Monday, October 3, 2011

Peter Smith's Lesser Horrors: "Innocent until proven guilty"? Not if you ask my old seventh-grade principal.

You know that feeling when you're being accused of something, know you're innocent, but still somehow feel vaguely guilty? It's awkward, says Peter Smith, but at least it makes for good writing.



MPR's Peter Smith's series of "Lesser Horrors" will run on Mondays for one month on this blog. Missed his previous entries? You can catch them here.

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Lesser Horror: Any glimmer, thought, or memory from one’s personal past that for whatever reason causes a small, brief but recurring episode of psychic pain or piquancy.

BY PETER SMITH
Author and MPR contributor

One tedious afternoon in the doldrums of seventh-grade science class, the school principal made a surprise visit and livened things up. He delivered a fiery three-minute soliloquy on the evils of throwing those thick brown paper towels into the urinals in the boys’ lavatory, and he seemed to look directly at me the whole time.

He had it all wrong. I confess I was more than capable of mischief, but this was not my brand. I was innocent. The school janitors had befriended me the way janitors befriend certain kids. I had too much respect for them to go around throwing paper towels in the urinals.

And yet, sitting there, I felt guilty somehow. I had a rich vein of guilt, both warranted and unwarranted, running through my soul, and whatever schoolboy transgression was committed, whoever committed it, part of me always felt I had a hand in it.

Other children sang “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” cheerfully. Not me. I sang it as a dirge in a sulking minor key. To me the song always seemed a confession. An “Okay. I admit it. I have been working on the railroad. There. You got it out of me.”

Back then, the words, “I’ve been…” sung to the same tune afforded an open-ended musical opportunity for me to come clean about wrongdoings I really had committed, if not to the proper authority, then at least to myself.

“I’ve been drinking from the milk jug.”

Or:

“I’ve been fighting on the playground.”

Or:

“I’ve been smoking in the alley.”

Or:

“I’ve been looking at a Playboy.”

Or any of a thousand-thousand other adolescent crimes and misdemeanors. I was always vaguely guilty in my own mind, and in many ways, I remain vaguely guilty to this day.

In fact, I believe there is a clear connection, a symbiosis, between my guilt (real or imagined), my lesser horrors, and my compulsion to write. The guilt fuels the horror. The horror fuels the guilt. The guilt and the horror fuel the writer. It’s a vicious circle; a 24-hour cycle. Guilt-horror-write. Guilt-horror-write.

Maybe other writers can modify this symbiosis and use other peoples’ guilt and horror in lieu of their own. Not me.

No.

I have to draw guilt from my own well and horrify myself with it. It has to be my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault or the words just won’t flow.

Fortunately, in addition to that vein of guilt, I’ve always had a certain simple-but-dishonest smile—almost a smirk on my face with which to refill the well. One look in my direction and any hypersensitive authority figure is apt to think I’m challenging them or that I’m in on some conspiracy or coup. They reflexively check vacant chairs for whoopee cushions. They make mental notes and assign me to pigeonholes labeled “Troublemakers.”

The principal had me in just such a pigeonhole on that long ago afternoon. I looked guilty. That’s all. I just looked guilty.

In truth, he had nearly caught me dead to rights in a number of cases where I actually was guilty. Leaving school to eat lunch at Rudy’s Diner without permission, for example. Or slipping away to buy lunchtime candy at the small, dark Royal Blue Grocery Store.

Perhaps most egregious of all: Buzzy Nereim had shown me a ragged, grainy, pocket-creased magazine photo of a naked woman at the bus stop one morning. She was slightly over the hill, possessed of a certain avoirdupois, and in need of some form of depilation, but she was naked enough to induce a little guilt. Which I suppressed.

A teacher caught Buzzy with the photo later that day, and the principal broke him down quickly. In a matter of minutes, Buzzy Nereim denounced me.

The principal summoned me via the public address system and I took the long, lonesome walk through the empty halls to the office, where the school secretary waved me into the inner sanctum.

I did not break. I denied it all. And when I got through denying it, I denied it all again. And again. Word of the event never reached home.

So I will forgive the principal for suspecting me in the Paper Towels in the Urinals Caper. In his defense, I will remain eternally and deliberately guilty of something.

How else can I possibly continue to write?

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Peter Smith is a thirty-year veteran of Twin Cities advertising and a regular contributor to Morning Edition on Minnesota Public Radio. He is author of A Porch Sofa Almanac and, more recently, A Cavalcade of Lesser Horrors. He blogs at Peter Smith Writes and tweets at @petersmithwrite.

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