Friday, April 01, 2005

"..and thus, the fat jokester gets his comeuppance..."

April 1, 1985, 9:20am
Our Lady of Mercy Junior High School, room 203
Mr. Bellhorn's English class

"Hey! Let's turn our desks around!" I say to a few of my fellow students. "So we're facing the back of the room! For an April Fool's joke!"

"OK!" says my friend Sean. "Hey guys!" he says, "We're gonna turn our desks around. Hurry up, before Mr. Bellhorn gets here!"

A rumble of activity fills the classroom as kids hurriedly turn their desks 180 degrees and sit hastily in their chairs.

The door opens, then silently closes. He's here.

My heart races. I wonder what he's going to say!

"WHAT is going on here?" Mr. Bellhorn shouts. He's actually got a pretty bad temper, when provoked.

The room is eerily silent. I can actually hear the clock on the wall ticking.

"I MEAN it! What the heck are you people doing?!"

"Ah, we, ah, wanted to play a little ..... joke on you," says my friend Eddie, who sits in the front row, in the seat closest to the door.

"A JOKE? Is defacing school property a JOKE to you?"

I know, I know. No one defaced anything. It didn't matter. None of us had anything remotely close to the balls required to argue with a teacher. Especially a pissed-off one.

"I-I-It was just a joke," he says meekly.

"I DON'T FIND IT FUNNY!" he screams. A couple of us jump in our seats. I turn around and look at Mr. Bellhorn over my shoulder. His face is red, his eyes wild with anger.

"You all have demerits. Now TURN your desks around and let's get to work!" Metal desk-legs creak and scrape loudly against the tiled floor.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, a demerit is technically a form of punishment, but our school used it as a sort of Scarlet Letter. It was a mark of Cain, something that you didn't live down for months afterwards.

Demerits brought great shame to all who received them. Once you received one, you became That Kid Who Got the Demerits. Urban legends were handed down from upperclassmen about students who had been caught smoking, or breaking in to the school after hours, and who had received FIVE demerits on the SAME DAY! We all listened silently, touching our chins, and wondered how ANYone could be so misguided as to behave so deviantly.

And now all of us are going to get one. Mr. Bellhorn is pretty liberal with his demerits, but I don't think he's ever done anything like this before. It crosses my mind that he could be joking, but I saw his face, and he truly was angry. When I see him reach for that terrifying little pink pad and start writing, my heart sinks. He's not kidding. We're all getting demerits.

I am done now, socially. I'm an adolescent outcast, a playground pariah. No one will speak to me anymore. Parents will tell their children to avoid me. Teachers will tell future underclassmen about that wayward boy who managed to blacken the reputation of an entire class singlehandedly.

I feel bad for my classmates, too, especially the dorky, bespectacled ones who do nothing but study and work hard. Sure, they turned their desks, too, but peer pressure can be a tough thing at this age. They are treated like shit by the other students; at least they know that they are academically successful, and that they never get into trouble. Now, they'll be bringing a little two-inch by two-inch slip of pink paper home for their parents to sign. And their mothers will probably die of heart attacks.

"M-Mr. Bellhorn?" Says Ralph, one of the brainy front-row dorks (I was a fat, back-row dork). "I've never been in trouble before. I was just doing it because everyone else did it-"

That poor bastard. He's terrified. He's actually worked up the balls to plead his case in front of everyone, because he's that scared of getting in trouble.

"If everyone else was jumping off a bridge, would you do that TOO?" Shouts Bellhorn.

That's a cliche now, a bad joke that we've all used a thousand times. But back then, none of us had heard it before, and it struck terror into our hearts, because in an instant, it made us realize that we had no excuse. It was wrong to do what we did, and the mere fact that everyone else had done it did not help us at all.

We take turns reading aloud, as we always do in class, but our minds are elsewhere. Each student's voice is weak and shaky, as if reading scripture at a funeral. It's the longest 50 minutes of my life.

10:10am. The bell rings.

"Leave the classroom row by row," says Mr. Bellhorn. "I'll hand you your demerit on the way out."

I'm one of the last kids out the door. I make eye contact with Mr. Bellhorn briefly. "See you tomorrow, Steven."

"Bye," I manage.

I have never seen a demerit up close before. I glance down at it.

DEMERIT STUB, it says at the top, in cold, black letters. My name and Mr. Bellhorn's name are written in the appropriate places. At the bottom, it says "REASON", followed by three black lines.

Two kids laugh out loud somewhere to my right. I wish I had something to laugh about. But my life as a junior high schooler is over.

I don't want to read the reason. It's going to be a stark reminder that this was MY fault. It's going to confirm my total lack of decorum and common sense. I should have KNOWN that Bellhorn would blow up at us! I'm an idiot!

I finally work up the courage to read the reason. I look down at the demerit stub.

"Happy April Fool's Day, Steven" it says.