It was 1975, the year Squeaky Fromme attempted to assassinate President Ford. It was a volatile year. Charlie Chaplin got knighted and the Watergate gang was convicted. In local news, a crime wave was hitting the grocery store a block from where I lived. A thief was lurking among Safeway’s aisles – dressed like a seven-year old girl. Sometimes in a Girl Scout uniform.
I prowled the aisles, shifty-eyed and indiscriminate in my larcenous hunger. Some days it was the candy near the checkout lanes, but other days, I’d be emboldened by the surplus gum packs down the aisles. I was a second grade shoplifter.
I didn’t take it for myself. I took it for my friends of the future. Friends who would gather about my locker clamoring “I want one, too!” I gained a reputation. I could hook you up. Sometimes it was Tic-Tacs, other days I got a line on some Bits O’ Honey. Kids talked to me, shot me secret smiles in the hallway. I had what they wanted and they provided what I wanted – the illusion of being liked.
The nobility of poverty is bullshit. As one of the shyest, poorest kids in my grade, my character was in need of self-esteem and cash. I didn’t get the whole “being enough on one’s own”. I was not a likable child. I was quiet, horribly self-conscious and somber. And then there was The Incident, which triggered my life/week in crime.
Spelling test day. October 1975. Substitute teacher – the mean one. The order was always to push our desks apart for tests. Second graders are well-known for their propensity towards plagiarism and skulduggery. We were scattered about the room and given strict instructions to not speak unless spoken to. If we wanted to be spoken to, we must raise our hands. Up to this point, I followed rules. The letter of the law had no spirit.
I’m a bit of a freaky speller, so I smugly finished the test within minutes. I would have savored my success, tapping my eraser on the desk to let the other students know what dunces they were, had it not been for the milk at lunch. I’d held out through recess. I’d held out through reading time. It was time. I raised my hand to go to the bathroom. The teacher wasn’t looking. I raised my hand a little higher, starting to shift in my seat. She kept her back to me. The rule was not to speak. I did not speak. I did, however, pee. And still, I remained silent.
We pushed our desks back together. At seven, child development experts say that children have reached the Age of Reason, when intellectual capacities are more developed, as is the ability to lie. I reasoned that since I was no longer in the same locale, my secret would remain undiscovered, but I had not yet honed my lying skills.
“Who did this?” The teacher shot red angry beams from her eyes. Sparks snapped and crackled off her fingertips. Her hair stood on end and the vein in her neck throbbed. Well, I was seven. She looked scary. She pointed to the large yellow puddle in the middle of the floor.
I raised my hand slowly and her fiery glare zeroed in on me.
Oh – NOW you see my hand, lady?!
That was the day I turned towards the darkness. A day of singular humiliation. Until a week later, when Martin peed his pants and got sent to the nurse’s office, after which he wore what looked like girl’s bell bottoms all day long. But it was too late by then. I had ground to regain. I had gum to steal.
There should be a moral to this story. I didn’t get caught. I didn’t find a true friend who was uninterested in a sugar high. The store owner didn’t befriend my little bedraggled self. I got tired of being afraid. I wasn’t getting an adrenaline high from the steal, I was getting a rumbling, burbling stomach. Likely the Bit O’ Honey didn’t help (always test your own goods).
Getting tired of being afraid. It’s sometimes as simple and selfish as that. I got tired over the years of dealing with friends who I didn’t really trust. I got tired of worrying about whether or not people thought I was good or smart or kind or friendly enough. I got tired of living life as if it weren’t my own. It’s an amoral fable of the unrealized criminal. The payoff isn’t good enough to justify the anxiety.
Forty years later, I realize that I learned three very important life lessons in 1975.
- Real friends don’t need to be bribed at the cost of your personal integrity.
- Speak up on your own behalf. Some rules are just stupid.
- Go to the restroom whenever you get the chance.