Back in the third grade my teacher decided that I couldn’t hold a pencil properly so she taped my pencil to my hand for an entire day. No one thinks for a second this would work and it wasn’t designed to work. The intent was to publically shame me for my poor writing skills. I had to eat lunch with half a roll of tape wrapped around my hand with a pencil sticking out of it. From that point on I always considered education to be equivalent to some sort of Concentration Camp where the guards and torturers make damn sure no one gets out with the ability to think clearly.
We had those huge thick pencils for the first three years of Elementary School and there was no good reason for it, really. The larger pencils were supposed to help build our muscles or something like that but I always thought it was wrong to force very small children to use very large writing instruments. As small as I was it was like trying to write with a boat oar. We were not allowed to so much as carry a pen with us, ever. That was one of the things that only adults did. We were constantly being told to stop acting like children but we were forbidden to behave like adults.
What we were required to carry was a three ring binder. Inside that was a little pouch that had a zipper on it and it also had holes that fit the binder. We were supposed to have, at all times, a pencil, an eraser, a compass, and a ruler, and as far as I knew, we never used the ruler. Candy, gum, or some interesting rock you might have found on the playground, all of that was considered an execution offense if they found it in your pouch. The Pouch Police were very real demons to the kids in my school.
I rode my bike to school and one day I found an ink pen on the road. I remember it very well because it had the name of some tire company in Dothan Alabama on it and Dothan was the only place in the Universe where they had movies and really large stories, as far as I knew. Oh we had a rundown theater in my hometown but Dothan…wow. It was an exciting find. It was like finding a dinosaur bone or some relic from a different age. Had I been thinking I would have never told anyone about the pen and likely I would have been able to keep it. But once on the playground I held it aloft like the Spear of Destiny. I had an ink pen. The other kids crowded around me as if I had picked up something an angel had dropped. The rats quickly went to tell. Of course, the teachers descended upon me.
Their rule was this “Anything you have that was not given to you by an adult is something you have stolen”. Clearly, the pen belonged to someone and I had taken it. The fact that it was on the street meant I had been playing on the road. (“Don’t you know you could have been killed?”) It didn’t matter that I had to ride my bike on the road to get there, mind you. The teacher laid out very clearly different courses of actions I could have taken and had I only taken the right path I would not have stolen the pen. I could have simply left it there. I could have placed the pen on the sidewalk so the true and real and deserving owner might have found it. But no, everything I had done pointed towards theft. I had not only kept something that belonged to someone else, oh that was terrible, but I had laid claim to it, and shown it to others as if I was proud of stealing. Even an eight year old knows all of that is just plain bullshit but there was nothing I could do about it.
And she had to tie all of this together to past sins as well. Why on earth would I take a pen, surely if a boy can’t use a pencil he isn’t going to be able to use a pen. I think she said that to everyone she spoke to for a year, “If a boy can’t use a pencil properly why on earth would he want a pen? He’s stealing something just for the joy he gets from stealing!”
There had to be some sort of show. There had to be a public execution. Everyone had to know that claiming to have found something was the same as having stolen it. At the same time, even third graders know that something like an ink pen, a simple push down on the button on top to make the pen appear at the bottom, isn’t really worth that much. In the grand scheme of things it wouldn’t change history. Yet we were also talking about me. The fact that it was me had a lot to do with the reaction. If I couldn’t write properly then that increased the likelihood of me being a thief. After all, it would appear that I wouldn’t succeed in becoming educated therefore I had already begun the turns towards a life of crime.
I just wanted to say, “I found a damn pen on the damn road. Could we not turn this into the fucking JFK Assassination?”
But it had already taken a life of its own. My teacher, who hated me and my left handedness, and my poor writing, was determined to find out who the pen belonged to. She was convinced I had stolen it and she was sure as hell going to tell the world about it. Because the pen had come from a tire company she went around at lunch to find out which of the teachers had bought tires in Dothan. No one had. I’m telling you, the woman was going to going through a lot of effort to pin this on me, no pun intended. Well, no one in the building had bought tires from that business so the teacher called my father, at work, and asked him had I taken the pen from him. Of course, my father who considered every accusation from a teacher against me to be true until proven false promised her that I would not get away with stealing the pen.
When I got home he asked me where I had found the pen and he drove me to the scene of the crime. “What was the pen doing there?” he asked me, and honestly, how do you respond to that question without sounding like a smartass? “How do you think the pen got there?” he asked and really, what answer would have done justice there? And so the next day he calls the teacher and tells her he’ll handle the situation and he’s going to make sure I don’t steal anything else, even though there really wasn’t any evidence at all that anyone had anything stolen from them, no, that just didn’t figure into the picture.
A meeting was called.
So, there we were: The teacher, my father, the Principal, and me. We’re sitting there and I’m going to be paddled for stealing the pen, I’m going a month without television or playing outside for stealing the pen, and if I get caught stealing pens again the police will be called and I will spend the rest of my life in prison for stealing pens. All the while I’m sitting there thinking, “It’s just a fucking ink pen!” I learned to curse at a very young age. There was a lot for me to curse at that time.
The teacher paddled me with a board, my father took me home, and put me in my room without supper and I remember thinking quite clearly that if this was justice I really had as much of it as I thought I needed.
Oh, and guess what happened to the stolen pen? The teacher kept it. I remember watching her use it and I wondered how an object with that much hypocrisy attached to it could still function.