Walk Down Misery Street

Instead, I was met with a lot of noisy commotion. I was overwhelmed by the sight and sounds, and I didn’t get a good look at my classmates. I was secretly hoping I had entered the wrong auditorium. I decided at the first break to go and find my noble and refined classmates.

A somewhat nondescript teacher was giving the lecture. Students were constantly joking, and the auditorium frequently erupted into laughter. My English was poor at the time. I knew little slang, so I didn’t get most of the jokes. The only words I could make out through the flood of chaotic speech were “fuck” and “shit”—the two swear words resounded throughout the auditorium. Even when everyone was silent, including the professor, the words “fuck” and “shit” kept ringing in my ears.

Most of the male students wore beard and mustache and were covered in tattoos. Their smiles seemed predatory. Many of the women looked disheveled and roughed up. What was wrong with them? Are these my classmates? Why did they look like they just have been released from jail?

My hunch about them wasn’t too far from the truth, as I learned later. The hope that I’d mistakenly entered the wrong auditorium was dashed. I had come to the right place, where yesterday’s drug users are metamorphosed into tomorrow’s substance abuse counselors.

I soon learned that the government was paying for their education. According to US labor laws, people with chemical dependence are categorized as disabled and therefore have the right to a free education at training programs and even colleges. To study in a substance abuse school on a government grant, a drug user has to be clean—free of any junk or alcohol for at least three months.

“Is it fair and just? While one person has to work as a security guard and stand still for hours in the supermarket, counting every penny to pay for his education, another, who has been getting high for years, learns for free?!” This was my initial angry reaction.