[A quick note: I originally published this on my old website, Inane Crap, five years ago. Since I have been writing about the 1986 Mets, I thought it would be appropriate to repost. There will be another post tomorrow.]
I think that one of the biggest problems you face when you grow up normal is that you grow up being a good kid. Technically there is nothing wrong with parents instilling their children with a sense of morality, a work ethic, and awareness of the world around them. The problem is that normal kids do not make good criminals.
I mean, I am a terrible liar. I can embellish and exaggerate, but when it comes to fabrication, I flat-out suck. Luckily, I discovered this in the fourth grade when I tried to con my way out of getting in trouble for not doing my homework.
When I was nine years old, I began the fourth grade at Lincoln Avenue Elementary School in the fall of 1986. My teacher was a very nice woman named Mrs. Balcewicz, whom everyone called “Mrs. B.” Fourth grade was a huge year from anyone at Lincoln because it meant that you moved into the “big kid” hallway and got actual grades on your report cards instead of weird letters like “S,” “N,” and “U.” And not only was being in the 4-5-6 hallway exciting, I was poised to do very well because my third grade year had been stellar.
Unfortunately, this year of school was where I began my very slow descent into the social awkwardness that defined my adolescence. Like other years, I spent most of my days playing G.I. Joe and Top Gun and beating up on girls (not in the “future domestic violence case” way, though; more like in the “pulling pigtails” way). But most importantly, my brain was trying to tell me that it was time to start maturing, and that was by getting in trouble.
For the most part, this was not through any violent behavior, because I was a good kid. Nor was it through refusing to be clean, because I’d had a messy desk since I was in the first grade. The way I rebelled when I was nine years old was by not doing my homework. Mrs. B didn’t assign a lot of homework, but during one week in October 1986, thought a little homework was too much and refused to do it. What’s worse is that when she came to collect my homework and I didn’t have it, I used the excuse of going to see my ailing grandfather in the hospital. It was underhanded and mean, and my come-uppance was quick because on the Friday of that week, she handed out progress reports that had to be signed by our parents. Mine said that I was missing a couple of assignments, and had this comment: “Tommy has been telling me about going to see his grandfather in the hospital.”
Now when you’re in the fourth grade and you have never really done anything wrong in your life, you don’t’ have the smarts to know that the jig is up and you should come clean to your teacher about not doing your homework. I was a likable student, who would eventually be named “Teacher’s Pet” in my high school yearbook, so I probably would have gotten off with a warning. Instead, I hastily signed my mom’s name on the progress report and hid it in my desk at school until the day she collected it. Mrs. B was not stupid, and a few days later on October 28, 1986, she called my parents.
I remember that day very clearly. I’d gone to bed the night before at my usual bedtime of 8:00, so I had not stayed up to watch Game 7 of the World Series. My parents, however, watched it and when I walked down the stairs in my pajamas the next morning, a poster hung from the moulding above the foyer. On it, my dad had written, “The dream comes true. Mets 8, Red Sox 5.” In my little-kid sleepiness, it took a moment to process what that meant, but when I did, I was ecstatic. The Mets, the team that I’d started rooting for just a season earlier, had won the World Series.
It was so important that we talked about it on the playground before going into class. I remember saying something about how great it was. But a few minutes after we recited the Pledge of Allegiance, Mrs. B asked me to step out into the hallway. I went with her and she showed me the forged progress report. I was, in a word, screwed. Completely screwed. So screwed that my day seemed to immediately go from that moment to my father yelling at me.
To see my father furious is a rare and extremely scary occurrence. Most fathers, when they get ticked off, are comical. There’s some yelling, the old man’s face turns red, and a forehead vein starts to throb to the point of almost bursting. In that time, there’s a small moment of fear and then several minutes of trying not to laugh lest you wind up in more trouble. With my father, however, you fear for your life. When I was a kid, him getting very angry at me was extremely frightening. Remember when Bill Bixby used to turn into the Incredible Hulk? Well, it was like that except my dad’s a bodybuilder, so it was more like Lou Ferrigno becoming an even bigger Lou Ferrigno. Super Hulk, if you will. I don’t even remember what my father said to me, just that I thought I was going to die.
Of course, that would never happen. Dad yelled, but he wasn’t going to have a psychotic break, and after I was six or seven he rarely laid a hand on me. But at nine years old, I didn’t have that much perspective so when he sent me to my room, I felt like I’d been spared, even if my room was like solitary confinement. It also meant my dad had time to calm down, talk to my mother, and figure out my sentence. That would be the following: for the next two weeks, I had to come straight home from school and sit in my room; could not see any friends; and had to sit in the school’s main office instead of going to recess. I also had to write a letter of apology to Mrs. B. It was the first and only time in my life that I was grounded.
I wrote the letter the next day and began my sentence without complaint. My parents were upset more that I had covered up my lie than the actual lying, and protest would definitely exacerbate the situation. Sitting in the office during recess wasn’t too bad because the secretaries gave me busy work to do. And my parents were consistent with the punishment-even on the last weekend, I wasn’t allowed to play with anyone. The only time I had any freedom, in fact, was around Halloween.
About two days after my sentencing, my dad came to see me in my room. I don’t know if he’d felt guilty about the other day or not, but he spoke in a very nice tone and told me that he would let me go trick or treating on Halloween as long as I did something in lieu of this non-punishment. I did not know what “in lieu” meant (and wondered what my Uncle Lou had to do with anything), but trick or treating in my awesome ninja costume was a priority, so I accepted. At the time I didn’t realize this, but allowing me to choose my own punishment was very important; it’s rare when a parent trusts a nine-year-old with that much responsibility.
I decided to spend all day of the following Saturday in my room. Twenty years ago, that was as close as anyone could get to “time in the hole.” I didn’t have a phone, television, or computer; I didn’t even have a radio. All I had for the day was a stack of books about baseball teams I’d taken out of the library. But it wasn’t too bad, even if the history of the Seattle Mariners bored the hell out of me (as it is wont to do).
My crime was more or less forgotten over the next eight years, except for the times I would bristle whenever I saw someone forge a parent’s signature. And while I wasn’t completely out of the woods with Mrs. B, I went on to pass the fourth grade with flying colors and was an honors student all the way through graduation. More importantly, with the exception of the occasional speeding ticket, I never wound up with a criminal record.