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01.28.09

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Phaedra

Illustration by Stanley Mouse

Field Trippin'

One high school teacher's account of a trip he didn't mean to take

By John Moss


We were barely past MacArthur when I felt it beginning to take hold. It was a big Friday for me, taking 40 students on a walking field trip to our local bookstore, then a tour of the Community Center and, if there was enough time, a little sit-under-a-tree-and-read time for the students in the Plaza.

I was in my 10th year of teaching in the only alternative high school in the town of Sonoma. Fall semester I was teaching English, algebra, science and art to students who usually hate each of those subjects. My primary task was engagement: get the kids understanding why knowledge is power and why they should give a shit, and then fill in the blanks as they appear.

It was the beginning of the year, and my office manager had informed the staff two weeks ago that we suddenly had $4,000 to spend. "But spend it fast," she warned, "because you never know." Budget distribution in the district frequently means no money for long periods of time, then a big wad to be spent within two weeks before it disappears into another pot. I quickly scheduled a Friday walking field trip to Readers' Books, telling each student they had $15 to spend on a book of their choice. The only catch was that they would have to complete a book report. It's an excellent way to spend $600, as most of my students have never been in a bookstore, much less bought or read a book of their own.

At first I felt lightheaded, like I hadn't eaten anything or was out in the sun too long. Then I started noticing my legs. It felt like each step I took was propelling me up into the next. It was like I was walking on a brand-new track, only five times as springy. I noticed my whole body bouncing up and down. Something was amiss.

Drugs are a common topic in my classroom. The students have questions and I have answers, and if I can prevent one less overdose or drunken driving death, it's worth it. My students get fucked up. We live in the wine country, and whenever you live in a booze-based economy, kids are going to grow up with issues. Acid, mushrooms, meth, coke, prescription drugs and a whole lot of weed are what the students are into. You would think it would change after 25 years, but it's just the same as when I was in high school.

Max had left a screensaver depicting 12 tabs of Scooby-Doo windowpane acid on one of my classroom computers. I told him to do a research paper on Timothy Leary and quit being such an asshole. I think that's why he dosed me.

By the time I reached Chase Street, I had a pretty good awareness of what was happening. Some of the treetops were dancing in the heat and wind, and my mouth was extremely dry. I went straight to Max, who was walking about 20 feet behind me.

"How you feeling, Mr. Moss?" he said with a smirk.

"Max, this is by far the dumbest thing you've ever done. How'd you do it?" I asked.

"Coffee" he admitted.

"How much?" I inquired.

"Small drop, one to two doses, should keep you going for a while."

I ran through my options as best I could in my altered state, settling for what I thought was the most rational.

"Look, this is how it's going to go. I'm going to ride this out, and you're not going to tell anyone about it. Then you're going to be expelled and brought up on criminal charges for dosing your teacher. Finally, you are not going to tell anyone what you did as it will seriously jeopardize your outcome. Clear?" I was getting lightheaded again, but I could tell that the point was made.

"Yes, Mr. Moss" he responded.

I had a big day that I didn't want ruined by an LSD trip. Two years ago, a student had brought cookies made with marijuana butter to a teacher in the local middle school. After eating two, the student admitted to the prank. The student was expelled, and the teacher went to the hospital for tests and then home.

I had no time for that scenario; 10 years of following the Grateful Dead had trained me to control my experience. I used to volunteer with the Haight-Ashbury Rock-Med program, where I'd watch a guy named Doc Rock do drug talk-downs to people who were out of their minds. Besides, we were only going to the local bookstore, the community center and a park. How tough could it be? I was a professional; I could get through it.

Exploding Dahlias
Second Street East is one of those Sonoma streets that make tourists want to move here. Lovely restored cottages, perfect landscaping, large porches, shade trees--the American dream. I stopped at a white craftsman, similar to the home I grew up in. I was thinking how my dad, a newspaper writer, was able to pay for this house and our not-so-extravagant middle-class life (two kids, two cars, dog, tennis club membership, a cabin in the mountains) while I struggle like crazy working two jobs, hardly able to afford my mortgage in a little house on the other side of town, with no tennis club and certainly no cabin.

"Mr. Moss, are you OK?" It was Brenda, suddenly pulling me out of my thoughts. "The rest of the class is blocks ahead; you've been staring at this house forever."

"Uh, fine, let's catch up," I answered.

We walked on at a brisk pace. My lightheadedness prevented running, but I started smiling as I was still feeling the bounce in each step.

Roll with it, John, control the craziness, but let yourself feel the drug was my internal mantra as we caught up to the other students.

At the corner of East Napa and Second Street East, we met up with the rest of the group. My teaching assistant and I had made a plan to split up the students and take 20 to the bookstore and 20 to the community center then switch so as to not overwhelm either venue. I contemplated telling the TA what was up but then thought better of it.

"All right, seniors with me to the community center, everyone else with Mr. H, switch in half an hour. Any shenanigans and we cancel the next trip." Max was a junior, which was one of the reasons I wanted the seniors with me. The only thing worse than trying to hold it together while on drugs is having someone with you who knows you are trying to hold it together while on drugs. Also, most of the seniors had been with me for at least a year, and I knew they would be easier to control.

On the way to the community center, there's a bed and breakfast with the most beautiful dahlias growing in the front yard.

"What kind of flowers are these?" I asked when their heads suddenly began to explode like little fireworks. I watched for a minute then turned and kept walking. Hallucinations were rare in my previous LSD experience, but I already had dancing trees, bouncy sidewalks and exploding flowers. Dangerous signs this early in the trip.

Alex was waiting in front of the community center. Blond and cute, she is the executive director and a longtime professional friend of mine. I had a huge crush on her when I first moved to Sonoma, but we were both happily married, so the flirting never went anywhere dangerous.

"Welcome, Mr. Moss. Welcome students." She had a smile that made me turn away, as I didn't want to seem too happy to see her and I was worried about blowing it. I fixed my eyes on a statue of a giant metal salmon some 10 feet away on the front lawn. It is a huge statue I had admired before, created by my friend Martin who had attached a bicycle gear to the bottom so that it moved in the wind. It was spinning very slowly, and the vision centered me.

"John, are you coming?" Alex walked over to me; the students were already inside. I had heard nothing of Alex's introduction or history of the community center; I was just connecting with the salmon. "You feel all right? You look pale."

"Sure, fine, I just really like Martin's sculpture," I replied, taking way too long to pronounce "really." We walked inside where the students were looking at the artwork on the walls. I took my sunglasses off before realizing that they were acting as a shield between my drug-addled mind and the real world. I quickly put them back on.

Alex walked us around the community center, poking into classrooms and art rooms, saying little to me and focusing on the students. I told the students I had a new prescription so I needed to keep my sunglasses on. I had never worn glasses in the classroom, but nobody brought that up.

Meet the Lorax
We left the community center after what seemed like hours but was probably only 20 minutes. Alex gave me a sideways glance. I thanked her for the tour and I realized that I needed to hold it together a little better. I knew I was in trouble as I bounced past the dahlias again and they were still exploding. I thought about sending the students into the bookstore alone and going to sit under my favorite tree in the Plaza, but realized that was the drug talking.

The bookstore was packed. It's a very small place, and seeing it filled with 30 students would normally be a wonderful scene, but today brought fear. I greeted the owner at the door, then beelined it for the children's section in the back of the store. I spent the next half-hour completely ignoring the students and reading The Lorax by Dr. Seuss.

The walls of the bookstore were slowly closing in on me. I still had my glasses on, but they were no longer keeping me safe. I was having trouble processing the words in The Lorax, but I knew the story so well that I was able to live in the pictures in the book. I stopped on the page where the last Truffula Tree is whacked, staring at the vast ugliness of the barren landscape. My thoughts turned to clearcutting, global warming and environmental degradation, and when I looked up, the walls of the bookstore were moving in closer like the garbage-crusher scene in Star Wars.

I headed for the door. I asked Marsha the bookstore owner to tell the students to meet in the park after they finished. She flashed me a curious look, as what I really said was "Mettledeparkwhenrstudentsrdungeddin books." Somehow she understood "park," "done" and "books," which were the key words.

As I passed the register, Marsha asked me a question. I could not answer, as it sounded like she asked it in a foreign language. Keep going, don't hit anyone, and don't knock over anything, just focus and keep going. I had once tripped over a dead seal on the beach in Santa Barbara during a college acid experience; it had put me in such a bad mood that I'd spent the next two hours curled in a ball, rocking back and forth crying.

Outside was good. I could breathe easier, there were no students and I was no longer going to be killed by a wall of books. I still had The Lorax in my hand, which was not a bad thing--I assumed Marsha would just ring it up with the other books. I knew I had to get to the Plaza to sit under a giant eucalyptus tree, watch the ducks and wait out the acid.

It's only about 500 feet to the tree, but I knew it would be tough as my bouncy-squishy walking style was now a more falling-swerving walking style. I walked along trying desperately to remain upright, one hand holding The Lorax and the other palm down, fully anticipating the concrete pushing up from the sidewalk and throwing me off balance as I walked.

The Laughing Queen, a novelty and costume shop, had a display of glasses in the window. The faces holding the glasses began to swirl and move as I reached out for them and touched the glass. I hadn't realized it was there. I turned just as a voice said, "Hey, John."

It was my friend Jim, a Sonoma city councilman and ex-mayor. "Whoa, you OK?" he asked. "Can I help you get somewhere?"

I had to make a snap decision to tell him the truth or try to lie and get away before he found out the truth. I was in no shape to do either.

"Uh, fine. Fine." Not my best comeback. "Park." I had been reduced to single syllable words, like a dog barking.

"Well, all right. You take it easy," he replied with a curious look. I shuffled past him, restarting my falling-swerving style. Jim and I had been at a few wine-soaked fundraisers together, and I knew he had some bacchanalian tendencies. An occasional swerve in our town often goes unnoticed.

Demons and Saints
At the corner of First Street and East Napa, I had trouble crossing. I had been staring down to make sure I didn't step on anything (the seal incident), but now I had to look up and I couldn't gauge when it was my turn to cross. Cars were coming from every direction at a very rapid pace, and I knew crossing at the wrong time would mean instant death. Finally, an old man started across in front of me and I followed, able to reach the other side. I wanted to hug him and thank him and tell him what a savior he was, but luckily I didn't.

I finally reached the tree and lay down with my head at the base. I closed my eyes for a few seconds, then opened them to see Jim and two police officers walking toward me.

"Not good," I thought to myself. I propped myself up against the tree. My back immediately molded itself into the shape of the trunk.

"Mr. Moss, can you stand up, please." One of the officers stood over me, looking about 8 feet tall and 3 feet wide.

"Uh, no," I replied, still unable to form much of a response.

"Well, Mr. Moss, your friend here told us that you are under the influence of LSD, and we also understand that you are leading a school field trip and are responsible for 40 students, who don't seem to be around. Now, please stand up so that we can arrest you, put you in jail, take away your credential, make you lose your job and completely ruin your reputation in this small town." I looked over to see all of my students lined up clapping as he put the cuffs on me.

I woke up sweating. I was still alone, my head against the tree, The Lorax at my side. "Get a hold of yourself, man," I thought, breathing in and out, feeling the sweat cool on my body. After 20 minutes, I carefully crossed the street to Plaza Liquors for a giant bottle of water and returned to the tree to ride out the rest of the trip. I knew the arrest dream was the peak and now sanity would slowly return. A couple of students came by and asked me how long they had to stay. I told them they could leave whenever they wanted. I was happy not to be barking anymore. I watched the trees dance and read The Lorax about a hundred times.

I never did suspend Max. He became one of my best students, and is now studying to be a pharmacist at UC-Davis. Soon, he'll be dosing people for a living. Funny how life turns out that way.


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