ValueSpeak
A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker

SOMEONE TO TAKE THE BLAME

I thought it would be a great April Fools prank.  Honest – that’s what I was thinking.

I mean, it was a glorious spring day.  We were growing teenagers.  We needed to spend 45 minutes out in the fresh air, frolicking in the sun while the fire department cleared the school.  From my 18-year-old perspective, it would be healthy.  Fun.  Exhilarating.  Liberating.

But Principal Perkins didn’t see it that way.

“I want to know who set off the fire alarm, and I want to know NOW!” I heard him growl at Mr. Mangus, his assistant principal, as we started filing back into the high school.  “Whoever did this is going to be in SERIOUS trouble!”

I wanted to ask him exactly how serious SERIOUS trouble would be, but I didn’t dare.  I was a senior, just a little more than a month away from graduation.  College scholarships were at stake, and Viet Nam beckoned to those who didn’t qualify – especially if you had a high draft number like I did.  I didn’t need SERIOUS trouble.

Besides – and this is a little embarrassing to admit, given the circumstances – I was student body president.  Principal Perkins trusted me.  A couple of months earlier he had allowed some of my friends and I to stay overnight in the school to “protect” it from pranksters the night before our Big Game against our cross-town rivals.  He even provided the pizza, for Pete’s sake!  How could I face him now – guilty of pranksterism in the first degree?

I tried to look inconspicuous as Mr. Mangus roamed the halls, asking questions.  What if they dusted for fingerprints?  My fingerprints were all over the school.  It wouldn’t be hard to match them to mine.  Then . . . hello, Hanoi Hilton.

I was opening my locker, wondering if it would help to crawl inside and close the door behind me, when I heard a voice behind me.

“I saw what you did.”

I froze.  I was busted.  I turned slowly to face my accuser.  Thankfully, it wasn’t Mr. Mangus.  It was John, a 19-or-20-year-old senior (OK, so he had a little trouble with 5th grade – twice) who spent more time in the parking lot than in the classroom. And he was smiling.

“Nice job, man!” he said, punching me playfully in the shoulder.  “That was great!  And nobody will ever guess it was you!  It was, like, the perfect crime!”

“Not quite perfect if you saw me,” I whispered.  “John, did any one else see . . . ?”

“Mr. Walker!”

It was Mr. Mangus storming toward me, and he wasn’t smiling.  John retreated to the other side of the hall, and I braced myself to be unceremoniously stripped of title, rank and privilege – you know, like on the opening of that TV show, “Branded.”

“Mr. Walker, I’ve talked to several students who say they saw you near where the fire alarm was pulled this morning,” Mr. Mangus said sharply.  “Did you see anything?”

“Well, no,” I said, choosing my words carefully.  “I mean . . . you know . . . I saw . . . um . . . regular stuff . . . but not . . . you know . . . anyone close to the alarm . . . specifically . . .”

Mr. Mangus had spent a lifetime dealing with high school students.  He knew an intentionally vague answer when he heard one.  And it immediately made him suspicious.  “So if you didn’t SEE anyone,” he said, “perhaps you were . . . somehow . . . involved . . . ?”

There it was.  A direct question.  If I answered honestly, I was in SERIOUS trouble.  If I lied and it was later discovered that I lied, well, Watergate would look like an April Fool’s Day prank by comparison.  But before I could respond I heard that voice behind me.  Again.

“Bennie, you’re amazing.”

Mr. Mangus didn’t take kindly to students calling him by his first name.  He whirled to face John.  “How many times do I have to tell you not to call me . . .

“Do you really think Walker here would do something like that?”

“Well, I don’t know, John.  I wouldn’t have thought so, but . . .”

Gimme a break,” John said.  “He’s a [“goody-goody”].”

I didn’t know whether to be relieved or insulted.

“Well, then who did it, John?” Mr. Mangus asked.  Then he pressed: “Was it you?”

John didn’t hesitate.  “Yeah, it was me,” he said.  “What are you gonna do about it?”

“It isn’t what I’m going to do,” Mr. Mangus said as he took John firmly by the arm and started leading him down the hall.  “It’s what Principal Perkins is going to do.  I’m just going to watch.  And I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.”

I wish I could tell you that I jumped to John’s defense and admitted my guilt.  I didn’t.  He was willing – even anxious – to take the blame for me.  And I was willing to let him – guilty though I was.  I never did find out what SERIOUS trouble John got into, but it turns out he had already enlisted in the Marines.  I heard he won some medals for bravery and courage, and it didn’t surprise me in the least.

I think about John every year about this time – not because of April Fools, but rather because of Easter.

Because there are other things of which I’ve been guilty.

And because Someone was willing to take the blame for me.

# # #

— © Joseph Walker

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E-mail Joseph at: valuespeak@msn.com 


Look for Joe's book,
"How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through www.Amazon.com.