Into the Counselor's Office: Navigating Anti-Guidance
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"So we meet again, Mr. Gryniewicz." Mr. Howzier snarled from behind the high-back, black chair, as he rotated to face me. The clipped staccato German accent that he didn't really have, forming an almost physical presence in the narrow confines of his office.

"What are we going to do with you?" he asked, now glaring at me, his fingers perched in the form of a steeple that framed his scowl. He had said this in the German accent that he didn't really have, as though I was something he had accidentally stepped in on the way to the office and he needed to determine the most efficient way to scrape me off his boot.

In the Lifetime special version of this encounter, the doddering, foul-mannered high school guidance counselor - though these adjectives and this job description might be a tad redundant - would end this meeting with a misty-eyed embrace. Choking back tears he would mutter, "Son, I've been so hard on you only because I believe in you."

"I know," I'd choke in response, holding back tears of my own. "Mr. Howzier, you had me at hello." This wasn't the Lifetime version of this encounter though. In fact, it seemed more likely that Howzier would affix me to some medieval torture device, firing a high intensity laser beam at me. Or that he would tie me to a slowly lowering suspension system, dropping me into a pit of alligators, a den of snakes or an active volcano. As I would come to find, however, his diabolical scheme was far worse.

Though we met for only ten sessions over my four years of high school, twice a year to choose semester courses and two additional occasions, the guidance counselor and I had become adversaries. Despite the fact that I had impressive grades documented in a readily available file, he had determined that I was a lost cause. This attitude was embodied in classic Howzierisms, like, "Auto mechanics would be good for someone like you." And "Community college is probably the best you can hope for."

He oscillated between contrived empathy and outright nastiness, often attempting to discourage me from enrolling in challenging classes. To his credit though, I was a punk, a rebel, a renegade, a revolutionary and a pretty bad standardized tester.

By junior year, students had to log potential career pursuits on a form that their guidance counselor would then correlate with prospective college programs. On the day Howzier was to hatch his nefarious scheme, I had been called into his office. He apparently had no success finding curriculum matches for my top three choices: 1) International Man of Mystery, 2) Professional Adventurer, and 3) cowboy or pirate. (I couldn't make up my mind.). So when Howzier asked, "What are we going to do with you?" as though I had accidentally been stepped in, this is what he was speaking about.

And when I responded it came out sounding something like John Cusack's character, Lloyd Dobler, in Say Anything, "I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed...or buy anything sold or processed...or process anything sold, bought, or processed...or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that."

The truth was that I did have a general idea of what I wanted to do with my life. A genuine dream that I felt would be best kept from Howzier, a secret that may have been what Cameron Crowe had in mind when he wrote Dobler's lines. I wanted to be a writer; an ambition like this was far too much a treasure to be shared with someone like him. Still, even with this ace up my sleeve, my Moriarty had the upper hand.

In the absence of lasers, alligators, snakes and active volcanoes, Howzier, in super villainous fashion, bound me to a too small desk on loan from a local grade school. Its restraining arm pinned against my chest, suffocating me. Bound in place, he then presented me with a sealed booklet ominously marked "vocational assessment exam."

I'd have taken my chances with any of the other options, because this vocational assessment was all scenarios rolled into one. It was serpentine beast tightly wrapped around my present, its boa constricting body squeezing the air out of me, while its open maw, like that of a man-eating alligator, poised to consume the whole of my future. It breathed the incinerating ashen air of a live volcano, with the fierce intensity of a laser that scorched the edges of my dream sanctuary.

My only defense against this creature, a sharpened #2 pencil clutched in my sweaty palm. I could scarcely draw a breath, initially thinking I would resist by filling little smiley faces or patterned rows of B-C-D-B-C-D on the answer form. In a moment of clarity, I realized this was the trap he had laid and I was playing right into his hands. I broke the seal with sudden resolve to seriously tackle the exam, without seriously accepting the results.

Later, Howzier would study these results as though he were a doctor faced with relaying a terminal diagnosis to a patient. He released several "Mmmhmms" and shifted his weight from foot to foot awkwardly. Finally, as though he could no longer bear it, he thrust the report in my hands and stared down at me anticipating an emotional collapse.

"Isn't there something, anything, you can do?" The verdict, "suited for a career in the creative field with a strong command of written and verbal communication skills," slowly morphed into affirmation.

Howzier had finally done his job, validating my dream ambition in his own statistical language. He had given me a direction for my future. How is that for a Lifetime moment?

In the years that followed, there would be other Howziers of course, but just like every Bond villain since Blofeld, they paled in comparison. Despite his intent, my nemesis had taught me how to preserve this dream treasure. In college, when I was told "major hopping" indicated an unfocused lack of direction, I interpreted it as experiential research. When I was struggling through the hardships of unemployment, I used it as on-the-job training, and every rejection letter received was viewed as an opportunity for improvement.

A year after I had graduated, Howzier asked my brother, Chris, how I was doing. He was helping Chris get into tech school at the time.

At that time, I was working on an assembly line installing lubricated rollers into tract beds in agonizingly monotonous days that stretched one into the other, punctuated only by calamities that would almost cost someone an appendage or worse yet, their life. Chris probably didn't word it exactly like this, but the implication was there. To this Howzier replied smugly, "At least he's contributing to society." Then he released a nasty laugh as though he was sharing an inside joke with Chris.

There was a time when that would have burned me up inside and I would've wanted to throw all of my accomplishments in his face. Where I would boil with the desire to show him that writing had also led me closer to my first three career choices, too, proving to him that I had pounded Raymond Chandler's mean streets in search of runaway youth, backpacked across Ireland exploring Celtic ruins, caught venomous snakes, suppressed wild fires and mended fences in Texas.

In the same tradition as Mark Twain's own boyhood fantasies, I worked as a deck hand on an old-fashioned paddle wheel boat, and did my part to swindle booty on board that vessel. The boat housed a casino. They called this good customer service, but it seemed like piracy to me. There was a time when I would want to boast all of this to Howzier, but he had already taught me that lesson. These secret treasures were my own.

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