It has been quite difficult in the past several weeks to watch the news without feeling the need to take a cleansing shower afterwards. Fragmented morality, at best, seems to have become the default setting of an ever-increasing number of the politicians we have entrusted the stewardship of our planet, and I have been wondering whether John Dalberg-Acton was correct when he said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely…”. Thinking about whether or not I would act similarly, I was reminded of an incident that happened when I was in the sixth grade which was the first time I can recall trying to navigate a situation using my own personal moral compass.
It was a Friday afternoon in late Spring which meant that the excitement level was super-elevated. Winter in Quebec feels as though it lasts for at least 19 or 20 months, so when the warmer weather finally arrives, no one wants to be confined indoors any longer than what is absolutely necessary. Not only was it the sixth grade and a Friday afternoon, but we had a substitute teacher that day, all of which combine to create the ideal recipe for something to go wrong. In any school, even now, there is a small cadre of supply teachers who reside near a particular school and, thus, are the ones who generally cover most absences. The students recognize them and know, more or less, what they can expect to get away with. Some are gentle, some strict, and some are simply easy to manipulate. Only very rarely were we confronted with a ‘mystery’ sub, and this was one of those days. None of us liked to be put in this situation because it took so much extra time and effort to figure out their weaknesses. Every one of them would begin the day the same way by taking a fresh piece of chalk from the tray below the blackboard and meticulously writing their name (always in textbook, teachers’ college, difficult to decipher, cursive) large enough for the neighbours across the street to read from their kitchen windows, then reading aloud what they had just written just to be sure we knew who we were dealing with. The sub we had this day, however, did not do any of that. In fact, I’m not entirely sure we ever found out what her actual name was. We simply addressed her with the generic, ‘Miss’. She was younger than the regulars, but, unlike any other substitute, she did not appear to be nervous at all. Most others came into the room a little apprehensive because, by definition, the have to learn a new environment every time they come to work. Not this one. It’s not that she already knew the lay of the land, as it were, or appeared super-comfortable with her surroundings, she was different because we could tell straight away that she didn’t give a shit where she was, who she was teaching, or what our insignificant proclivities and problems might be. None of that meant a damn to her; all she did the entire day was sit at the teacher’s desk reading either the newspaper or a Harlequin Romance novel, chew gum (which we understood was as forbidden as sprinting down a crowded hallway with a fistful of scissors), gaze longingly out of the window, and stare intermittently at her watch. Oh, and sigh; she sighed a lot, particularly when one of the students had the temerity to pose a question. Nope, she, most certainly, did not want to be there at all. She was sharply dressed and her handbag and matching briefcase (which you could kind of imagine her doting boyfriend had probably given her the night before) were immaculate. She craved order and neatness, neither of which you could find within three or four kilometres of a grade six classroom, and you could just tell that she was counting the minutes until she could get home and take a warm, cleansing bath, glass of Cabernet at the ready.
The day had been a long one for all of us, the teacher included, and we all grew antsy awaiting the final bell that would set us all free. No one counted the final minutes more keenly than Miss Whateverhernamewas, and we broke from our regular ‘end-of-day’ routine to accommodate her obvious suffering. With our regular teacher, we were only permitted to organize ourselves for departure five minutes before the bell, saving packing our schoolbags and placing our chairs on the tables for the very last moment. On this day, however, we were directed to get the chairs up with no less than twenty minutes of Friday afternoon remaining, as though that would somehow miraculously make the clocks tick faster (in fact, it is scientifically proven to have the opposite effect…trust me, I’m a teacher. I’ve tried it many times.). The sub had her coat on, purse and handbag over one shoulder, scarf on her head, sunglasses covering her exhausted eyes as she stood by the door shuffling between staring at her watch and studying the polish on her fingernails. The class, at least initially, just stood in place with backpacks on staring at each other in silence. We were not, however, accustomed to so much idle time at the end of the day and we became noticeably restless. At first, we shuffled our feet, whispering to each other about nothing in particular expecting the teacher to admonish us. When she didn’t, we pushed up to the edge of the new boundary and began to talk openly and loudly. Not wishing to extend her day a nano-second longer than what was contractually required, she, again, did not react or engage in any way. My friend Robbie Prosser openly and gregariously upbraided the kid next to him for picking his nose and eating it, causing many of us to laugh out loud, particularly when the boy in question (who will remain nameless) defended himself saying, “I don’t eat my snots. I just suck them and spit them out”. With that snippet of entertainment behind us, we still had a good ten minute to go. I began to gently bounce a lacrosse ball, that I had found earlier in the day in the schoolyard, on the floor in front of me. The ball made a dull ‘THUD’ on the tiled, concrete floor with every bounce. After each THUD, I would glance up to gauge the teacher’s reaction which was to palpably suppress her white-hot rage and subdue the undeniable urge to grab me by the hair and thrust the ball down my throat. But, other than to shake her head and audibly sigh her derision, she did nothing.
Finally, with about a minute to go before the bell, I decided to put Newton’s Third Law to the test and see just how much potential energy I could load up into the ball, and I heaved it to the ground, hoping to see if I could get it to go from floor to ceiling to floor and back to ceiling all in one swift go. The instant I let go of the ball, sending it towards the floor, I knew that my aim was not perfect, and I watched it strike the leg of my table where it met the ground, causing the ball to ricochet on an unpredictable trajectory that was less straight up, as I had planned, and more on a lightening-speed, direct path towards the left eye of the substitute teacher. The ball traveled with such velocity that I had insufficient time to relay any detectable warning, and the ball glanced off her sunglasses, sending them flying, and leaving a visible red mark on her nose. Having no clue what just happened, she fell abruptly to her knees. In less than a second, she figured out what happened, scooped her glasses up off the tiles, and bolted up to her feet just as the bell rang. Having all witnessed what had just transpired, none of us moved a muscle and the room was eerily silent. Calmly, the teacher straightened her skirt, fixed her headscarf and placed the sunglasses back on her face. She then looked across the room to the windows along the back wall, and through angry, clenched teeth, without raising her voice one decibel, sedately, but sternly, said, “NO ONE IS LEAVING UNTIL THE PERSON WHO THREW THE BALL COMES FORTH AND OWNS UP TO IT!” Everyone knew she was seething mad because she didn’t yell or scream; she was way beyond that. Had the incident occurred right before the lunch break, or at any other time of the day, she probably would have shrieked in outrage, but because it happened mere seconds before she was scheduled to leave this purgatory for the day (and most likely for good), she was apoplectic. The instant I witnessed that ball strike her face, images of my father losing his shit on me flooded my brain, causing me to clam up tight. My initial reaction, thus, was to shut up and pretend nothing had happened. Sure, no one in the class was ever going home, but, as far as I was immediately concerned, I was in survival mode. This was an “I don’t have to outrun the lion; I just have to outrun you” situation. So what if they never saw their parents again…fuck them. I quickly scanned the room to see if anyone was ready to crack and turn me in, and as I did, I caught a glimpse of the teacher. For the most part she appeared stern, resolute and ready for a good fight, but as I paused to get a better look at her, I noticed a small drop of water slowly sliding down her cheek from behind her sunglasses, and I felt a lump in my throat. She was not in physical pain anymore. The ball I threw didn’t sting her cheek. Simply put, she was sad. She was in a place she never wanted to be, and she felt bullied. I took my schoolbag off my back, let it fall to the floor, and I walked up to her and confessed. She let the rest of the class go and once we were alone, she said absolutely nothing for five full minutes as though contemplating what she was going to do with me. She then walked over to the corner of the room where the lacrosse ball had come to rest and picked it up before walking back to me. She then gently took my hand, placed the ball in my palm, and in the softest voice said, “You should be more careful. Go on home”.
A few years ago, I registered for a half-iron distance race in Williamsburg, Virginia put on by the REV3 group. I was attracted to the race primarily because Williamsburg is very historic and when I studied the course website, it seemed perfect. The run was a double out and back, which I love because you always know exactly where you are, and it is naturally broken down into 5-kilometre chunks (anyone can run 5km). The bike was on rural, rolling, well-paved roads that meandered through some of the most importantly historic places in America, and the swim, by far my weakest leg and the one that causes the most anxiety, was in a river that went largely downstream point to point. The drive from Montreal was a long one but was completed in one push, stopping only for fuel along the route. Because of this, I was tricked into believing the weather in the destination town would be the same as our point of origin, which it was not. Montreal gets quite hot and humid in the summer, but compared to Virginia in July, it is downright glacial. When I opened the door in Colonial Williamsburg, the heat kicked me squarely in the chin and I wondered immediately how this would affect my race performance in two days’ time. I found my answer ten minutes after arriving at the race site on Saturday when I learned that, due to the warmth, the swim would NOT be wetsuit legal. Panic overtook me instantly because I knew that without the buoyancy that my wetsuit (or pull-buoy in training) provided, I was surely going to sink like a stone three metres into the race. My only hope would be to stay so close to shore that I could walk the entire swim course in waist-deep water. In an attempt to allay my anxiety, I decided to drag my girlfriend, Anne and nine-year-old son, Owen over to the race village where I could keep my mind off of drowning by buying a whole bunch of crap I really didn’t need. Impulse spending is a powerful distraction and it turned out to be very valuable that day because while buying enough carbon dioxide cartridges to fill a zeppelin, I stumbled on the answer to my non-wetsuit woes. In the tent next to the one containing the bike shop was a pop-up store selling swim-related stuff. There were nose plugs, wetsuits, swim caps, training snorkels, swim paddles, swim-skins, and NEOPRENE BOUYANCY SWIM JAMMERS! Trying desperately to reign in my excitement, I asked the lady at the table what they were used for to which she replied, “They’re basically a pull-buoy you wear”. She hadn’t even finished uttering the word ‘pull’ before I awkwardly shouted, ‘I’LL TAKE ‘EM!” I didn’t even know what they cost, but at that point I would have given her all my money and the keys to my girlfriend’s SUV just to wear them once. For the rest of the afternoon and all evening I was walking on a cloud, happy that I had not only found a solution to my very serious problem, but proud that out of the tens of thousands of triathletes in the world, I was the only one to have solved this particular neoprene Rubik’s Cube. With that major hurdle behind me, I was able to sleep well in the knowledge that I would only have to deal with typical race-day nerves, and I awoke the next morning relaxed enough to perform the pre-race bowel movement without the need for outside help. Of course, as is always the case, I still needed to read something while doing my business (for some reason, my body will not allow the number two to occur unless there is reading material to be found. In a pinch, I rely on shampoo bottles and toothpaste tubes), so I brought my phone into the bathroom with me so I could see what the worldwide web had to offer. Just for kicks, I decided to check out the race website to have another look at the course maps, transition flow, and photos taken along the route from past years. With that done and having not quite completed the job I entered the bathroom to do, I decided to scan the race rules and regulations. When I got to the section dealing with the swim, my heart skipped a beat, my butt puckered up and shut down tight as a drum, and every pore in my body began to excrete litres of panic sweat. What I read filled me with terror: “Neoprene shorts are NOT legal in USAT sanctioned events when water temperature is above 78 degrees due to the violation of rule 4.9 – ILLEGAL EQUIPMENT”. Fuck! I was immediately convinced that the panic attack I was now having would continue through the swim and I was either going to drown and die, or, at the very least, fail to make the cut-off time. Because neither of these outcomes was particularly desirable, I scoured every dark corner of my mind in search of a solution, and, after several minutes of desperate, sweaty probing, I came up with a fool-proof way to hack the whole system. I decided to put my tri-suit on, then the neoprene shorts and cover them both with my totally legal swim skin. No one would be the wiser so long as I made sure that when I removed the swim skin in T-1, I peeled off the shorts at the same time and rolled the two together into a ball to be placed in a towel. I even geared up in the bathroom and took a shower to see if the shorts were visible through the swim skin when wet. They weren’t and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. At this point everything I was doing did not register as illegal or even immoral because it was all about self-preservation. I mean it’s wrong to eat the flesh of another human being, but that didn’t stop a planeload of Uruguayan rugby players from doing exactly that to survive the sub-zero temperatures in the Andes. So far as I was concerned, it was strictly ‘no harm, no foul’. My mind was, once again, at ease as we drove to the race venue. Anne and Owen had no idea what I was planning on doing nor did they know that it was illegal. They just wanted me to do well and have fun. When we parked the car and I fumbled around with my bidons and other transition supplies, I looked at my son’s completely innocent face and felt immediate guilt knowing that I was once that age and was long ago unblemished by sin. I turned away from his gaze and whispered to myself, “Am I really going to cheat here?” and thought about how that would make me feel. Then, I pictured myself being swallowed up by the Chickahominy River and promptly resolved to go ahead with my nefarious plan.
We made our way down to the transition area where I did my final preparations and then proceeded to the ‘practice’ swim area so I could see if the shorts were worth the money and anxiety. They worked way better than I could have imagined, keeping my hips high and my head down. They actually felt better than my wetsuit because they accomplished the same task without restricting my breathing or upper-body movement. When I got out of the water I walked with the crowd of other competitors, none of whom noticed that I had a pair of rubber jammers on under my suit. As the mass of athletes made its way, parade-style, down a slight hill towards the river’s edge, hundreds of spectators lined the way behind ropes and they too did not notice anything strange about how I was geared up for the swim. As far as they were concerned, I looked no different than any of the rest of the competitors. I passed Anne and Owen and gave them each a kiss. As I tapped Owen on the head, his purity created an energy that hit my fingers and moved its way up my arm and into my brain where it triggered an intensely visceral, vivid memory that manifested itself in the image of a tear running down the cheek of Miss Whateverhernamewas. I thought to myself, “is cheating worth it at any level? This is an age-group REV3 triathlon. There is no money, no career, no spot at the Olympics on the line. It is certainly not life or death. What am I doing? Do I really want to be THAT guy?” I couldn’t go through with it so I ducked under the rope, removed my swim skin, took the shorts off and handed them to Anne telling her that I would explain later, replaced the swim skin and walked to the start area.
Though I was very nervous, the weightlessness I felt from shedding the guilt made the swim seem effortless. I went on to have a great race and won my age category. I feel bad that a random substitute teacher had to take a ball to the head in 1979 for me to learn right from wrong, but had that not happened, I would probably be writing this blog as a cheater. Thankfully, I didn’t have to.
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