The Place: Tacoma, WA.
At Idylwild Elementary, 204 was the only classroom that had its own bathroom. Believe me when I say that this was a pretty big deal. Students in other classes were forced to walk to the community bathrooms on either side of the school. Like suckers. Public restroom-using suckers. On rainy days, we lucky kids of 204 weren’t forced to don our winter coats just because we had an extra glass of milk with breakfast. Instead, we could get up and be back in our seat minutes later, ignoring whatever was being taught. It was like having access to an employees only bathroom at the grocery store or being able to use the bathroom that was attached to your grandparents’ room. It felt so fancy! With the exception of being able to drive or vote or even read at an appropriate age level, most of us felt that we were pretty much adults.
For a while, it was great. Until…
Kara Pennyday returned from the restroom, slid into her desk and raised her hand. Our teacher, Miss B, paused the geography lesson, moments before we were to learn where Minnesota was located. “Yes, Kara?”
As Kara lowered her hand, the look on her face was one of earnest. “Someone tinkled on the seat, again.” The explosive but corroborating reply from the other girls suggested that each had been anxiously awaiting a Susan B. Anthony-like savior to vocalize the problem they had all been silently suffering. “It always happens. It’s gross.”
“Well, who used the bathroom before Kara?” Miss B asked, making eye contact with each of us boys.
Had Miss B actually expected one of us to own up to something like that?! ‘Oh, that was me. Sorry, but it’s like trying to tame an out-of-control hose.’ Besides, even if any of us had known who the culprit was, we would never (never ever ever!) have turned another boy in. Even a good boy like Jamie, who was as honest as folklore and limericks taught us Abe Lincoln was, knew better than to break such a sacred boyhood rule. No, passive resistance was our best strategy. Sooner or later, the whole incident would simply dry up and flush away.
Two more tinkle sightings were reported the following day. Once again, Miss B asked for the name of the bathroom’s previous occupant and, once again, her inquiry was met with shrugs from every one of us doe-eyed innocents. Still, with the girls in the class so resolute and all the boys deaf and mute, Miss B had no choice but to take action. As the three o’clock bell rang, Miss B announced that she would have to find a way to bring this problem to a head (I’ll never know if she meant this to be a pun).
Near the bike rack, Clint, Wendell, Aron, Tim and I put our occasionally shampooed heads together on how to protect the boys from the silent finger pointing. Aron suggested that all the boys urinate on the seat at once, but the rest of us failed to see the purpose in this and were, in fact, made a little uncomfortable by the image presented. Tim’s suggestion was for none of the boys to use the bathroom, at all. Ever. Wendell, who too loved his water breaks to give them up, was the first to shoot this idea down. He was, however, the first to suggest that the whole thing was result of a conspiracy by the girls who were willing to do whatever it took to make our classroom bathroom ‘girls only’. He stressed the words, ‘whatever it took’ as though it were the smoking gun that would convince us.
“Okay,” Clint, forever our de-facto leader, said. “We just need to make sure that we’re careful and clean up after we go.” This was clearly the best idea because it required the least amount of thought. Perfect.
The next day, Miss B hung a clipboard beside the bathroom. “Every time each of you uses the bathroom,” she said, “you will sign your name in the left column. When you’re finished, you will sign again in the right column. Now, if any of you uses the bathroom and notices any sort of mess, quietly let me know. I will deal with this discreetly so as not to embarrass anyone. Are there any questions?” A hand shot up. “Wendell?”
“What if the name before us is yours?”
Miss B smiled. “Well, then you have to let me know if there’s a problem.”
Wendell’s hand went up, again. “Um, if it is you, how are you gonna be dealed with?”
“Tell you what,” she answered, “if it turns out that I’m the guilty party, I’ll leave it to all of you to come up with a sufficient penalty.” Immediately, thoughts of absurd and unrealistic, even cruel, punishments hatched in our minds.
Miss B had stocked the bathroom with plenty of extra paper towels and bottles of all-purpose, liquid cleaner (pine scented). There was to be no excuse for the sloppy behavior demonstrated before. We (the boys) inspected the bowl and its surrounding area with the meticulousness of a white-gloved drill sergeant whose aversion to germs mirrored that of Howard Hughes. We’d be damned if any of us were going to be blamed for all of the past atrocities because one of the girls happened to notice some small, minute blemish upon the virgin purity of the bathroom.
By the start of the following week, it seemed the problem had all but disappeared. We settled into a sense of relief knowing that our little corner of the world would revert to normal, that our classroom would once again become a place of mediocre education and not one of sanitary witch hunts.
“It happened, again,” said a reluctant Sue Munsen.
As Miss B went to the clipboard, a fear rose in every boy in class as one of our own was minutes away, maybe seconds away, from being named The Phantom Tinkler of Room 204. Silence followed as Miss B glanced over the signatures, then remove the page that bore the name of the guilty party. With folded paper in hand, Miss B returned to the front of the class. “I’m going to call, one by one, in no particular order whatsoever, each of the boys to my desk where we will talk in private. No one will know which person is the one in question, except myself and that student.” Several eyes suddenly turned to Sue. Obviously, Sue was aware of the name that preceded her own. “I’m trusting Sue not to say anything and I hope all of you will refrain from asking her. In the mean time, I want you to open your history books and read the speech that is on page 233. Then, answer the questions on the following page.”
We lifted the tops of our desks and removed our history books. On page 233 was a speech given by Winston Churchill at the onset of WWII. I turned the page the see how many questions we had to answer, then let out a long, oh-my-god-my-life-is-so-hard-I-wish-I-were-dead breath. Not only were there nine questions, but each required an extensive answer up to three sentences. Goddammit!
The first to be called was Clint, who flashed his crooked toothed smile at the rest of us as he walked back to Miss B’s desk. The suspense was grueling! What was she going to ask him? What would he answer? Would she pressure him into naming someone, anyone, for the sake of having a scapegoat? No, no, that wasn’t likely. She had the sign-in sheet, she already knew who it was. The rest of us sat and stared at page 233, but unless Winston Churchill was going to confess to the tinklings himself, none of us much cared what he had to say. Rather, our focus was on trying to make out the incoherent whispers coming from Miss B’s desk. The two spoke for a few moments, but the first audible words were Clint’s. “That mess was there when I went, too.”
“If that’s true, why didn’t you come to me, then, Clint?” could be barely made out.
Right there was why Clint was officially our unofficial leader. He had just provided the perfect excuse for the rest of us to parrot. It was, in fact, late in the day when the tinkle was finally discovered, so it could realistically have happened at any time. Next, Tim was called back and, at the end of a near silent discussion with Miss B, said with the delivery of someone giving the worst audition in history, “It was also there when I went, too.”
After Tim went Alan, me, Aron, Wendell and then Jamie. With Jamie our confidence wavered. Miss B could be heard asking him whether or not he had seen the mess earlier that morning. This was a nail-biting moment if there ever was one. If Jamie didn’t back up our lie, it would not only lose what little credibility it barely had to begin with, but bring the guilty party that much closer to being fingered as The Phantom Tinkler.
Jamie sat quiet and we all worried that he might buckle under the pressure. The poor kid was torn between being honest and being one of the guys. This was a kid that became paralyzed with indecision while reading choose-your-own-adventure books. Jamie fidgeted back and forth in his chair for an answer. Miss B took pity on the poorboy and finally said, “Go back to your desk, Jamie. It’s alright.”
Jamie returned to his desk with a face that displayed a thousand emotions and as red as though his heart were pumping five times the normal rate of an Olympian runner hyped up on coffee and cocaine. He immediately started reading where he’d left off, unable to look any of us in the face, not sure if he’d let anyone down and afraid to find out.
When the bell rang in the 15-minute break, Miss B announced, “I’d like the boys to stay, please. The rest of you can go.” The girls all giggled as they put on their coats and left the room. Miss B smiled sweetly at Jamie and told him that he could go outside, if he wanted to. Jamie looked to Clint for a reaction. Clint simply smiled. But that smile must have held a good deal of meaning because Jamie looked as though he’d been told that he was going to live forever. With a grin that looked so much like a baby’s when its shown a stuffed animal, Jamie rushed outside, returning momentarily to grab his coat.
“This problem has to stop,” Miss B said, having lost patience. “How do we fix this, guys?” A few shoulders were shrugged, a foot shuffled, but most of us maintained blank stares. “I know you want to protect each other, I understand that and I think that’s very noble, but this problem is disrupting my classroom and I can’t allow that. I will not.”
After a few more moments of silence, Miss B did something that can only be described as bold. And necessary. “Wendell,” she said, “your name was before Sue’s. You claim the mess was there before you went and everyone else says the same thing.” She looked at Alan, “Including you and yours was the very first name on the list. Can any of you explain this to me? Hmm? Anyone?”
Just then, Wendell began to cry. I’d seen Wendell cry before, but always believed it was just a trick he’d picked up from being an only child, one who was used to getting his way. But this was different, this was real. My hand began to shake as I watched him cry. I didn’t know why, but I felt scared for him. “I didn’t do it,” Wendell blubbered.
“Somebody did,” Miss B responded gently.
“It wasn’t me!” Wendell buried his three chins into his boy bosom, his arms crossed tightly over the ledge of his stomach. “It wasn’t me.”
Clint quickly jumped in. “It wasn’t Wendell. It was there when I went. I already told you that.” The rest of us nodded our heads with passive mob-like unison.
Miss B let out a deep breath. “Well, if I have to, I will make the bathroom for the girls only and the boys will have to use the one down the hall.” Her big, dark eyes seemed to apologize to us. She was being forced to do something she did not want to, to punish people she cared very much for, and the pain it caused her was obvious. She was like Mother Theresa, but with the body of a 20-something Hawaiian.
A big smile across Aron’s face. “I went after Calahan and I saw a little drop on the edge of the seat,” his thumb and index finger measuring out the size of a droplet.
My eyes went huge, my mouth dry and my stomach gurgled several syllables. What was he doing?! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He was breaking the code, that little son of a… I wasn’t guilty, but there I was at risk of being labeled a tinkler. For god’s sake, a tinkler! Call me Chinless, call me Bubble Butt, call me Your Dad Drinks Too Much. Anything but a tinkler! I mean, that’s just the kind of dangerous label that might follow someone throughout their life! I mean, what if I wanted to run for President someday and that came out? My budget plans for the national economy would be mocked as Tinkle Down Economics! The national toy would become Tinkle Toys! America’s favorite actor would be Henry Tinkler! I turned to Miss B with a look of horror on my face, wanting to defend myself with words that weren’t formulating themselves. I wanted her to know, I wanted everyone to know, I was innocent. It wasn’t me! I swear!
“We’re not discussing one drop, Aron. You know what mess we’re talking about, so don’t make jokes,” Miss B said. At that moment, I would’ve given my life for her.
“I guess that’s all there is to talk about, then,” she said and returned to her back desk. “Stay in your seats the rest of the break.” Before any of us could say a word otherwise, she added, “And I don’t want to hear any talking from any of you.”
So there we sat for the time remaining, which, if my ability to tell time was accurate (it wasn’t), was between 10 and 43 minutes. The sounds from the playground, like a passenger train passing Folsom, mocked our confinement. Still, we wanted to show Miss B that this punishment was nothing to our defiant bunch, that we could have cared less whether we spent the break inside or out. What’d it matter to us? Hell, we’d do our time and not give her the satisfaction of showing that we’ve been broken. Nuh-uh, not us. No way. We were like a prison gang. And solitary confinement? That’s just a fun vacation. Our prison shivs? Number 2 pencils, you dirty screws! Our tear drop tattoos? Drawn on using real ballpoint pen, you lousy hacks!
Still, Miss B knew, just as well as we did, that we couldn’t keep it up for more than one more break. It was hard not to notice our squirming in our seats, aching to answer the call of the playground’s freedoms.
Whether or not Wendell had been guilty, we never really knew. From that day on, though, there was never a repeat of the incident. For the two weeks that followed, we tried to find a mess to pin on the girls, but nothing ever presented itself. In the end, all we could do was resent their cleanliness. And the fact that it was because of them that our hand soap was bubble gum scented and the only picture hung up was that of a pony.