One night I was watching the news with my parents when the television showed footage of an abandoned elementary school that had burned down a few days earlier. The screen flashed a number of police drawings of the teenage boys who they believed had started the fire. I looked over at my parents, and though they were looking straight at the television and I at them, I could see that they did not recognize me.
I remember laying in bed that night and trying to quantify a dream. I remember thinking that if I slept for eight hours each night, then I would only have to live in this world where I was an arsonist on the loose for two-thirds of the day. I imagined that if my dreams could be as strong as reality, then perhaps I could receive some kind of strength and I could be forgiven for what I did in this world. Maybe I was asking for insanity, or some kind of religion, or a hybrid of both, but I was definitely, in my way, praying for some kind of relief.
It was spring break, 1995, and I was almost 12 years old. The week began idly and my only aspiration was to get invited to a swimming pool or to wander the woods with a friend to kill time. I was waiting for something to occur that would show me that, if the structure of school fell away, that adventure would present itself. I slept in late each day and watched TV, waiting for the phone to ring, which it did, eventually.
The call came from Josh who was organizing a small group of friends with the plan to meet and wander. Josh and I had met in kindergarten and declared ourselves best friends, but as we approached our teenager years, our differences became more apparent, and we saw less and less of each other. His mom had been trying to convince him that all of his energy must go toward getting into a good college. I had long hair and made friends with the skater crowd. I was recently declared a bad influence.
We were to be joined by three others. One was Thomas, who I was close with for a few years. Thomas came from a Mormon family and had more siblings than the rest of us combined. It was fairly easy for him to sneak out unnoticed, and like most of the Mormon kids I knew, his many siblings had already introduced him to the greater world of music and drugs.
Then there was Jackie, who was new to our circle. What stuck out immediately to me was that although his Southern accent was thicker than mine, his family was English and he had been born in England. Somehow he had adapted quickly and no Southern slur was left out.
Finally, there was Matt, who was a little older than us, 13 or so, and with that slight age advantage he often took the lead during our outings. As Matt had already entered the realm of puberty he stood taller than the rest of us and had a slight hint of a mustache. Matt was often in conflict with his parents and had ran away a few times. There were phases where he was barely seen at school. One of the first times I hung out with him we were in the woods with a group of kids. He was shooting fireworks directly at another kid who was clearly terrified.
It was not our plan to go to our former elementary school after it had been abandoned and left empty for three years and to set fire to it. It was, though, not beyond our regular interests to explore the deserted and forgotten. In our town, there were many dilapidated houses: there was an empty, decaying mental institution that one was often dared to explore at night; and a little shack that was supposedly filled with Satanic graffiti. All of this held our interest but this school was different. Its history was part of our own and the opportunity to see it now standing in its own wake was an opportunity we couldn’t turn down.
We all met on a suburban corner that we could each easily walk or bike to, which happened to be close to the former school. We walked through the school’s football field where we saw a group of Hispanic men playing soccer. We walked to the side of the building and tried to open a door but it was chained shut. Without hesitation Matt took a rock and smashed a window. We slowly slid in one at a time as not to cut ourselves. It was apparent that nothing inside had been removed: the tables and chairs all sat turned over, the walls were filled with graffiti, and trash and empty beer cans covered the ground. It was hard to imagine that we had eaten here every day just a few years earlier.
We took turns throwing books like frisbees, feeling excited for the anarchy of what we had found inside. We made our way to the library. It looked liked the aftermath of a riot. The bookshelves lay like dominoes and there were mini-mountains of books throughout the room.
The standard, cliche inspirational posters were peeling from the walls, which were now being used as canvases for some local graffiti artists. It looked as if decades had passed since we’d last been here. It was a strange site and I was lost in my head trying to make sense of all of this decay. How did all of the authority that this place once held over me suddenly turn to this garden of rot? To witness this felt like freedom. If schools decay then perhaps their rules do too.
At this point, Josh began to tense up. He was the first to ask, “Do you think anyone else is here?” Thomas gasped as Matt snuck up behind him and grabbed his arm before he finished speaking. We all laughed, but our laughter quickly receded, and we realized it was probably best if we whispered.
I strayed as they went ahead. I absorbed what I saw in front of me and tried to remember what was. In the time since I’d last walked down these halls, I had grown a small piece of fuzz on my top lip and had discovered masturbatation. I was no closer to feeling like I had sculpted a place for myself in this world. I felt like my innocence had already withered quicker than what I saw in front of me. If anything, I felt more lost.
I found the others in the teacher’s lounge. They were giddy. It was always considered the most forbidden of places. To our surprise, we found a canister of kerosene.
There was no electricity in the building, so if we were not standing by a window, then we were walking in darkness. Matt and Josh decided to make torches. We somehow scavenged some wood and fabric. Matt had a lighter. Matt led the way with a torch in one hand and the kerosene canister in the other, as Josh walked behind with the second torch. We walked through a long, windowless corridor.
I knew this could go wrong, but I decided, this is how we live now. I would not break out of the repetitive world I was in unless I took chances and occasionally followed someone who had even less to lose than I did. Matt was one of those kids. He did everything in spite of everything else. His disregard was a form of fearlessness and I wanted to understand that, even if it terrified me.
The ground was uneven, covered in garbage, water bottles, and old moldy textbooks. From the corner of my eye, I saw a piece of the kerosene soaked fabric drop to the ground. I said nothing, but I kept my eye on that little bit of flame to watch it in case it were to catch — and it did.
The torch-carriers were now in the other room and I was alone in the dark trying to manage the small fire as it began to spread. I panicked, and I reached for the discarded water bottles underfoot for any liquid, but there was none. I called for help and Thomas came running back. Without thinking, he unzipped his pants and pissed on the flames. I decided to follow suit, and soon the fire was out. We both laughed and decided we wouldn’t tell the others what we had done.
We walked out of the dark and into the auditorium. Here was our old theater. It too was battered and coated in graffiti. We had our pep rallies here. I once acted in a play here. Whenever we had been here before, it was an event.
What followed was the moment the fire chief listened to closest as he recorded my statement. The moment that, as I told it to my parents, they held their breath to see who their son really was. This is the moment that our judge had us recount over and over. I, myself, did nothing; I was a passive witness and a coward.
I saw Josh smash open the kerosene canister. I saw its insides spread. I heard the laughter — it may have been my own. I saw the torch Matt raised to the curtain, and I watched as the fire spread from the floor to the ceiling. The laughter went away and fear set in as the room filled with smoke.
We kicked at a locked door to get outside but it was no use. We continued to ram our small frames into the door as the room grew dark. Something snapped and we found ourselves running through the football field; the same Hispanic men looked at us, surprised to see us sprinting away from the building. They were our witnesses, and I imagined them as they requested a Spanish-speaking police officer as they described their fleeting impressions of our faces.
We ran through the suburbs until we found somewhere to talk to decide what lie to tell our parents. As we spoke we could see a black cloud rising.
The day after the fire, I woke up and walked to the kitchen to find a newspaper sitting on the table. The front page had a picture of the school burning. As I read the article, it spoke of these faceless white teenagers who were seen running. There was no further information on who these strangers may be. The article ended with, … the building was known to be frequented by the homeless, there are ongoing investigations to see if anyone was injured or killed.
When we returned to school, Josh, Thomas, Jackie, Matt, and I tried our best to avoid one another. If we were to speak then we may cry out our confession, or worse, break into tears. I imagined decades passing, and never telling a soul about what had happened, but I didn’t have that luxury. Rumors were spreading among our fellow students, and it soon became clear that Matt was the one spreading them. The two weeks that we struggled to hang onto our secret was the hardest time of all. To try to stay composed and pretend I was the same as I was before the fire took more energy than I could have imagined.
Josh and I spoke on the phone each night. I wish I could hear these meetings now: what intelligence did we have when negotiating our own fate? We took turns sharing our ideas with the others while attempting to calm one another as we all were filled with anxiety. It became increasingly clear that Matt was amused by our fear. One day at lunch I saw Jackie in tears. Matt had been following him and whispering a chant in his ear: “We are all going to juvy! We are all going to juvy! We are all going to juvy!”
He had lost our trust and we began to cut him out of our phone meetings. As the rumors spread we could see there was nothing that would stay secret with Matt, and therefore, the truth would eventually be found out. Josh, Thomas, Jackie, and I agreed: it was time to turn ourselves in. We agreed to synchronize our confessions so no one’s parents would spoil the news before we each had a chance to tell them ourselves. We decided that later that day, at 6 pm, we would each tell our parents what we had done.
In 1974, John Lennon released the album Walls and Bridges. It was made during a period known as his “lost weekend”. There is a song on the album called What You Got. The chorus repeats: you don’t know what you got ‘til you lose it. I had about two hours before my scheduled confession, and I listened to every word of this album while blasting it at full volume. I took it in like a cigarette before facing the firing squad. To this day, my heart still beats a little faster whenever I hear any song off of it.
When the time came I knocked on my dad’s door. He was holding a blue electric guitar as I pushed the words out: “ I was there when Hope Valley burned.” I watched him put his guitar down. He walked towards me and crouched down until he was at eye level. “Tell me everything” he said and I did, every detail. At that moment, it all became real. I had lived in a dreamstate for two weeks. I realized, as I told my dad just what had happened, that this was, in fact, my reality.
I spoke to the county fire chief until 4 am. I spoke every word into a tape recorder that sat on the table like in a cop show. Josh, Thomas and Jackie all were there but in different rooms. We later saw each other in the hallways while trying to hide our tears. We shared a quiet camaraderie in our relief, but also a nagging feeling of betrayal towards Matt. We had washed our hands of him. As we were all leaving, the fire chief said, “You boys were really lucky we didn’t find any bodies in there.”
A few hours later my dad woke me up. I had a soccer game that morning that I had forgotten about. While we drove he said, “nothing is going to change because of this thing, were going to go on as normal.” As I looked out at the manicured lawns of the suburbs I felt a strange sense of calm.
Word traveled fast at school. I couldn’t open a book without someone joking about me setting fire to it. I got used to being a punchline, so I chose to spend more time alone. Whatever escapism I had adapted as a survival tool was now in full throttle and I quickly felt less engaged with the ebbs and flows of middle school.
The weeks leading to the trial passed quietly in this way. I felt like I was pacing within one room waiting for the day to come, and when it did, it felt like it happened in a flash. In the end, none of us had to testify. The judge read our five written statements aloud and at this point we had each relived that day so many times that to hear the statements echo had little effect on us.
We all sat awkwardly with our parents, overdressed with inherited ties and department store khakis and button-up shirts. I remember thinking that this would be the last time I would hear this story without knowing the end. I studied the other kids and how their parents stood by them. I could see the mix of concern, shame and sadness in each pair of parents. I watched the other boys to see if they had suffered more than they had let on and I especially watched Matt, who I knew felt betrayed — he had to. But he appeared ambivalent, just as he always did.
When we got home, my family watched what the 5 o’clock news had to say, and there I was on TV as I awkwardly shuffled out of the courtroom. It had just been an hour since I had seen the camera crew run up to me and my family. Now I was seeing what the camera had seen: a timid, tired, 11-year-old boy who had just been convicted of one count of arson and one count of trespassing.
That summer, in the wake of what had come before it, I felt a bruised sense of calm. I could no longer place my bets on my friends, nor my teachers or the trends. I had to learn to trust myself. I had been expelled from school for what remained of the year, so I gained an extra month to my summer. I was to complete 100 hours of community service, which was pre-arranged for all five of us and was to be completed mid-July at the burn ward at the local hospital.
What followed was a period of extreme solitude. My parents essentially grounded me for my five months of summer. I was allowed to go on walks around the neighborhood and into the woods, but I did so alone and saw little of my friends. I would often run errands with my mom and wander aimlessly as she shopped.
I suppose I was lonely, but I actually didn’t want to see anyone. I was tired of talking about the fire, and I felt I was better off alone. I began to scavenge my brothers CDs and tapes. I learned of The Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan, Sonic Youth, and more. I treated my time with this music as a precious appointment, soaking in every note and letting it transport me where it would. I remember one day listening to the first album by The Stooges as I walked by a baseball field. I heard thunder, and soon a heavy rain began to fall. I found shelter in the baseball dugout. I turned the volume all the way up and I watched the storm pass over me.
no fun to hang around, feeling the same old way,
no fun to hang around, freaked out for another day
I thought of my friends being at school as I heard those words that day. I felt the hairs stand up on my arm as the field turned to mud.
In the 1986 comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the protagonist is first seen walking around his house alone but speaking directly to the audience. He is giving tips on how to successfully skip school but he also speaks of such topics as socialism and John Lennon.
At first, I admired his freedom but the more I thought about it, I began to realize he started his day just as I had been doing — waking in his parents’ home and trying to brush off teenage dormancy. I began to think that maybe I wasn’t taking enough advantage of my situation. The real epiphany I had come away with was this — he was alone in each scene but he continued to narrate for the audience. His narrative didn’t stop just because he was alone. He was his own protagonist, and in spite of what forces may be attempting to drag him down, he always had his invisible audience’s support.
I would often walk the suburbs at night with my Walkman blasting in my ears. I was gripped by these sounds, and I felt more like I was part of the world as I deliberately thought of my invisible audience. I began making films and telling my own stories but I hadn’t physically written a word or shot a frame. I was playing them out in my head. I played the protagonist and imagined the audience as they watched the silent film of an 11-year-old boy who wandered the deserted streets of the suburbs as rock and roll played over everything.
About a week after my 12th birthday I was to attend my community service at the burn ward. I had been dreading it not because I was afraid of being among those who had endured so much physical trauma, but because I would have to return to my identity as an arsonist. I was relieved when I arrived and saw Josh, Thomas, and Jackie. I missed my friends and I had forgotten how much we protected each other. We all moved nervously around Matt as I think we all awaited a day of reckoning, but he seemed unconcerned with us and more pissed off to be forced to work. With the boredom and freedom of summer, there was a certain familiarity to being among this group of friends that made me uneasy. One day towards the end of the week Matt played with his lighter and laughed about how we should burn down the hospital. I felt a shiver run up my spine.
There was one patient at that hospital I still think of often. A boy my own age whose curiosity led him to stealing his first cigarette from his mother. He had gone to the shed in his backyard to hide as he smoked it. He had not realized as he lit it that he was right next to a canister of gasoline. The whole shed went up in flames. Every inch of his body was covered in second- and third-degree burns. It was my job to feed him lunch each day. I cut up his food, and as we talked, he spoke about how he wanted to be a famous baseball player when he got older. I couldn’t imagine him running, let alone becoming an athlete. It was hard to steer the conversation from there.
During those days in the hospital I realized: I had survived the flames that surrounded me in Hope Valley. Just as I had narrowly avoided the confines of juvy, I had also avoided the restraint of a hospital bed. I had no physical scars and in a few years, my record would be cleared.