Eli McCann: My schoolboy trip to the principal’s office and throwing myself on the mercy of the parental court

“Although I already had been exonerated by the proper authorities, I was convinced I could be tried again, this time through my parents’ criminal justice system.”

Tribune humor columnist Eli McCann.

In fall 1991, I accidentally punched Simon Jones in the face during recess. Blood gushed from his nose like a faucet, prompting shouts from the other first grade eyewitnesses who then would go on to debate the level of intent behind the erratic swinging of my arms during whatever nonsensical game we happened to be playing at the time.

Noticing the commotion, the recess aide (a neighborhood mom tasked with ensuring we didn’t kill ourselves or one another on the playground) rushed to Simon and guided him and his upturned face to the school nurse.

Seeing myself now as a fugitive who soon would be accused of scholastic crimes, I fled the scene, opting to hide in the boys’ restroom, reasoning that since my teacher was a “girl,” she wouldn’t be able to find me there. Minutes later, as I stood on a toilet in the middle stall, I watched Ms. Beckstead’s inch-long fingernail slide into the crack at the door and pry open the lock. I then was marched to the principal’s office, Ms. Beckstead squeezing my wrist and practically dragging me (this was before children had any rights).

Over the next few days, I was summoned to the principal’s office a couple of more times as a part of what turned out to be a relatively thorough investigation. Simon, of course, was willing to take the witness stand, but his story was not enough, alone, to convict me, since he couldn’t speak to my intent.

Ultimately, my explanation that this had all been a misunderstanding apparently was accepted by the judge and victim, and the entire event was resolved with a lecture and a handshake. My parents were not called, which caused me temporary relief, soon replaced by an all-encompassing dread and guilt that I was supposed to fess up to them on my own. I was sure if they happened to find out I had been called to the principal’s office through anyone else, they would escort me to prison for not telling them.

This is one of those predicaments that highlight how unequipped children are to properly diagnose the degree to which something actually matters. Looking back now with a moderate level of adult wisdom, I can see that it would have been perfectly fine for me to casually say to my parents, “I accidentally bumped a kid today and gave him a bloody nose, and I felt bad about it, but fortunately he’s OK and the principal just told us to be more careful.” Even if they were in bad moods at the time, this sort of disclosure wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow for ol’ mom and dad.

Staring at a second trial

Although I already had been exonerated by the proper authorities, I was convinced I could be tried again, this time through my parents’ criminal justice system, which I believed, based on personal experience, to be a much harsher jurisdiction than the one at Heartland Elementary School. This was mostly due to the number of times my mother had washed my mouth out with dish soap, which I’m positive didn’t have FDA approval whenever my sisters told her I had said “damn” or “hell.”

I decided to think about it for a day or two and come up with the best way to tell them. Maybe if I practiced it in the mirror a few times I could polish the speech enough to include all the correct adjectives to sell my parents on my innocence.

Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months. Before I knew it, a full calendar year had passed. I was now a second grader living on borrowed time. A second grader who regularly went to bed with my stomach tied in knots over the great and terrible secret of my depravity still locked away in the recesses of my likely irredeemable heart.

I’ll take this brief moment to give a word of advice to any parents out there who are raising a highly anxious and guilt-ridden child: Most kids need to see a disappointed frown every now and then. Your kid is different. Start every morning by whispering to them in the gentlest voice you can conjure, “There is nothing wrong with you.” Otherwise, they may turn into an insecure humor columnist who publishes embarrassing stories about your family without permission.

Consumed by fear, I finally reached a breaking point one autumn evening. I asked my surprised mother if we could go for a walk so I could talk to her about something. My heart raced as I opened my mouth to get out the words, resigning myself to whatever consequences awaited me.

Tender mercy

Tears rolled down my red-freckled face as I explained I had been called to the principal’s office for my role in the brief bloody brawl. The relief I felt to finally come clean caused me to abandon the more tempered version of the story I had practiced for more than a year. I even volunteered the part about hiding in the boys’ restroom from my prowling teacher.

I have a lot of clear memories of interacting with my parents as a small child in the early ‘90s. Most are funny. Few are as tender as this one.

As I finished my story, I looked up at my beautiful young mother, who now had tears as well. My heart sank further as I realized I had done something worse than anger her — I had disappointed her and made her sad.

“Honey,” she gently said, squeezing my arm, “we shouldn’t hurt people. But you seem to know that, so I’m not worried about you.” I fell into her arms and sobbed away my relief.

Perhaps defying a stereotype often assigned to overly sensitive gay men like me, I’ve never really considered myself to be a momma’s boy. We love each other, no doubt, but this isn’t one of those relationships that includes daily phone calls and matching outfits. And I’m sure I’m far from being my mother’s favorite child, mostly because I can’t compete with my three angelic sisters. Plus, I swear too much. And since we no longer live together, she has a much harder time washing my mouth out with bad soap.

But hot damn. Kind parents are not one of life’s guarantees, and it’s never been lost on me that I’m lucky.

(Pat Bagley) Eli McCann, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist.

Eli McCann is an attorney, writer and podcaster in Salt Lake City, where he lives with his husband and their two naughty (yet worshipped) dogs. You can find Eli on Twitter at @EliMcCann or at his personal website, www.itjustgetsstranger.com, where he tries to keep the swearing to a minimum so as not to upset his mother.

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