Sitting with friends after a party. Over drinks with a date. Whatever the circumstances, we all field the question from time to time.
I am fortunate, I guess, to know the answer.
I'm eight years old. I'm in the second grade.
My teacher, Sister Marjorie, calls our class into a circle. She holds up a piece of paper.
"Kids, this is an Advent calendar. I put one on each of your desks. I want you to keep a diary."
For each day of the month leading up to Christmas, we need to write down a good deed we performed. It's due on the last day before break.
Now, it should be noted, at this point and throughout grade school, I was an excellent student. Well-behaved, smart, hard-working, curious, engaged. All the teachers loved me.
Still, I wasn't perfect.
I was terrible at time management, first off, and was already starting to resemble the inveterate procrastinator you know today. I was also (like any good seven year-old boy) fiercely, wildly disorganized. Finally, I was getting a little too hip for the room by this point, and had begun checking out on assignments if I sensed on them an odor of Catholic school dorkiness.
So here we had a long-term project, about good deeds, requiring daily updates, to be completed on our own time, without supervision. In other words, a death sentence. Sister Marjorie continued speaking, and I sat there staring at her. The woman could've been telling us how to build a telescope in Spanish. I would've been just as fucked.
It wouldn't be accurate to say I decided not to do it. It's more like I accepted I COULDN'T do it. I guess the "official" plan was to wait and write all the entries the night before they were due. (Or, you know, to wake up one day and find the diary completed. Kids are optimistic like that.) It's not like it mattered. Whatever course of action I chose, I was obviously going to lose the fucking thing. Leaving that calendar in the blackhole vortex of my desk was like resting it on the hood of a Camaro. Every morning I came to school and it was still there was an utter miracle, and one day, inevitably, it wasn't.
I spent the rest of the month in a state of mild panic. I was far too shy and nervous a child to confess the misplacement of the paper to my teachers (though that was the obvious solution). I don't know what I expected to happen. I guess I just hoped for the best. I like to think the idea to do what I ultimately did came only in the final moments, but it's possible the decision was made well before that. I do know that on the day the assignment was due, I walked into school with a strange sense of hope. I had managed to convince myself, somehow, that Sister Marjorie might have forgotten the whole thing. It'd been a little while since she'd last mentioned it, after all. It was possible.
Like I said, kids are optimistic.
Like I said, kids are optimistic.
Incredibly, for the first six hours of school, it looked like I might be on to something. There was no mention of the calendar at either of the two circle meetings in the morning -- surely it would've come up if she remembered, yes? As I ate my lunch the month-old Windsor knot in my stomach relaxed a bit at last. I closed my eyes. In two hours I'd be on Christmas vacation, in my mom's car, driving away from here. Home free.
Then it all went wrong.
"Don't forget, children. After lunch I'll be collecting your Advent Calendars."
All at once my body started to shake. That was it. I was toast. As I sat there the magnitude of my error finally registered. It would be bad enough if I'd done a poor job on the assignment. An incomplete job. A rushed job. But I'd done NO job. The big giant important project of the month (the whole month!!) and I had NOTHING. This would be more than disappointment, more than time out, more than a scolding. I was about to be in true and serious shit.
I can't stress this enough: At that stage of my life, nothing frightened me like the sight and sound of an angry teacher. That night I watched Scream before I was ready? Take that, times it by a hundred. It was, truly, my biggest fear. Given the degree of heat I was likely to face for this infraction, the threat of me pooping my pants while being yelled at was -- I say it honestly -- all too real.
Alright. Enough stalling.
Like I said, I can't remember if it was a spur of the moment thing or a contingency plan I'd set in place weeks before. But after lunch, before our circle meeting, I went into my classmate John William's desk and took out his Advent Calendar. I looked at it. It was perfect. John was a troublemaker and generally lax student, but he'd stepped up his game for this assignment and done a good job. Even his handwriting looked pretty nice.
Standing there with the paper in my hand, a giant wave of relief crashed over me. The wrongness of what I was doing was irrelevant, immaterial, utterly off my radar. I had an urgent problem and this was going to solve it. You don't check a rain puddle for leaves when you're dying of thirst.
It was time to hand them in. I put John's calendar in Sister Marjorie's hand. She smiled and accepted it. By now John had alerted her to the fact that he couldn't find his, and was in the middle of a frantic search for it. She didn't buy it. Like I said, John was a troublemaker, and skipping an assignment like this seemed like the sort of thing he might do. When it became clear he wasn't going to produce one she snapped and lost her temper. She tore him to shreds. John stood below her, sobbing, pleading with her to believe his story. It was no use. All the while I sat there in silence, watching him drown like the "In the Air Tonight" dude.
I can't remember what kind of punishment he received. There were 20 minutes left of school before Christmas break began, so there wasn't a lot they could do to him in the moment. I am hopeful at least that, given the length and breadth of the assignment, his mom or dad had helped him at some point and was able to confirm for Sister Marjorie that he'd done it. If not, I hope at least that they believed him.
I was never suspected at any point of any wrongdoing.
I threw in some levity above to make the tale entertaining, but I want to be clear about something: I feel really bad about this.
I've promised friends, lovers, and myself many times over the years that I would someday confess to John what I did. I still haven't.
Screw it. Time's up.
I've been trying to contact him now for two weeks. Problem is, he's not on Facebook, and, you know, his name is John Williams. He's a little harder to track down than I am, let's just say. I was able eventually to find his sister on Facebook.
No response. Next, I reached out to a classmate from grade school who's friends with his family.
His sister's claim of ignorance here strikes me as a little dubious. She probably just feels uncomfortable handing out the address to me, which is fine and understandable. Who knows, maybe she asked John and he told her not to. In any case, I'm not really interested in shaking this tree anymore. The goal was to make amends, not pester his friends and family. Hopefully he'll see this someday. If you know him, do me a favor and pass it along to him.
If you are John, this last part is for you:
I know it was 20 years ago, and I'm guessing you've moved on, but honestly -- I feel terrible about this, and I always have.
I'm truly sorry. If you're ever in Brooklyn, I hope you'll let me buy you a beer.
But I still don't want Sr. Marjorie to know. Alright fine, I just don't want to be there when she finds out.