A trip to the principal's office

A narrow escape

What would it have been like to have worked with my parents? Kids did that, I assume. Somewhere. Imagine having your dad teach you golf because he loved it and he wanted me to love it yet not blowing his stack when you weren’t immediately good at it. Or going to your parents with your problems—like how you were being picked on.

Instead, I did life alone, just like my dad. I certainly didn’t let my family in. The only way my parents could learn of my achievements was if someone else told them. Like the principal calls to say I’m on the honor roll. Unlikely. Or the neighbor lady accuses me of something untoward. More likely—in which case, I was “in trouble.”

“You’re going to be in so much trouble when mom and dad find out,” my older sister, Laura, would often say to me.

Whenever my parents asked me what was up, I’d say, “Nothing.” The less they knew, the better.

One weekday in sixth grade, after school had let out, I stayed around the school grounds for some reason. Probably something I wouldn’t tell my parents about.

I noticed people were in our multipurpose building, which was the size of a basketball court with a thin walkway around the edge. It was the same building we lined up in to get our polio shots. Elementary schools rarely if ever hold sporting events that require large crowds.

I walked over and saw a roomful of children with these contraptions on their legs. They were long plastic tubes, three or four feet in length. On one end was a rubber ball. The other end had a plastic loop, which you were supposed to fit around one ankle. The idea of was that you spun the ankle in the plastic loop around so that the rubber ball circled you and you had to jump over it when it would come close to your other leg.

In front of the room full of kids with the contraptions on their ankles stood a svelte middle-aged woman with her own contraption, offering detailed instructions.

“Watch what I do, children!” she called out. “Children! Children! You’re not looking at me.”

I saw a spare contraption in the thin border around the basketball court and I hooked it around my ankle. I began the instructed motion and clumsily processed around the group. Kids would have to stop and get out of my way.

“Coming through!” I said.

“You, young man!” the instructor woman called out to me. “You’re not part of this class! Young man!”

“But I’m awesome at it! Look at me, kids!”

“You get out of here, young man, right now!” the woman said, advancing toward me.

“Fine, fine,” I said, shaking the contraption from my ankle and kicking it to the side. “Calm down, you bitch!”

I went out the door and bumped into someone I knew. Can’t remember who, exactly. They’re not important. When they make a movie of this, they can just use an “extra.” The filmmaking intern from USC.

“Hey, you know what I just called this lady?” I asked.

At that, the door behind me burst open and the woman, wide-eyed—“crazed,” the script for the feature film would say—was grasping for me.

“What did you call me?” she cried in the tone of voice Satan uses when someone backs into his sports car. My CD changer!

I bolted, barely escaping her clutches, and burst through the outer door. I didn’t need to be told she wouldn’t give up easily, so I kept running. She burst out the outer door, but I already had a good 10 feet on her.

She gave chase. Cue mariachi music.

Some kids were nearby playing foursquare and they stopped their game and watched the spectacle. This was something you didn’t see every day. I was outrunning her so she called to a janitor standing near me to help her in quest to string me up.

“Sir! Grab him!” she said.

He complied, not putting down his mop, shambling toward me half-heartedly and immediately out of breath. If you play it all fast forward, it’ll crack you up. There we are, running curly-cues. I’m ducking and weaving.

“What’s your name, young man?” the woman called from the rear of the spectacle. The foursquare kids watched us wordlessly.

“Dave Blankenship!” I called out, using the name of a classmate, hoping it would calm her like how you use a hose to break up a dog fight. “My name is Dave Blankenship!”

I ran around the end of the building and when I finally stopped on the other side of the playground, the woman or the gassed janitor were nowhere to be seen. I waited behind a bush for about 15 minutes, just to make extra sure.

While I sat there, I thought about whether the women popping bare-shouldered out of the wooden water tank at the start of Petticoat Junction were naked in real life or just pretending. And if they’re really naked, do they just walk around like that when all the TV guys are watching? Isn’t that against some law?

When I felt the coast was clear, and left the school in the opposite direction from my house and backtracked several blocks over.

When I got to school the next day, some kids told me the woman had got my real name from the foursquare kids. So I expected the worst. After class started, I went into the restroom and wetted down my hair and parted it in the opposite direction.

Mr. Harmon watched me, narrow-eyed, as I went from the bathroom to my desk and pretended to get my papers in order. He wasn’t born yesterday. Since when did I care about my papers? Is my hair different?

And, sure enough, mid-morning a reedy voice came over the loudspeaker in the room. “Mr. Harmon, will you please send John Draper to the principal’s office?”

As if on cue, the entire class went, “Ooooh!”

“Busted!” Boom-Boom said.

It was true. My parents would learn I said the word bitch to a lady. I was screwed.

It would be up to my mom to decide if this offense rose to a level where it would be brought before my dad. Not everything was. “Okay, buster, I’m not going to tell your father about this this time, but straighten up and fly right!”—or words to that effect.

Mr. Harman glowered at me, nodding his head, as if he’d been expecting it sometime during the school year. Actually, this was the first time I’d ever been called to the principal’s office during my six years at Woodcrest Elementary.

“What’d you do, John?” he growled.

“I have no idea what it could be,” I lied, holding out my hands and shrugging my shoulders.

As I walked to the office, I looked at myself in the classroom windows and tried to adopt a new style of walking, something slope-shouldered and plodding, suggesting deference to authority, the way kids who wear the watches backward and do extra credit walk.

When I walked into the principal’s office, sure enough—bum, bum, BUM!—there she was. She sat with her legs close together and holding her purse on her thighs, exuding malice—or was that the smell of poetic justice?

“Is this the one?” the principal asked.

She squinted at me and rubbed her chin with her fingertips. I tried to exude innocence. I shuffled my feet meekly. “He looks a little different, but, yes, this is probably him.”

The principal began: “So, Mrs. . . . Reedy . . . yes, thank you . . . Mrs. Reedy says you disrupted her . . . what kind of class was it, Mrs. Reedy?”

”Spintastics,” she said, tilting her head back and narrowing her eyes, as if this should be the only bit of evidence required. It explained everything!

“Spintastics,” the principal said. “Well, son, it seemed you caused a bit of ruckus. What were you thinking?”

My mind raced. Before I could say anything, Mrs. Reedy joined in, apparently unable to contain herself one split-second longer.

“He disrupted the class!”

She pulled her purse closer to herself as if marshaling her strength. In it, I suspected, is she kept her red magic power ring, given to her by a visitor from a distant galaxy, which was the source of her righteous fury.

“Well, son . . .” the principal began slowly.

“Then he called me . . . a name!” she said, leaning toward the principal, who nodded languidly in response.

“Well, son,” he began, then took a slow breath. “I think that for . . . starters you need to apologize to . . . um . . . Mrs. Reedy here.”

I found myself drifting, thinking of magic power rings, which one I’d take, given the chance.

“Son?” the principal said eventually.

“Yes, sir?” I said, jumping in my seat.

“Your apology?” he said.

Mrs. Reedy drew her feet under her chair and pulled her purse in closer still. Was she . . . bracing herself?

“Okay,” I said, looking at the floor. “Sorry.” Then after a few seconds, I added, “ma’am.”

Mrs. Reedy looked at me agape and then looked at the principal, who was smiling and nodding slowly. He’d done it again. This was why he drove a Mercury, not just a Ford.

“That’s not good enough!” the lady said. “That was nowhere near good enough. It wasn’t sincere!”

“Well,” said the principal. “I’m sure John here is quite sorry. Aren’t you, son?”

She was staring at the principal and I was staring at her.

“Son?” the principal repeated.

When she looked at me, I looked away and, accidentally, into the principal’s eyes. He had a friendly, expectant look on his face. I gathered he had just asked me a question.

“Sir?” I asked.

“Mrs. Reedy is concerned that your apology wasn’t sincere,” he said. “That wasn’t the case, was it?”

I had to think this through. So . . . he’s asking if my apology was sincere. Define sincere. Did I want it to work? Yes, but that’s probably not what he’s asking. He’s asking if I meant it—if I was really sorry for what I did. Well, I was sorry I got caught, and I was really sorry that my parents weren’t going to be thrilled about this news. My mom, for certain. My dad, undetermined. But that’s probably not what he meant either. He meant was I penitent. A changed man. The answer was . . . no.

But I knew that wasn’t the right answer so:

“Yes,” I said, looking the principal straight in the eye, like a man, hoping to confuse him and therefore catch him off guard and gain an advantage. “I’m really sorry.” I didn’t dare look at Mrs. Reedy. She’d make me crack.

“Well,” she said, pulling her purse even tighter into herself, “it didn’t sound sincere to me. He’s just sorry he got caught.”

“I promise I’ll never do it again,” I told the principal, which was the truth, so I thought it might work, whooshing away the stench of all my other lies.

“Well, there you go,” the principal said, placing both palms down on his desk and smiling. I took that to be body language for case closed, so I stood, ready to beat a hasty retreat.

“Now. . .” the principal began and I quickly sat down.

“Now, son, I believe you’re sorry for what you did and you’ll never do it again. One last thing: I want you to make sure to tell your parents about this when you get home today.”

I looked at him—and blinked—wondering if my disbelief was showing. Really? That’s it?

“Absolutely, sir,” I said ceremoniously, hoping it would ratify the oral contract we just entered into. “I will tell them as soon as I get home today from school.”

I glanced quickly at Mrs. Reedy. She had let go of her purse and folded her arms across her chest. Was she admitting defeat?

“Well, I’m glad we were able to talk this through,” the principal said, once again placing both palms on his desktop and, this time, standing up.

I stood up but Mrs. Reedy remained seated. Before she had a chance to protest the dispensation of her case, I rushed past her, saying, “Excuse me, ma’am” and then adding, “Sorry” like a piece of candy tossed thoughtlessly from a float by the Daffodil Parade Queen

If I could escape, I reasoned, put some distance between myself and Mrs. Reedy, I could wedge this whole episode into a submerged crevice of my brain where the memories of my first breath in the hospital room and other events I’d forgotten live in neglected accord, never doing no one no harm. Begone! Spintastics? What’s that? Sounds vaguely familiar. The latest craze?

Kids.

When I got back to the classroom, Boom-Boom whispered to me, “What you do, man?”

“It was a case of mistaken identity,” I said.

“Yeah, right,” Boom-Boom said. “Whatever it was, you did it.”

Walking home, I realized there was a chance that Mrs. Reedy still had some fight in her. That is, she might call my parents. As far I knew, we were the only Drapers on the hill.

When I got home, my mom asked me her standard question.

“What’d you do in school today, Sweetie?”

I was safe. For now.

I looked up at her. “Same old thing,” I said.

If you liked this essay, you might like Nakedness.

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