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My First Cigarette Was My Last

Our elementary school was set deep in the rural Ontario countryside, nestled in the forest beside the local dump. In the late 1990s, when I was in sixth grade, the school had a drug bust in which more than 20 kids were suspended and charged with possession of marijuana, magic mushrooms and ecstasy. I was not one of those kids.

I was a shy, self-conscious, straight-A student who had never been in anything resembling trouble. At recess, a year later, I didn’t make the choice to get into trouble that day, either. My fearless, if inconsiderate, friend Ashley did that for us both.

She had been invited to smoke cigarettes in the trees on the far side of the running track. The invitation came from Kyle, a charming ringleader who looked like Justin Timberlake and dressed like Kurt Cobain. He was effortlessly the coolest boy in school. Kyle had also been one of the drug-bust kids, but somehow teachers still loved him. His cool factor worked on them, too.

Ashley was stoked but didn’t want to show up alone. So she recruited me — a loyal follower — without letting me in on the full plan. She was right to lie. I would have certainly wussed out if she had told me we were going to smoke (!) on school property (!) with Kyle (?!). Insanity.

Recess came. Ashley and I made our way across the track, toward the forest. We heard a voice calling out to us and quickly ducked into the trees.

We found Kyle leaning against a tree, lighting a cigarette. Beside him was another boy — Jimmy — a rough kid from a poor family who had recently been embraced by the cool crowd, if momentarily. He had also been part of the drug bust, but teachers didn’t afford him the same grace that they did Kyle.

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