That Time You Learned Your Lesson -- Free will...friend or foe?
The first time I ever really got in trouble in school I was in second grade. I’d be lying if I said I’ve learned my lesson.
I had a hall pass to use the bathroom and Ms. Fallo, my dear, sweet, second grade teacher, selected a girl, whose name I’m almost positive was Tiffany, to accompany me to the facilities. It was the 1980s, the golden days and a simpler era when parents ignored their children -- a convenient way of holding us accountable for our actions. Most often, it worked. If we happened to bash our heads in while attempting to ride our bikes down a slide (likely riddled with lead) in any one of the neighborhood playgrounds (void of grown-ups, naturally), our parents weren’t to blame. Us kids were. We were the asshats who actually thought we wouldn’t bash our heads in. Or maybe we knew it was a possibility, which therefore made us even bigger asshats. Meanwhile, the moms went about their lives, guilt free, bringing us trays of grilled processed cheese sandwiches and sugar-laden Kool-Aid during commercial breaks of their soap operas while we nursed our bashed heads at home in the quiet of suburbia weekdays. Simpler times.
So it was not odd that on the day in question when dear, sweet Ms. Fallo chose Tiffany to accompany me to the bathroom, the bathroom was clear across campus in a brick building not even attached to the main school building. Any amount of mischief could occur in that nondescript structure, and no teacher would be the wiser. It might as well have been in another zip code entirely as far as my seven-year-old legs knew. When I finally reached it, I pushed the heavy door open with my left shoulder while “holding myself” with my right hand and breezed past a couple of older kids, who were cracking up in front of the sinks. I locked myself in the first stall and relieved myself. Relief never felt so good.
Meanwhile, the laughter in front of the sinks carried on.
“That was a good one,” one girl said.
“Okay, watch. I’m going to try a bigger one and see how well it sticks,” the other said.
She entered the stall next to mine. I watched her feet stop just before the toilet paper dispenser and then she rejoined her friend. Water ran from the faucet for a millisecond. And then, smack! I looked up to see a wad of toilet paper clinging to the tiled drop-ceiling. Surrounding it were about fifteen other gooey wads of toilet paper, stuck, dangling, and dotting the ceiling.
Then Tiffany walked in.
I flushed the toilet. And somewhere in that brief moment, Tiffany had joined the game. I exited the stall to find my bathroom buddy slinging wet toilet paper to the heavens and rubbing shoulders with the older girls.
One of them turned to me. “You try it,” she said.
Now, here’s the part where a grown-up might call me an asshat.
She was tall. I was a dwarf. She had pierced ears and braces. They represented experience. She also wore a training bra under her uniform blouse. I mean, she was basically thirty-years-old. She stuck a goopy clump of toilet paper in my inexperienced hand. I looked down as it seeped between the creases of my palm. I said nothing, choosing to just stare at my hand. And then, like some bizarre parochial school hazing ritual, the three of them surrounded me. The red plaid of Tiffany’s jumper, the white of the thirty-something seventh graders’ blouses, and the black and white of their saddle oxfords spun around me as they moved me to the center of the bathroom. And I, dumb and ignored by grown-ups, just let them swarm me. Their laughter rose above my head. It was intoxicating. I temporarily forgot where I was and that I was supposed to be learning a cursive “Q” in Ms. Fallo’s class. Was this fun? Not really. Did I know I should be heading back to class? Probably. But in my stupid little mind far away from the rest of my world, all I thought was that clearly this was a common occurrence in the bathroom -- enough for Tiffany to know the routine -- and that if I stayed quiet, it would be over soon enough.
The two older girls backed away together as Tiffany inched closer to me. (Seriously, it was like a choreographed dance!) Tiffany lowered her hand under my own -- the one that held the soggy mess -- and then, smack! She forced it from hand to the ceiling. I looked up, just in time for some third grader I recognized from my swim lessons at the Y wearing a Brownie uniform to come waltzing in. She paused, followed my eyes to the ceiling, put her hands on her hips, and said, “I’m telling.” With that, she turned on her heels and high-tailed it in the direction of the office. The big girls ran after her. Tiffany followed. My feet, though, were frozen to the floor. It wasn’t until I heard Tiffany yell from the adjacent breezeway, “Annie, c’mon!” that I finally woke up.
What am I doing here?!
Briefly, I considered returning to class. If I distanced myself from the toilet paper brigade, maybe my innocence would be easier to prove. But then again, that could make it worse. I needed to clear my name before the other girls twisted the story. But it was too late. The Brownie beat me to it. Already Sister What's-Her-Name was marching into the bathroom. All the girls at her heels, three guilty and one snooty. Sister’s eyes drilled into mine. Her face was a combination of shock and rage. It was red and seemed to burst from her habit.
“I...d-d-didn’t d-d-d-do it,” I stammered.
“Yes she did!” the others yelled.
“I saw her!” said the Brownie.
“You did not!” I shot back. Finally, fom somewhere inside me I found some sense of pride, some accountability for the legacy of my own character. “All you saw was me in here.”
The scarlet nun raised her eyebrows and asked me one, single question:
“Were you here when the others defaced the ceiling?”
I didn’t know what defaced meant, but it sounded like something bad.
“Um, yes?” It was my opinion that if I answered in the form of a question, my chances of death would be lowered.
But I was doomed. And that became the day I learned what “guilty by association” meant. I did know that sticking toilet paper to the bathroom ceiling was wrong. I knew that being present while others “defaced the bathroom ceiling” felt wrong. And more than anything, when I let the toilet paper trio dance about me with their restroom ritual, I didn’t feel like myself. Regardless of how silenced I was by the absurdity of my surroundings, the whole situation was profoundly inauthentic to who I was.
Yesterday, my kids began their school year -- online. My belief that they will be in the school building permanently before January is growing weaker by the day. I’ve become resolved to a dismal outlook on school, but it doesn’t stop there. I’m less hopeful about the return to most of the life that I knew before the planet locked down. And for the love of sanity everywhere, I am so sick of feeling that way -- my life consumed with worry and debate about school, masks, social distancing, hand sanitizer, toilet paper (strikes again!) the election, conspiracy theories, this side of the aisle or that, and everything I can’t fix.
Don’t mistake me. It’s all important. But some days I feel just like little-Annie in the isolated bathroom, trapped in a swarm of abysmal gloom again. It’s enough to give me the worst writer’s block and energy killer I’ve ever experienced. Just when I think I’ve risen above it, down it pulls me again because I’m not a scientist, a doctor, a school administrator, or a politician. I don’t have any meaty authority that anyone can grab onto and follow me as I kick Covid19’s ass straight out of this galaxy. What value am I to the outcome of what has basically amounted to a year so bad I’m already planning my New Year’s Eve party? Yet as I remember that day in the bathroom, silenced into submission, I can’t help but wonder what if my voice had surfaced? What if I hadn’t been such a wimp? What if hadn’t been so stupid to just stand there and let others determine my path? What if instead I’d said, “No! You’re not bringing me down with you.”
What if I did today?
When I was kid, parenting was a little bit of instruction and a whole lot of faith that your offspring wouldn’t be stupid enough to bash their head in. Some of us did. Some of us still do, but I think there is wisdom in the hands-off approach our parents took. While it left room for God knows what travesties to occur, it also left room for wisdom of our own to come of age. I’ve managed to learn many things since that bathroom fiasco. And while most lessons I tend to learn over and over, (Hey, there wouldn’t be a That Time You if I wasn’t a slow learner) I know enough to know that I do have authority and value in one tiny but most important fraction of any bad situation in which I find myself -- my will. Christians are taught that free will allows horrible things to happen to good people. And while I believe free will is responsible for countless tragedies, I also wonder if free will can’t also be our salvation?
Brooding over everything that can’t happen right now is a choice. As is choosing to not be a victim of it. So what if I don’t have the authority to make school safe again? I have the free will to not let change ruin my year. So what if everyone in the country is divided over the election? I have the free will to avoid opinions that make me as angry as a hot-blooded scarlet nun. So what if the entire world is embedded in a toxic phase of negativity? I have the free will to not participate in what feels inauthentic to who I am. Just as I could have stepped out of that toilet stall, washed my hands, and marched my happy ass back to the cursive “Q”, securing a better outcome for myself, today I can still wash my hands of anything that silences my spirit. Waiting it out didn’t work when I was seven. Why should it now? I have free will. I have the authority to choose what is best for me. It was never intended to be negotiable.
I served my first detention after the great toilet paper caper. Tiffany and I were the youngest ones in the room -- both of us asshats. “I will not deface school property” written one-hundred times in straight lines was my punish work. What will be my punish work if I don’t learn my lesson this time?
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