Mary was, without doubt, the prettiest girl in my sixth grade class. She sat at the front of the row nearest the classroom door far to my right. She is not the main character in this story, however.
On one of the few memorable days of that school year, Mary had become upset. A sexually suggestive note had been passed to her from behind, and she properly gave the note to the teacher. Two boys who sat behind her in her row were identified as suspects for having written the note. Each, of course, denied having done so and both were sent to the office to be questioned by the principal.
One boy was Craig. Craig was a pal of mine, and while he was not such a close friend as to come visit me at my home, we did things together at school. We played football at recess. We both were in the band, he playing the trombone and I the trumpet. Brass guys. He was well-liked by others in the class, too. He was just a good guy. People liked Craig. The other suspected boy, Terry, did not have the same popularity. He was fairly new to the school and had not really hit it off with the other kids. He was gangly, disheveled and, to be honest, unattractive. He was often disruptive and in trouble. He would do and say things in class that would make the rest of us roll our eyes and shake our heads.
The interrogation must have gone on for hours. Much later in the day, Terry returned to class and we learned that Craig had been suspended for writing the note. But we knew that had to be wrong! Clearly that could not be so! Craig must have been worn down from the questioning; he must have given a false confession just to put an end to it. Terry, conversely, liar that we just knew him to be, must have held firm to his fabrication, causing Craig to feel pressure to take the fall for writing the note that had upset Mary so.
At late-afternoon recess, I joined a group of kids that ganged up on Terry. We didn’t believe him. We cursed him. “We know that you wrote that note! Why don’t you just admit it?” Our friend, the good guy, Craig, was being punished for something that the villain, Terry, had done. If Terry didn’t get the righteous consequence of a school suspension, we would make him pay the social price. Thusly, Terry was shunned by his peers.
But as it turned out, Terry didn’t write the note; Craig did. When Craig returned to school from his suspension, he told us so.
I wish I could say that upon hearing Craig’s confession, a flood of remorse came over me. But that’s not true. I was still angry with Terry. I did not want my friend to be the guilty one. Maybe today a lewd note would not shock and upset a girl as it had Mary. Maybe sixth graders being suspended from school is no longer considered a big deal. But it was back in 1968-69. And, I was not ready to accept that Craig – my friend, the good guy – was the creep who had inflicted pain upon Mary.
Now, with the perspective of an adult, no longer a sixth-grade boy, I realize that the villain in the story was actually me. I was the creep! Mary was the innocent victim; the teacher took appropriate action, the principal suspended the right guy. Terry had done nothing wrong, save perhaps having passed the offending note forward from Craig toward Mary without having looked at it. Even Craig, though belatedly, eventually told the truth and accepted his righteous punishment. But I judged. I judged without mercy. I judged falsely. I discriminated. What I did to Terry was wrong and unjust. Terry did not deserve our scorn. My scorn. I wonder now how we made him feel. How I made him feel. I am so, so sorry. It’s rather late for that now.
But hey, Terry was judged by a jury of his peers, after all. And the too-tall, gangly, freckly, unkempt guy with crooked teeth, beady eyes, and odd behavior was probably the guy who wrote the nasty note. Right? Right?
No, not right. And even today I have to guard against that way of thinking because it’s so easy to slip back into it. It doesn’t serve the truth. I wonder if there are other people out there who have been falsely accused of something because of the way they look or act.
Many years after the incident, the lesson I learned is this: Just because I believe something — no matter how fervently and deeply I believe it, no matter how many other people also believe it – that’s not what makes it true. Truly, I can believe something that is utterly false. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I learned that lesson the hard way; someone else paid the price.
That’s what I learned in sixth grade, the lesson that took years to sink in.