Surviving High School - Features - Atlanta Magazine

Surviving High School

No other American institution is balanced so uneasily between dream and nightmare. This story is about two friends — why one made it through and one did not, and how you can help your children survive "the best years of their lives."

The two boys - Eric and Curt - grew up together, dreamers on a dead-end street. Overweight and unathletic, they shied away from rough sports and played with GJ. Joes in their back yards, preferring to conduct their wars in miniature. Down the block was a clan of tough kids, and on many afternoons one of the boys would have to fight his way home from school. "Curt and I were both the same," remembers Eric. "We lived in a fantasy world, and we both got picked on a lot. "

Photography by Ralph Daniel

In middle school, Eric became known as a "no-account," Curt as a "geek," and by the time the two boys enrolled in Cobb County's George Walton Comprehensive High School, they welcomed the opportunity to redefine themselves. They lost weight and sprouted tall; they grew their hair long and donned torn jeans and black T-shirts emblazoned with the logos of rock bands - the garb of the "freak." In the parking lot they hung around with kids on Walton's fringe, kids hopped up on anger and rebellion and in some cases, pot and liquor and acid and coke. In time, each of the boys would make a name for himself, becoming familiar to other students as a "character," a bundle of idiosyncrasies, a voice sounding loud over the din.

For all their similarities, however, there is one big difference between Eric Stone and Curt Hersey. One survived high school. The other did not.

From his origins as a geek, Curt grew into an image of cocksureness: a skinny, slouchy kid with black, shoulder-length hair, a penchant for '60s rock 'n' roll and a voice full of pseudo-California cool. He joined Walton's Drama Gub and starred in plays, competed in the Academic Bowl, produced his own videos. He had a pretty girlfriend and, with money from a job at Wendy's, made the payments on a rumbling, red Camaro Z28. He could circulate in rival cliques; he did not drink, use drugs or condone casual sex. In June, he graduated from Walton and prepared to enroll in Berry College. 

Eric was neither so fortunate, so smart or so strong-willed. This is his memory of himself: He first smoked pot at 13 and quickly established himself as one of the most notorious of Walton's druggies. He let his kinky blond hair bloom into an enormous frizzball and grew conspicuous for his red eyes and wasted grin. Eric Stoned, the kids called him. Never much of a student, he flunked 10th grade and dropped out of school altogether in May 1987. "One day, I just decided I wasn't going to go anymore," he says. By that time, he had been introduced to the chemical pyrotechnics of LSD and would spend his weekends watching the shapes change on his TV and dinosaurs rise out of the earth. Not long after he dropped out, his parents expelled him from their home, and he took to living in the woods or breaking into churches and sleeping on the pews. On Halloween weekend he attended a Walton party and met an old girlfriend who told him what he himself suspected: "Eric, you're dying." The next morning, he phoned his mother, met her for breakfast and asked for help. He was admitted to Charter Peachford Hospital two weeks later and now works at a McDonald's in Cobb County.

This is the story of how two teen-agers with such similar beginnings can come to such different ends. It is the story of Eric Stone and Curt Hersey and the millions of other adolescents stewing in the unforgiving melting pot of American high schools. It is the story of the opportunities available to stop the slide of kids like Eric and how those opportunities are too often squandered. It is the story of how parents can alert themselves to the intangibles separating the winners from the losers. It is the story of surviving high school.

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