped me get out of my comfort zone and live a little. But I believed Ren – a little experimentation here, a little experimentation there, and my whole suburban existence would come crumbling down.
With sex education, you are not limited to an abstinence only discussion. You can talk about the ways where if you’re going to do it, you can be safe about it. But with drinking and drug use, it’s tough to explain moderation. Liquor tastes awful the first, third, tenth time you drink it. So you cover it up with juices and mix it into a big punch bowl and you succeed in forgetting what you are drinking. Beer tastes even worse. The way to get through a beer is much like liquor: you have to keep drinking to forget about the taste. You have to drink it fast, so you do things like funnel and shotgun it because that does the trick. Early liquor and beer exploration is done with the singular goal of getting fucked up. There is no curriculum to teach alcohol moderation and safe drinking. Of course, there were many kids who got through high school while under some influence, but how they did it I’ll never know. It still scares me to think about a drunk 14-year-old.
This is all to say that maybe Officer Ren’s scared straight tactics, although not accurate, worked. The drug boogeyman never jumped out from behind the trees, but he lived in my subconscious fears until I graduated and moved to college.
In college, I finally let loose. Safe in my dorm room, with my new best friends by my side, we stole sips from a bottle of Smirnoff Ice stashed inside a Linens ‘n Things ottoman. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t the worst thing, and after the bottle was finished I was funnier. For the first time in my life I was doing something bad, and I was not immediately killed for doing so.
I don’t have Office Ren’s number, so I can’t call him up. I want to let him know I’m okay, but that his extremist, “all or nothing” take on drinking and drugs did me no favors. He couldn’t have known this, but in sixth grade I was already a fearful child. The D.A.R.E. dogma was just another brick I used to guard myself away from living a life. I used to think if I went left when I was told to go right I’d fall into a pit, and my family would weep for eternity over that pit. Now I know that even if I fall into a pit, it’s not the end of the world.
This was originally performed at Is This a Thing?
Ali Kelley is a writer living in Chicago. She co-produces Story Club Chicago and performs her stories at series around the city. You can find her talking about ’90s pop culture and teen angst on her blog Sleepoverz and HelloGiggles.