By Dennis Cass
When I was in fifth grade I had two loves: a girl in my class named Lainee Richards and my Kung Fu lunchbox.
Why did I love Lainee Richards? I have no idea. I was ten. All I know is that there was something about the way she wore a denim vest over a white turtleneck that made me want to ride my bike back and forth in front her of house again and again and again.
I loved my Kung Fu lunchbox because was it based on the television series Kung Fu.
One day, during lunch, I decided to talk to Lainee. She and her best friend Cheri were hanging out at the edge of the playground. Lainee’s smile seemed to float in air, a radiant crescent of pure effervescence. Cheri was wearing culottes.
I walked up to where they were standing and stood there for a while. Then, with the hope of getting Lainee to like me, I started to tease her best friend. I called Cheri names and made fun of her haircut. Cheri responded by kicking me in the shins. I kicked back. She kicked back. I kicked back. She kicked back. I kicked back. She kicked back and then—much to my surprise—started to mix in some punches. So I hit her in the face with my Kung Fu lunchbox.
That afternoon my teacher sent me home with the following set of instructions:
1. Tell your mother or father what you did wrong and why you’re sorry.
2. Have your mother or father write a note that captures, if not the exact words, then at least the essence of your apology.
3. Sign this newly created document and then have your mother or father countersign.
4. Bring your signed confession back to school the next day for Cheri’s inspection and approval.
That night I presented my mother with a tablet of yellow lined paper and a black ballpoint pen. I told her that we were studying handwriting analysis in class the next day and asked her to please put her signature on the yellow pad. Somewhere in the middle would be best. Or perhaps even a bit lower down on the page in case I decided to gather more samples.
My mother asked me what was going on. I told her nothing was going on. She asked again. This time the tone of her voice suggested that she already knew exactly what was going on. I had better come clean or else.
I broke down crying. In between racking sobs I told her about my fight with Cheri. My mother didn’t seem too concerned about the fight or about Cheri’s face. She was more upset by my attempt to cheat her out of a note from home. Did I not see the ridiculousness of my story about fifth graders studying handwriting analysis? Did I think she was so gullible as to sign a blank piece of paper? Did I not realize my teacher would recognize my handwriting on the forged note?
These were all excellent points, but I was also confused. Was I in trouble for hitting my classmate or for not being better at tricking people?
While my mother waited for my response my thoughts drifted back to what happened on the playground. I remembered:
The hurt look on Cheri’s face when I first called her a name.
Her defiance as she started kicking me in the shins.
Her dawning fear as I retaliated with my own kicks. (Was I was going to beat her up?)
Her shocked expression after being hit in the face with a lunchbox.
I imagined what this whole incident must have been like for Cheri. Having been bullied myself I knew exactly how she felt. I offered an apology to my mother, but it was meant for Cheri. I understood—perhaps for the first time in my life—that I had done something bad, rather than simply having been caught at doing something bad.
After I stopped crying my mom and I sat down and wrote the note. I don’t remember what it said or what happened when I gave the note to Cheri the next day. I only know that my contrition was sincere and that the path forward was clear. In the future I would do my best to be a good boy. I would do my best to be a good boy and I would only use my Kung Fu lunchbox for what it was designed to do: transporting food from home to school and making you feel as if you belonged to something bigger than yourself.
DENNIS CASS IS A WRITER WHOSE WORK HAS APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE, MOTHER JONES AND THE ONLINE JOURNAL SLATE. HE IS THE AUTHOR OF HEAD CASE: HOW I ALMOST LOST MY MIND TRYING TO UNDERSTAND MY BRAIN (HARPERCOLLINS). DENNIS HAS ALSO WORKED AS A LITERARY AGENT, A COPYWRITER, AND ADJUNCT PROFESSOR AT CARLETON COLLEGE, WHERE HE TEACHES CREATIVE NONFICTION. HE LIVES IN MINNEAPOLIS WITH HIS WIFE AND SON AND WOULDN’T HAVE IT ANY OTHER WAY.