Vicissitude- alone amongst all
It was the early fall of 1963. A boy of eight years awoke to the presence of his mother and "coffee-milk". She provided this beverage to give her son a sense of equality with the older members of the family, who took their morning's eye opener with more caffeine and trepidation. After this day he would grow to appreciate their perspectives.
"Good morning, Chuck." His entirely inaudible response was an invitation for her to review the morning's events. They lived in a small home known to him as 102 Japamer Heights. The house was part of "off-base housing" provided the military personnel stationed at Yokota Air Force Base, near Tokyo, Japan. Yokota was an enclave of Americana, ensconced in the shadow of Mount Fuji, a sparkling dormant volcano known for mysterious weather patterns during wartime tribulations. Many a mission had gone awry with inexplicable air currents, pockets, downdrafts and upwellings. Whether by jinx, mysticism, or extraordinary coincidence, Fuji's mischief was legend.
"Let me tell you about something I saw this morning, (the child's bleary eyes studied her)...we were a little low on milk, so I drove to the corner to pick some up, and I saw a little boy riding a bicycle. He was about your age and size, wearing a red jacket like yours, and he just plowed that bike right into a little girl. I noticed just before... she'd been walking with her friend, another girl I'd say about the same age-maybe 10 years old, well off the sidewalk and out into the street. The boy came up behind them, in no particular hurry, they didn't see him, and when he tried to cut between them and the sidewalk, they picked that instant to step back to the curb. He couldn't stop in time, and the poor little girl was thrown in the air by the collision. I saw her get up with her friend's help and run off, with the boy standing there wondering what to do next." The remainder of this dissertation became a benign diatribe, a familiar instruction to be careful when achieving the high speeds of bicycle operation, thence the due regimen of preparing for school, and he was off, on his bike, for the day's events.
His fourth grade teacher was Mr. Yates. This man's ideal of enforcing student discipline was something right of the host country's now defunct fascist manifesto. The late Tojo would have considered Mr. Yates one of his good old boys. He was a tall, brooding man, balding and indifferent to his peers. He personified the "little dictator", closed-minded and rote- incapable of intellectual discussion or immune to its charms. Mr. Yates would abide by no interruption or deviation from the student planner, under penalty of a ruler's rapped knuckles or a book deposited firmly upon the transgressor's head or other body part. His infamy preceded him. He was quite fallible and had been reminded of it on occasion. Its lessons were decidedly lost upon him however, given his predilection to faux perfection. His violence was rarely visited upon the boy, as he had been warned by the boy's forewarned mother that these propensities would not be tolerated. For this he resented them both.
Mr. Yates strode before them. "Hello, children, let us start our day with a few announcements." and as Mr. Yates began to address the agenda of a Monday morning... the first interruption arrived. Yate's immediate reaction was irritation. This, however, was an adult, Mrs. Augusta Price, the vice-principal of Yokota Elementary School, entering the room in the company of a small girl, about ten years old.
The classroom paused and reposed to this event. No one seemed to know the little girl or the reason for her attendance. Yet, a vice-principal's presence in class was of tumultuous note. This adult visitor was known as the resident career bureaucrat. Having been a school administrator for nearly thirty years, Mrs. Price had seen and heard it all...authority oozed from every pore. She was of slight build, central-European stock, and had recently known her fiftieth birthday. Her greying hair was tightly drawn, the antique bi-focals rested on a small crook above her nasal cavities and she surveyed all with resplendent double vision. Her gait was swift and manner self-assured. Mrs. Price circled the aisles of seats of curious children and arrived to Mr. Yates person, then muffled conversation between them ensued. As the adults spoke, the accompanying child, standing beside Mrs. Price, inspected the classroom of about thirty students and her gaze fell upon Chuck. He was a husky kid, sandy-haired and freckled. He bore the look of a typical boy, bruised and scarred from the tumbles and frolics of youth. His scrubbed appearance reminded her of a cub-scout (he was), and he seemed a bit cherubic as he returned her scrutiny with a smile. Her brief study of the boy concluded, and she continued to peruse all attributes of this new environment. After a moment Mr. Yates queried the class, in his most commanding manner, "Does any boy here ride his bicycle to school?" Chuck realized immediately what this question prophesied, and eagerly raised his hand, albeit alone amongst all. The girl seized upon this sign of acknowledgment, and silently sped down the rows of children to the boy's side, with demeanor intent and sure. Mrs. Price addressed her, equally intense, and asked, "Is this the one?" The female nodded, and Mrs. Price then removed her attentions to the boy. Mr. Yates did not appear at all disturbed by this scenario, indeed the thin film of bubbled saliva that appeared at both ends of his mouth seemed to beckon a sly smile. Mrs. Price instructed the boy to gather his books and materials, then escorted him to the classroom door. It was the door's panorama that looked out upon the entire school, a second story classroom at the apex of a stairway that stretched young muscles as the room tested young minds, albeit under adult duress. As Mrs. Price, Chuck, and the girl reached the landing and began to descend, Chuck turned to this administrator, still unaware of his impending difficulties, and asked "Is this about that little girl who was hit by a bicycle?" Mrs. Price at first was silent, then her glare and stern response, "Who said anything about a bicycle?" was icily issued.
An inkling of his imminent doom. Realizing, for the first time the peril of his predicament, the boy frantically began to explain his actions. "Well, my mother told me all about it this morning... you see there was this accident, and a little girl was hit by a bicycle, and it wasn't really his fault, but he wasn't being careful enough when he rode by them and I guess she was hurt... but that's all I know about it." From her vantage point the reaction of Mrs. Price was entirely predictable. To some extent it was even understandable. It was clear to her that this boy was an incredible liar, clearly in need of parental correction, and she gathered her wits to expose this child for his deceitful contrivance. The poor little girl he had collided with was in the hospital and being monitored for a concussion. Her companion had just identified him to be the culprit. The audacity of this boy was overwhelming, and she resisted the urge to give him a thrashing right there. HE WAS GUILTY... the problem was, unbeknownst to her and all others save two, he wasn't.
The boy was led through the school complex, somewhat firmly by Ms. Price, and ultimately guided through the dark recesses of elementary school environs to Ms. Price's office. The accuser and eye-witness had since vanished, returning to her own class, and they were alone in a room about the size of a holding cell. They sat across from one another at a small end table, complete with the obligatory burning lamp. The interrogation commenced. "Now, Charles, you can't seriously begin to tell me that you didn't hit this girl with your bike, can you? It's obvious to me that you hit her and you're afraid to fess up. We don't teach irresponsible behavior like that at Yokota Elementary. Why don't you tell me what really happened?" Bracing for further incoming angst, the boy consistently repeated what by now he had patiently explained four times. When he was calmly in mid-sentence Mrs. Price lost hers, and sprung to her feet to imperiously proclaim: "I've had about enough of this, I'm leaving you alone in here to think about what you have done, and when I come back I want the truth!" His tears flowed with abandon, all hope was lost, he was cast out upon a denigrated ground seeded by his own inadvertent volition. After what seemed forever, the vice-principal's assistant (bearing a striking resemblance to her superior) looked in upon him, coffee in hand, and asked if he was ready to speak with Mrs. Price. The boy met this inquiring serf of the ruling vice-monarch with sobbing indifference, and again protested the fate bestowed upon him. Another hour passed, the sublime comedy repeated, the common answer received and with this absurd chain the day passed. The child had spent the entire morning and afternoon in the claws of authority misdirected. Asinine though it was... that a simple phone call could have been made to his parent at any time to check the story. So sure were the powers that be of the child's lackings- although a check of his school records indicated he had been a student at Yokota for three years, with above-average grades and no incidents of misconduct...It was now three o'clock. Mrs. Price re-appeared. "Charles, I have a note here, I want you to take it home to your mother, and I want to know she has received it. You may ride your bicycle home, (awful nice of you, Mrs. Price) but you are barred from riding it again on school grounds for one month. Do you understand Charles? Until you are prepared to discuss this more like an adult, we have to suspend your privileges." He had his own understanding now of what an "adult" connoted. The boy was exhausted. His veracity, his integrity had been roasted upon a spit of age discrimination and ignorant incredulity. His tender years branded the improbabilities of his words and seared his soul with false condemnation. He had no champion while restrained, no release from subjugation. His being cried for deliverance and none was forthcoming...until close of business day. Thus he was pleased to acquire even a conditional reprieve and flee the building to a more stable environment.
The boy clutched the note and books, seized his knapsack and bicycle key, put on the red jacket, wiped the remaining tears away while replacing them with the grime of the day, and rode his way to redemption. Arriving at the home, at entry he was alone. It was 3:15. His sister appeared in the hallway. His terse, "Where's Mom?" issued, as Sherry, his older sibling, took one look at her little brother and realized he had seen better days. "I dunno, I think she's visiting with some neighbors." Panic, a constant companion of the day, set in. "Well, do you know when she'll be back?"...Sherry's reply, "No, what's the big deal anyway?" Chuck handed Sherry the letter, and a cursory review confirmed her observations. She had heard the story as well of the wayward bicyclist, and knew her brother had been wrongfully fingered for this crime of the century. As she began to commiserate, in walked Mom!
"Hi kids, what's up?" One look at these two children was all she needed..."what happened?" Her son began the long tale of woe and abandon, and her temper began to rise. "I can't believe they would do that" was a constant rejoinder. Sherry made the comment "What if they think you're just making it up to protect Chuck?" to which their mother replied "They better not, or I'll..." her thought trailed off, given the urgency of the matter, and her reluctance to use those kinds of words in front of the kids.
She and her child went out to the car, it was now 4:00 pm, and drove straight to the school. There was a rear parking lot, adjacent to the executive offices, and the array of automobiles was rapidly emptying. As she parked, she said to Chuck, "Let's go in and take care of this." Various epithets came to her son's mind, which words he wasn't supposed to be familiar with, but his reaction ("we, kemo-sabe?") registered on his face far before the synapses permitted oral reply. "I'm not going back in there, she scares me!" She smiled at him, "that's ok, I understand." Off she went to the principal's office.
Emerging from behind a long, tall countertop a harried clerk appeared, "Hello, may I help you?" "Yes, I've come by to see Mrs. Price."..."Do you have an appointment?"..."No, can't say that I do, but it's in regard to this note she wrote to me about my son."..."Oh, I see, well, I don't know if she's still here." Mrs. Price peeked around filing cabinets that had concealed her and inquired "What can I do for you?" The boy's mother handed her the note, "I'm Chuck's mother, and you have made a mistake."... a pregnant pause..."Don't tell me he was telling the truth?!" Mrs. Price recoiled, and heard the now overly familiar tale from a peer, together with eye-witness testimony admissible for even the most stringent trier of fact, and upon completion of the narrative, with a firm grasp of the obvious made the strikingly analytic comment "I was pretty hard on the boy, can you bring him in and I'll apologize?" The mother's telling response was immediate, "He won't step foot in here." "Well, you let him know I'm sorry, and his privileges are reinstated." His mother's face reddened. "Mrs. Price, might I suggest that you remove yourself to my son's side and personally advise him that his "privileges are reinstated?" Realizing the ire that she had propagated threatened further unpleasantries, she voiced a thin reply: "Lead on." The two women walked out to the family vehicle, and as Mrs. Price approached she noted the small boy in the front seat seemed to slink down in horror. To him, this beast of the building seemed to be returning to dine again upon his newly-germinated neuroses. But her face was pale, and the swagger dissolved. "Charles, I'm so sorry, I was wrong, and I'll never be so quick to doubt you again." The music of the words expunged the day's melancholy, his rejuvenation was immediate, yet he would never be the same little boy that began the day. His mother noted with some satisfaction the contrite Mrs. Price detected the trauma her tirade had conceived. Reconciliation completed, a wiser teacher of children pondered her actions as they drove away. "Thanks, Mom" were the only words she heard, as the reflection of a large volcano loomed in their rear view mirror.
Postscript: The writer, Robert C. Thorn, is a practicing attorney in San Diego, California. He lists himself as his first client.