I found this object while clearing my parents’ house. It was in a box of stuff under the bed I used to sleep in when I was in high school, along with flows from past debate rounds and papers I wrote for classes. It took me a while to remember what it was, and piece together why I had it.
Looking at the red plastic thing, I finally remembered it was a hall pass. I don’t remember having a lot of times when I needed to be out in the halls, but, like many teenagers, I bristled at the thought of being required to justify my movements. It seemed that high school was mostly about acquiescing to rules. My brother had a rockier time of it than I, and he got kicked out once for giving somebody a ride to school (long story). I loathed what seemed at the time to be a highly authoritarian structure, at the expense of learning anything really consequential.
What’s more, it seemed in those years that everyone had an agenda for me, that my own needs and desires were the least of anyone’s concerns, that I’d best keep my feelings buried if I wanted to get through my four-year sentence. I’m getting short of breath just thinking about it, the suffocating hierarchy, the mindless spouting of rules and policies.
Prue Schmidt was one of my favorite teachers. She headed Emporia High School‘s gifted program. I always suspected I hadn’t really passed the test, but that she had fudged the rules and let me in anyway because she liked me. (Years later I ran into Prue and confessed my suspicion; her response was that not only was it not true, but that if I thought that, she hadn’t succeeded at her job.) The only regular class I ever had with her was called Critical Thinking, and consisted of a few kids going to a pizza place after school and talking about whatever we wanted to talk about. But I had periodic meetings with Prue in her office, and sometimes I just liked to go there, for any excuse I could think of. There were usually other kids hanging around, some working on projects, some maybe debating current events. Prue loved “her” kids, and she wasn’t afraid to confront the school’s administration on our behalf. Prue’s office was like a sanctuary to me. She listened to everyone without judgement. She didn’t hold back her own opinions, but it was from her that I learned the phrase, “agree to disagree.” (I confess it was quite a few years later that I actually learned to do it.) She acted ethically and lovingly, but without much regard for rules. Prue had my back.
Why did I hang onto Prue’s hall pass, which I’m pretty sure I never used, and not even return it at the end of the school year? It must have had a symbolic meaning to me. Having it meant I could wander the halls at will. It was power. It was freedom. It was unconditional permission. Years before J.K. Rowling penned Harry Potter, I had a magical object to rival Harry’s Invisibility Cloak. No one could harass me, if I had Prue’s name sticking out of my back pocket. Whatever kind of jam I might get into, this thing would keep me safe. Prue would back me up, even if I had stolen her hall pass.
I’ll be attending my thirtieth reunion soon, and things look a lot different now than then. I have a lot more sympathy for anyone trying to run a school of 1200 adolescents, and those people with agendas for me probably truly believed that their agendas served my best interests. Nonetheless, I still sometimes find myself going through life as if I’m waiting for someone to give me permission to live, to make choices, to follow my passion rather than some rules or expectations I learned so long ago I don’t even remember where they came from. While writing my novel, I realized I often felt I was stealing time from my family to write, and I desperately wanted someone to give me permission to ignore the housework, and dedicate myself to what I most wanted to do. The day I found the hall pass under my old bed, I thought I’d return it to Prue, who’s been retired for years, with a letter thanking her for her positive influence on me. But since, I’ve decided that I’m not done with it. I can still use an occasional reminder that I am free, so I’m keeping it on my desk. I have permission, Prue Schmidt says so.