Have you ever witnessed children whose energy is so contagious you cannot help but soak up their joy? They sing and bounce happily in their seats in the grocery cart; they smile and wave at passersby because a returned smile is all the affirmation they need that all is right in the world. I was that child. I skipped down the street to Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” or “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” But then something changed.
I’m not sure who appointed the judges and jury or how I came to sit in the defendant’s corner on the Lee brothers’ front porch. Yet there I was, standing trial for “doing it” with David, the 10-year-old boy next door.
A wise-faced high-school kid pounded his makeshift gavel, calling court to order. First up was Angela, who eagerly provided her testimony. “I stopped because I heard them doin’ it,” she said. I wondered how she could lie so easily, so convincingly. She kept going, “Then I looked in the window and saw David on top of Leslie. They were naked. They were doin’ it.” The other kids giggled.
As David stood to give his testimony, a hush overwhelmed the children. They listened as he detailed horrifying particulars of how we “did it,” describing events I did not believe possible. I wasn’t that girl. Sure, I liked boys but I didn’t even kiss them — not yet. My stomach tossed and churned as I searched for someone in the crowd who would come to my defense; yet no one did.
“Get up,” I thought. “You don’t have to stay here for this. This isn’t real. Get up and go home.” The path was clear.
All I had to do was stand up and walk across the porch past the potted flowers and the kids with their biting grins, get down the stairs, down the street and back to my home where Snoopy and Teddy the Bear where waiting for me in my purple room.
But my friends were not my only betrayers that day, my body turned against me as well. Root bound, I remained planted on my concrete perch like a tree jutting from the sidewalk of Manhattan. I looked to the judge, a large boy with warm eyes that seemed to say, “I’m sorry but this is the justice system and you are a necessary victim of it.”
“I am very little inclined on any occasion to say anything unless I hope to produce some good by it.” ― Abraham Lincoln
Finally, I got my chance to speak. “They were dolls,” I said unconvincingly. “David was playing with the dolls.” And that was all. Why? Fear of public speaking, fear of what the other kids would think if I said something wrong?
More testimony poured forth from indistinct forms and voices ominous. Each child’s words are vapors to me now, just cookie-cutter lies the collective was anxious to devour. The trial lasted either ten minutes or four hours after that before the jury — comprised of some older children whom I now assume were acting out their high school civics lessons — gathered to deliberate. As they pondered, something occurred to me: David and Angela set me up. This was revenge for his missing teeth.
Before I could speak up, however, the jury declared they had a verdict. When I replay the scene even now, I see myself refusing to stand, arms folded across my chest, when the boy-judge called my name. “You have been found guilty,” he said, “by a jury of your peers.”
I did not cry or scream of my innocence, then. It was done. Instead, I went home and played on the swings in my backyard, played HORSE with my brother, and put the Barbie’s back in the closet where they belonged. Still, I took the verdict to heart. Obviously, I did something wrong, I thought. It wasn’t until years later that I came to understand silence is a form of acceptance. I was guilty, alright, guilty of inaction.
“If I were to remain silent, I’d be guilty of complicity.”
— Albert Einstein
The world we navigate as adults is not much different from the playground or the school lunchroom. There are bullies, liars, vengeance seekers, and the lemmings that follow them. There are also confidants and earthly protectors. I met the latter when my parents shipped us off to see our grandfather.
Missed the first story in this series? Read Summer 1975 – Part 1: Kung Fu Fighting
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