(This moment is not particularly embarrassing. But looking back, I made it out to be a much bigger deal than it probably was.)
My parents said I was mature beyond my years in elementary school. This was confirmed when I tried to stage a rebellion in fourth grade.
In our school cafeteria, my fellow pupils were rather rowdy. On most days, our “lunch monitor” would have to get on the cafeteria’s public address system to quiet us down. She would first start with a polite, hushed request. “Shhhhhhhhh,” she would echo into the microphone.
This would never work.
About thirty seconds later, this would be followed by a more aggressive request. “Quiet down,” she would state, sternly.
This, too, would never work.
Just seconds later, the cafeteria would go completely dark. She had turned the lights off. I and my fellow students would panic as we waited for her deafening shout into the microphone:
“PUT YOUR HEADS DOWN!”
This would usually work. The entire cafeteria would be in complete darkness and silence, and a mass of young children would have their heads in the arms on the cafeteria tables. Peace at last for the lunch monitor, who, for some inexplicable reason, thought that 100 school-aged children would not be loud when seated with each other over a meal.
This particular day, two of my classmates would not stop talking. They continued talking. And because our entire classroom sat at one lunch table, we were singled out.
“Room 10,” the monitor yelled at our table, “BE QUIET!”
We were quiet… except for those two kids, who were naturally the class clowns. Even after our entire class shushed them, they still whispered and giggled to each other.
Were there consequences? Oh, were there consequences! The lunch monitor told us that because of these two students, we would have to stand in line at recess the next day. Yes, because of two students, all twenty-five of us would be punished. Yes, despite our own fruitless efforts to silence our classmates using the same means as our cranky sixty-year-old lunch monitor, we would all be punished. I was pissed.
I stomped back up the stairs after lunch. I seemed to be taking this harder than anyone else. I would not be punished for someone else’s actions. I would not be guilty by association. Still twenty-two hours shy of serving my sentence, I was already plotting my appeal.
Recess came the next day, and as a class, we were paraded out into the schoolyard. Our class would stand in a line and face the school’s brick wall while all of our fellow students enjoyed a brisk and sunny spring day.
But I would not stand in that line.
I stepped aside. I stood out of line. Perhaps I was out of line. The lunch monitor certainly thought so.
“STAND IN LINE,” she barked.
“No,” I replied, sternly. To this day, this has been just about the only moment in my life that I have talked back to an authority figure. “I don’t believe in group punishment. I was quiet yesterday. It’s not fair.”
“Too bad,” she snapped back. “Stand in line or go to the principal’s office.”
I considered her options for a few seconds. And, for the first and last time in my entire grade school career, I went to the principal’s office. I was not even escorted. I stormed out of the schoolyard myself and walked directly into her office. She was sitting at her desk.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m here because I’m being punished for doing nothing wrong.”
I was convinced I was in the right. The principal said, more or less, that group punishment was, indeed, unfair. With her inaction, she convinced me that I was in the right. I was never punished for standing up for what I thought was wrong. I would have thought of it as my own Last Stand, but I would not learn about Custer’s Last Stand for another five years.
I sat in the principal’s office until recess was over. When I got back in the classroom, my students looked at me in awe. Just this one time, I was a badass. I was the guy who stood up and fought against the man. Or the woman, in this case.
Never again in my elementary school career was our class, or any other, punished as a group. That could just be a coincidence, but I’d like to think I had something to do with it. And maybe, just maybe, group punishment is still discouraged at my elementary school because of the brave actions of one principled fourth grader in the spring of 1991.