Edward L. Johnson, a recovered alcoholic who lived on skid row for 13 years, stood yesterday in front of an audience of seventh and eighth graders in Fairfax County's Sidney Lanier Intermediate School and asked: "How many of you have ever been drunk?"
About twenty of the 150 students seated in the school gymnasium raised their hands.
The hands, Johnson said, indicate that too many adolescents are drinking. At least one out of every 10 teenagers in the nation has a drinking problem, said Johnson, a consultant to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
The latest statistics in Northern Virginia are identical. A recent Fairfax County study said that nearly one out of every 10 teen-agers there has an alcohol-related problem.
"Drinking is a serious problem," agreed Lanier principal William Trussell, who said he has suspended seven of the school's 969 students this year because they were found drinking at school or came to school intoxicated.
Yesterday Johnson, who works for a tire manufacturer, scrawled on a portable blackboard, jabbed the air with his chalk and said his life as a "juice head" almost killed him.
Once, he said, he was pulled from the gutter of a French street and presumed dead. "It kind of shook up the hearse driver when the stiff sat up in the back... and said, 'Where's the party?'"
The Fairfax students, most of them 12 to 14 years old, laughed. Some students seemed impressed by Johnson's warnings, but others did not. Drinking, scoffed one eighth grader, "is no big deal."
It's that attitude that troubles school administrators and prompted Johnson, who was on a speaking tour for the Firestore Tire Co. to visit the suburban school, at the request of a Firestone executive's wife who works there.
"These kids are at a very impressionable age," Trusell said. They see their parents drinking. It's socially acceptable. There's a lot of peer pressure to drink... That's why we have to make an impact on them now."
"If just one or two of these students can be turned around by his speech, it's been worthwhile," said Don Youngblood, a health and physical education teacher. "This is the best age to catch them. In high school, it's too late."
Jane Carter, another teacher, said Johnson's personal account would surpass any textbook. "The kids do relate and understand when it comes from someone who's been there," she said.
The 55-year-old Johnson laid out his life as an alcoholic in detail. He got drunk for the first time when he was 14 and in the company of some "older guys" who passed around "the jug," he said. "I hated the taste of it going down my throat," said, "but, boy, did I love the way it made me feel."
He talked of his bouts with alcohol in his hometown of Harvey, N.D., and in the military, and his years on skid row. "I'm an expert on European and Oriental jails," he said. "I'm a drunk. I stole booze. I fought with cops..."
He said he took his last drink 22 years ago on New Year's Eve of 1956. "What I'm trying to do is lay things straight for you, so you don't end up like me," said Johnson.
Brent Mak, an eighth grader, said he found Johnson's presentation realistic. "He didn't give you the scare tactics," he said. "He told it to us straight and he told it all."