Friday, April 11, 2008

Picture Day

Each year at Vista Heights we had picture day. We would get individual photos taken and there would be a class picture with all of us together. One year our teacher handed our pictures out near the end of class. I was never a big fan of picture day. I just checked my set of photos to make sure my hair wasn’t sticking up and I didn’t have red eye. Then I put them back in the envelope and tossed them in my bag.

Sammy Maltby came up to me with a worried look just then. He approached me with caution as though he thought I would be very upset about something. It was no secret that Neve and I were good friends. He was concerned.

He asked me, “Did you see the pictures?”

“Yeah, I saw them, why?”

“Did you notice?”

“Notice what?”

“Look again.”

I took the class photo out and looked at it. I was standing on the back row a little to the right, and pretty close to the middle. I took a close look at the guys standing on either side of me. Nothing seemed out of place.

“I don’t see anything,” I said.

That’s when Maltby said, “Look at Neve.”

When my eyes scanned down to the girls sitting on the front row, there was Neve. I noticed instantly. It felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.

Maltby read the expression on my face and said, “I know. What are we going to do?”

I shot a look to the back of the class. Neve was sitting there and putting on a brave face, but it was obvious she already knew. I could see a few guys in the class pointing and giggling, they seemed aware. Maltby and I sat down facing each other. Dykeman sat down on Maltby’s left, facing me as well. He already knew.

The three of us sat at the table thinking without saying a word. The dour look on our faces said it all. Neve really was an angel in that class. She was always so sweet and polite and shy. You never wanted to see her get hurt, but you knew this would hurt her. The silence between the three of us seemed to go on forever. Then Maltby finally broke the silence.

“Still……That is really hot!”

At that point Dykeman and I burst into laughter. Dykeman grabbed Maltby’s hand and started to shake it.

“Thank you Sammy.”

I also nodded and said thank you. In the deepest, darkest chamber at the back of our minds, you knew we were thinking that, but we were too ashamed to say it. Maltby had a way of always cutting through the bull and saying what was on our minds.

For all those years we always saw Neve in the most innocent light. But that day we saw her the way most people view her today. She was sexy beyond belief.

Dykeman made the point, “If she looks like that now, imagine when she turns 18?”

Maltby commented, “This girl could be in Playboy.”

I want to say at this point that Playboy comment really bothered me. I thought the idea of nude pictures of Neve available for purchase at the local corner store was disturbing. I was jealous enough knowing that one picture was in the hands of my classmates. I kept my feelings to myself though. I know Maltby was only making the broader point that Neve was a beautiful girl.

As we sat there spouting locker room language, an ear splitting cry went up from the back of the class. Neve’s head slammed down on her desk and she wrapped her arms around her head as if to hide herself from the world. Maltby and Dykeman had to turn around to witness that. I saw it unfold right in front of me.

When Maltby and Dykeman turned back in my direction the smiles were wiped clean from all our faces. There was no need to say it. We were ashamed for even thinking what we were thinking. At that point we were back to square one. What do we do?

That's when I walked over to Neve and sat down beside her. I sat with her more to keep her company than anything else. I wanted to console her, but how do you console someone after something like that? I loved that girl. It was heartbreaking to watch.

One of the girls in our class finally walked up to the teacher as Neve sat there crying. The girl held up the class photo to the teacher and started pointing and talking. I couldn’t hear what that girl was saying, but it was obvious what they were talking about.

I remember reading the expression on the teachers face. She sat down like she was in shock. She looked in our direction, but Neve still had her head on the desk crying. The teacher sat at her desk thinking for a short time. The school bell was about to ring. Then the teacher ran to the door and closed it so nobody could leave.

“Class, I need your attention. There is a problem with the pictures and I need to ask everyone to turn them in right now.”

That was a good call. We all went up to the teacher’s desk and turned in our pictures. The school bell rang and kids started leaving. I went back and sat with Neve. She always got picked up after school and often she didn’t get picked up until quite a while after school ended. I waited with her until someone came to get her. When she finally did get picked up she was still crying.

I missed the first transit bus, so I took a later one. I rode that one home alone. It was a long somber bus ride. You just knew that experience was going to become a scar that would affect her for the rest of her life.

The next morning I went to school early.

Not only did Neve get picked up from school long after the school bell rang, but her dad usually dropped her off at school well before school started in the morning. Since she got there before anyone else arrived, she would usually wait in class rather than wait outside in the school yard all by herself. I went to the class to see her, but she wasn’t there yet, so I went back outside.

When Maltby arrived we talked about what we could do to cheer her up. We pondered that one for a while. Then Maltby came up with the idea that we should go around the school yard and pick flowers. All the guys from the class should pick some. Then when we went to class, since she would already be there, we would form a line single file at her desk and all give her flowers one by one. That idea was brilliant.

That’s what we did. There weren’t many places to pick flowers from at the school though. There were a lot of white buttercups in the yard a few places with lavender. We knew there were some really good flowers in front of a house on the other side of Vista Boulevard. Some of us snuck off the school grounds and grabbed a few of those. We told the other guys in our class what we were doing as they arrived. We picked extra flowers for the guys that might be arriving late. We had all these flowers when the school bell rang.

What happened when we arrived in class is something I think nobody from that class will ever forget.

As we walked in the door we noticed Neve still wasn’t in class yet. That was strange, because she almost always arrived before anyone else. It was possible she was running late, so we took our seats. As I was taking my seat, the teacher asked one of the four boys in our class named Chris to sit up at the front. I thought that was strange, but I was wondering more about where Neve was.

As time ran out on the clock, the second bell rang. We sang Oh Canada and listened to announcements on the PA. Her desk still sat empty. We sat there with our flowers knowing full well she wasn’t coming. I could picture her sitting at home depressed out of her mind.

There was an eerie silence as we sat down after Oh Canada. Usually the teacher started every day by going to the front of the class and teaching a lesson. Instead, the teacher sat at her desk writing in a book and ignoring us. The silence went on for a long time. We were sitting with our flowers. Neve wasn’t there. The teacher was ignoring us. Nobody wanted to break the silence. It was all very, very uncomfortable.

After what seemed like an eternity, the teacher finally put down her pen and walked over to the classroom door. She said something like this,

“Class yesterday I told everyone that there was a problem with the pictures and I asked everyone to return them to me. When I went home and counted the pictures I noticed that one set was missing. Would someone like to talk about that?”

Now when the teacher gave the first explanation I thought that what she meant was that everyone in the class had turned in their pictures like they were asked to, but someone went into the teacher’s desk after the fact and stole a set. I remember thinking that if that happened, it would be impossible to figure out who it was unless someone confessed.

That also worried me. Whenever something bad happened in that class I was usually the prime suspect, and often I was even the guilty party. But I would never do anything like this. Neve was my closest friend in that class and I would never have done anything like that to her. At that point I felt rage building inside me as I prepared to blast our teacher if she even dared to suspect me.

This unsettling silence went on for a very long time as the teacher waited for someone to own up. I sat there gritting my teeth waiting for her to mention my name. After this long drawn out silence, nobody spoke up. At that point the teacher turned around, put her hand on the classroom door, and with every ounce of her strength she slammed that door shut. It sounded like an explosion when the door hit the frame. The door hit so hard that the latch didn’t catch and the door bounced out, so the teacher had to kick the door a second time with her foot to get it to stay closed.

Every kid in our class was now freaking out. Even the ones that had nothing to fear were quaking. No one had ever seen the teacher this mad before.

At that point the teacher spoke again and said,

“Surely this person must know that in addition to the class photo there were individual photos. It’s very easy for me to go through the pictures and figure out who has them.”

From that second explanation I realized that I had it all wrong. It was not that everyone turned in their pictures and one kid stole a set and ran out the door. Someone in our class never turned in their pictures in the first place. When she said that I realized that the teacher already knew which kid had it. So the teacher knew it wasn’t me. I was relieved that I would not be accused, but that begged the question. Who had the pictures?

All the kids started looking at each other at that point. There were a lot of poker faces in that class as we started looking at each other. We knew someone was scared out of their wits, even if they weren’t talking. The teacher let the silence go on and on. Someone had to be ready to crack. Still, nobody would talk.

Then after the longest time, the teacher walked away from the door to the chalkboard. She leaned over a bit and grabbed the leg of the desk that Chris was leaning on at the front of the room. Then she ripped the desk out from under him and slammed the desk up against the wall. The teacher then sat on the desk, stared him in the eye and said, “Would you like to talk about it Chris?”

Our teacher set that kid up for a public humiliation. Chris was now the object of scorn. It was the perfect thing for that teacher to do too. He was getting a small taste of the same humiliation Neve was feeling at home.

When Chris finally spoke, he defended himself by saying, “Well I took those photos home and gave them to my parents and they said they liked them and wanted to keep them. There’s nothing I can do. It’s out of my hands. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do.”

Gasps and snickers went up front my classmates when he said that. It was obvious he was lying. Unless, his parents were outright pedophiles there was no way in hell that was true. The teacher asked him then if she should call his parents.

“Yep, you can call them right now if you like. They’ll tell you. It’s not my fault. It’s out of my hands, there nothing I can do. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do.”

The teacher took him at his word and started walking toward the door.

“Okay class I have to make a phone call, so I’ll be back. By the way Chris, will your parents be at home when I call or at work?”

“Well neither actually, they had something they needed to do today.”

The class laughed when he said that. It was like watching a kid with his hand in the cookie jar. The teacher just said she would try the numbers she had and be right back.

Looking back, it was lucky the teacher was never charged with criminal negligence causing death for leaving Chris alone with us that day. I doubt I was the only one thinking about killing him.

When the teacher got back to the classroom, she slammed the door shut again. The class fell silent.

“Well Chris, that story doesn’t check out, would you care to try another?”

At that point Chris changed his story.

“Well the truth is I took the pictures home and I lost them. I don’t know where they are. I’m very sorry, but they’re gone and I can’t find them and there’s nothing I can do. It’s out of my hands. I wish I could change that, but it’s out of my hands. I’m very sorry, there’s nothing I can do.”

We all started snickering again. It was so obvious he was lying. We all knew damn well those pictures were at home on his nightstand, right beside his box of Kleenex. However, he wouldn’t back down from this new story. The teacher tried to reason with him. She tried to make him feel sympathy for a girl who was probably sitting at home in tears that very moment. He wouldn’t back down.

Eventually the teacher realized she had a class to teach and the subject dropped.

The class went on and we started talking amongst ourselves.

As for the flowers we picked, some landed on the teacher’s desk. The rest of them got tossed out the window at the back of the class or in the garbage. I felt bad for stealing flowers out of someone’s yard only to throw them in the trash.

I wanted to beat the crap out of Chris. I decided against it though. I had this bad feeling that if I beat him up he would think he had some kind of moral right to keep those pictures as compensation. I figured fear was the best way to get him to turn those pictures in. If everyone in the class would unite to bring Neve flowers, maybe they would unite to put the fear of God into him too.

I pitched Maltby on the idea of swarming him at lunch and threatening him with a beating if he didn’t cough up the pictures. Maltby was on board. Jason Ashton, Gerard Real, and Chris Stopa were on board too.

I pitched Dykeman on the plan and to my surprise he wouldn’t go for it. I was shocked. Of all the kids in the class we needed him the most. He was the undisputed tough guy in our class. Nobody could stand up to him in a fight. He insisted that he didn’t need anyone’s help to beat up Chris, he could do it himself.

“Dykeman! I don’t need your help to beat up Chris. I could take him by myself. Stopa has a limp and he can take him. Even Ashton could take him. Chris is a gimp. The goal is not to beat him up. We just need to scare him so he’ll bring those pictures back.”

It took a few tries to get through to him. He was adamant that he could do it himself. Eventually we convinced him that we needed to do this together as a class, but he made it clear that if he took part it would have to be his show. He would do the talking. We would not talk when he was talking. We had no problem agreeing to that, so he finally agreed to take part.

Once we had Dykeman and a few other guys we had all we needed. Anything else was overkill, but I wanted to get everyone from the class if I could.

I remember talking to Brian and Larry about my plan. I knew they didn’t like me, because I made fun of their relationship. This was for Neve though, so I figured they would be in. They were both open minded enough to hear me out. When I pitched them on the idea, Larry said absolutely not.

When I asked him why not, he started spewing all this liberal crap about how violence doesn’t solve anything and two wrongs don’t make a right. I explained again that we were not really going to beat him up. We just wanted to scare him into bringing the pictures back. Larry shot back by saying intimidation and threats are not an acceptable means of resolving conflict. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I knew those two had contempt for me, but this was Neve we were talking about. I asked them what their solution would be and they didn’t have one. They told me they didn’t care. Then they walked away.

To this day, whenever I listen to anti-war pacifists and leftist kooks on the news, guys like Stéphane Dion and Jack Layton, I think back to when Larry and Brian would not help me get those pictures back. Every ounce of contempt I have for liberal pacifists can be traced back to that one moment in my life.

I know liberals pride themselves on their big hearts every time they oppose military conflict. But they always seem oblivious to the suffering of people that necessitates the credible threat of force. Larry and Brian may have thought they were taking the moral high ground when they wouldn’t take part, but their pacifism did absolutely nothing to relieve the suffering of a girl that we all knew was at home crying. I learned back then what works in life and what doesn’t! They really pissed me off.

In the end, it didn’t matter though. We had Dykeman and virtually everyone else from the class. When lunch came we all got together. It was agreed that Dykeman was our speaker and we were simply there as a show of force. When we caught up with Chris on the school yard we surrounded him.

Dykeman walked up to Chris, and pushed him toward the wall of the school. He folded his arms across his chest and put his elbows up against the wall so that his forearms were around Chris’ throat. Then he got right in Chris’ face and politely explained his only option.

He gave Chris the obligatory 24 hours to bring those pictures back and turn them in. Then he explained what was going to happen if he didn’t.

“Starting tomorrow at lunch if you don’t bring those pictures back, we are going to lay a beating into you. And we are going to beat on you every day, day after day, until you bring those pictures back.”

Considering Chris was surrounded with Dykeman in his face, it was amazing that he still wouldn’t back down.

“There’s no point in waiting until tomorrow. I lost those pictures and I can’t find them. There’s nothing I can do. It’s out of my hands. You may as well beat me up right now, I can’t find them. Really, there’s nothing I can do.”

Chris just kept repeating that over and over. Dykeman just shook his head.

“No Chris. We’re not going to beat you up now. We are going to leave you alone so that you can think about the beating we’re going to give you tomorrow. And every day after, until you bring those pictures back.”

Then Dykeman walked away. He was absolutely brilliant. We all stood there staring at Chris for a few extra seconds not saying a word. Then we all walked away. I remember Maltby was still standing there as we were walking away. He was scowling at Chris and shaking his fist. I tugged on his shirt sleeve to get him to come. He was such a ham.

The next morning Chris came to class. It was a miracle! Apparently he was cleaning out his closet the night before and he found the pictures in there somewhere. We were all very relieved for him. He spared himself a hell of a beating.

Neve still wasn’t back to class two days later though. If I remember right she didn’t come back until the middle of the following week.