From the Desk of Matilda Darling

An Open Letter to D.A.R.E.

Dear D.A.R.E.,

Events occurring both on the world stage and in the more circumscribed theatre of my own life in the preceding weeks have given me cause to ponder the effectiveness of the curricula posited by the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program currently proffered to elementary school students the nation over. The purported purpose of this program is to mold impressionable young minds in such a fashion as to make them impervious to or at the very least on watch against the insidious temptations of illegal intoxicants and the best efforts of their purveyors, whether corporate or municipal, to solicit the attention of said minds. Having myself matriculated from a D.A.R.E. program—the local administration of which, I must say, is quite lackluster, being that it is carried out by the no doubt more ineffective desk-bound lackeys of the Albany City Police force—a scant two years ago, I found myself for the first time required, on a recent Saturday afternoon, to exercise the skill-sets instilled by the D.A.R.E. program when I was unexpectedly confronted with the opportunity to ingest a controlled substance. I have elected to draft this letter to you today after engaging, in the intervening week and a half, in no small amount of tortured self-reflection on the ensuing events of that portentous afternoon, because birthed from the labor pains of my meditations is the realization that the syllabi of the D.A.R.E. program is completely, utterly, and irrevocably useless, and I daresay potentially even dangerous to its trainees.

Let me begin by stating that the fact that I had never before been offered a recreational drug of any kind is not a result of any lack of availability of such substances in my immediate sphere or among the lint-lined pockets of my peers at Van Buren Middle School. The truth is that I have intentionally engineered my social status at Van Buren so as to avoid these substances, the consumption of which would no doubt inhibit, via the so-called frying of synapses, the progress of my varied and sundry intellectual pursuits. I have neither the time nor the inclination for the ephemeral diversions of the less academically inclined castes.

How then did I find myself at the very crossroads which I had so scrupulously tried to avoid? As with most negative experiences in my life, it can all be traced back to my mother. When spring finally dares show her face, like a prodigal daughter returned to Albany, all pandemonium breaks loose: windows are thrown open, ties stripped off collars, rusty ice cream truck ignitions cranked, pools flooded with chlorinated water, schedules interrupted, meetings cancelled, lunch hours extended so that the cubicle-bound can loll about for just a few more minutes in the wan sunshine, the sight and feel of which, after our annual seven-month winter of dolorous grey, turns everyone into stupefied mouth-breathing idiots, pasty white and blind as baby moles. My mother, for her part, does tai chi in the park on Saturdays in May and June, and so in these months I am required to walk home from my weekend orchestra rehearsal, a perambulation in which I normally revel, even though the handle of my viola case does rather dig into my palm. However: on the afternoon in question, and for no particular reason (which reminds me of another conclusion I have drawn from this whole experience: never do anything without first ensuring it has a basis in rational thought), I decided to deviate from my normal route home and cut through a certain field at the end of Brookline Street which I knew to be populated with happy bunches of Queen Anne’s Lace and also an old tumbledown split-rail fence on which I have spent many an afternoon perched, in full imaginative thrall to a vision of myself as a Jane Austen heroine pausing for repast on one of her slightly unladylike country walks. I failed to remember, however, that in walking down Brookline I would be passing right by Arthur Meehan’s house, which I know to be a social congregating place for Van Buren’s so-called popular set, not unlike the Gateway Diner over by Westgate Plaza, the arcade in front of the Megaplex in Crossgates Mall, or the Shining Star incense shop down on Lark Street, where I have often seen Madison Lauren and her minions lingering after school, fondling the ankh rings and paisley print maxi dresses. All these locales are akin to rock jetties, if you will, that jut out at various points into the River Styx that is our middle school social undercurrent, and on which students gather, with prototypical teenage loucheness, like drifting flotsam, or barnacles searching for a home, to laugh and talk and sun themselves, and, of course, to take drugs. For when I walked by Arthur’s house, deep in concentration on a certain difficult passage in Bach’s Viola Concerto in C Minor, someone called to me from his porch, and I looked up from my pantomime finger-playing on my backpack strap with my free hand to find a group of my classmates heaped about on his stoop. “Matilda!” Arthur called again. “What are you doing?”

“Uh,” I replied, all astonishment at Arthur Meehan’s actually knowing my name, even though we did go to elementary school together, being that he is in the eighth grade, and I am in the seventh, and betwixt these two years of matriculation there is a social gulf as wide as Lake Michigan; usually those in eighth-grade Chicago have not a thought for or an idea of who is standing on the opposite shore in seventh-grade Muskegon.

“Did I give you permission to walk down my street?” Arthur said, sounding at once playful and vaguely threatening. “Uh,” I repeated, racking my brain for some sort of saucy retort, but knowing this would of course be the one time my mind would fail me. “Pussy got your tongue?” said a tall boy sitting behind Arthur whose name I did not know. “Gross,” said a girl, who rolled her eyes, whom I believe to be named Jayde Greene (whose parents should be put in pillory for the ridiculous punning name), and who spoke in a strange kind of choking voice, as if she were trying to hold her breath and speak all at once. “Get your skinny ass up here,” Arthur said, waving me up the stairs.

“Uh, me?” I said, looking over my shoulder, as if there could possibly be, by some rarefied statistical coincidence, another individual simultaneously traipsing that same expanse of residential zoning, except on the opposite sidewalk, who also had the misfortune of being named Matilda. (I was also at that moment horrified by the fact that I had used the plebian conversational filler “uh,” that constant crutch of the intellectually crippled, thrice in as many minutes. The only thing worse than “uh” or “um” is the non-functional use of the word “like.”) “Yes, you, dummy,” Arthur said. “Come smoke some cheeba with us,” the tall boy said, and then, in an undertone meant for Arthur but which I could also make out, “It’s the best when you get a nerd high.” I then deduced that cheeba is some kind of street term for marijuana, because in the same moment Jayde Greene leaned back on her elbows and exhaled an alarmingly large quantity of blueish smoke with a distinctly herbal scent, as if she were some sort of magical dragon woman reclining upon her heaps of gold and sighing with content. Real-life Jayde then collapsed, in a much less dignified manner, onto her side in a furious spasm of giggles, interrupted at intervals by a hacking cough.

“Oh, no thank you,” I said, for some unfathomable reason swinging my fist in an utterly pathetic attempt to seem convivial. “You know me: Just say no!”

Even as I was uttering this phrase, I knew it to be the absolute wrong thing: I felt the telltale red heat of embarrassment creep up my neck and into my cheeks, and I saw the clod of stoners before me freeze with horror, as if I were some sort of nerd-thief storming their bank of cool, brandishing a gun and demanding they hand over all their social currency, until, of course, they shattered the illusion that I might be in control of the situation in any way and uniformly exploded in uproarious laughter. Arthur, bent double, said between snorts, “Okay, Matilda. Whatever.” I turned on my heel with all the urgency of a fugitive and fairly bolted up the street, until I reached my erstwhile field of dreams, slumped down against the old fence in abject defeat and did little to resist the oncoming flurry of tears.

Why, o why, wiping my face and begging of a squirrel who had paused to gnaw an acorn a few feet from where I sat, did I use this turn of speech to repulse the narcotic advances of my classmates? Certainly nothing could have induced me to indulge in this so-called cheeba, but I might have at least plucked, from the wide expanse of trellises laden with fruit in the vineyard of my vocabulary, something more au courant, more cutting, more casual—I must admit that I was in that moment desirous of having appeared more “cool.” Hipness is a transient and useless quality, and I therefore attempt to never concern myself with it, but all the same, it is rather torturous to come before a firing squad of one’s fellow students and listen, from behind a social blindfold, as they assassinate you with their laughter and derision. From whence did this catchphrase—so simple, so monosyllabic, so unlike the rhythms of my usual speech—spring to my lips? I sat concealed, a hermit among the high weeds of that verdant glebe, for more than an hour, engaging in confused self-examination, until I remembered that, indeed! I had used the precise response suggested by McGruff the Crime Dog in a video on How To Resist Peer Pressure we had been forced to watch in D.A.R.E. class in the sixth grade. (As I recall, our policewoman-cum-instructor obviously thought this video was some sort of cinematic highlight of the course, but she was sorely mistaken.) Had this whole experience been a paper exam on the subject of resisting peer pressure vis-à-vis drug use, I would have aced it. This conclusion begat another, more painful, realization: that waking life is decidedly not a paper exam, because what would have been correct if marked in Number 2 pencil on a Scantron sheet, was most decidedly wrong when said out loud, in real life. My education had failed me.

I hope my experience illustrates not only my own personal failings but moreover the ways in which the D.A.R.E. course’s cutesy cartoon videos and bon-mottish anti-drug catchphrases have failed America’s schoolchildren. Indeed, after some research I have discovered that “Just Say No” was invented by Former First Lady Nancy Reagan, a grandmotherly type even then, thirty years ago, in her pearls and bow-necked silk blouse and tweed skirt suit and powdered nose. There is simply no mantra First Lady Reagan could have ever suggested that would have been accepted as “cool” by individuals of Jayde Greene’s ilk. In fact, D.A.R.E.’s instruction to “Just Say No,” taken per se, has indeed been followed to a T, but with an opposite end result from the one originally desired by Generals commanding the War on Drugs; that is, every day, teenagers Just Say No with all the petulant glee of a toddler: No to their parents, No to their teachers, No to the advice not to take drugs, a resounding No! to convention, authority, responsibility.

Conversely, one wonders at the effects of following this admonition in its original meaning, as I suppose I have done thus far in my life. Just Saying No to drugs protects one from all manner of slippery rabbit holes: bad trips, side-effects, and come-downs; cancers, addictions, and overdoses; overall moral degeneracy and loss of brain function; guilt over one’s participation, however third-hand or minor, in the ongoing wars between Mexican drug cartels. Indeed, on the very Saturday I have just detailed, a drug-addled Miami man devoured most of another man’s face, his heretofore suppressed cannibal urges driven to the surface of himself by a combination of hallucinogens, uppers, and the same intoxicating spring sunshine, which I am certain is even more potently ultraviolet in South Florida. (As an aside, my father poked his head into the computer room when I was perusing this story on Drudge Report and practically grounded me right then and there for reading such desultory newsmedia. I absolutely longed to defend myself with the larger narrative, but thought it best not to mention Arthur Sheehan’s marijuana habit, being that his father and my father play together in an over-forty basketball league.) In any case, one wonders if this cannibal man is a D.A.R.E. alumni.

Just Saying No does not, however, protect one from the certainly less pervasively damaging but still significant pains and missteps of everyday experience. What if, for example, I had said Yes, and settled myself in on Arthur Meehan’s stoop for a “toke”? Would I have found myself to be, a decade from now, an intravenous drug user, squatting on a stained mattress in an abandoned building? Who can say? But I would surely not have found myself sobbing, mortified and alone, in an abandoned lot that very same day.

Perhaps Just Saying No begins to bleed, detrimentally, into other areas of one’s consciousness, until all decisions seem fraught with peril because by wrapping oneself in such a phrase, one effectively comes to live in a cocoon. Just Say No to wearing my favorite hot pink mittens because I am afraid Madison Lauren will make fun of them again. Just Say No to watching Pet Semetary 2 at a sleepover because you urinated yourself when you were seven and your babysitter foolishly let you stay up late with her watching the original Pet Semetary. Just Say No to making friends with scary eighth graders because you are unable to find a way to even say hello to them without making a complete and utter fool of yourself.

In other words, D.A.R.E. to do nothing.

Matilda Darling

Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.