There are times you do something that you know is wrong, or you realize after the fact that it was wrong. If you’re like most people, you feel guilty. Some people feel hardly any guilt; others feel more than is warranted. Remember in the movie A Christmas Story when Flick gets his tongue stuck to the sign post in the middle of winter? After Flick comes back, the teacher, Miss Shields, tries to get the kids to own up to who made Flick do it. When Flick won’t rat out his friends and no one will come forward, she says, “I’m sure the guilt you feel is far worse than any punishment you might receive.” She follows that up with that pitiful face that’s supposed to make the kids feel bad and says, “Don’t you feel terrible? Don’t you feel remorse for what you have done? That’s all I’m going to say about poor Flick.”
The voice-over comes out with a classic line at this time, “Adults love to say things like that but kids know better. We knew darn well it was always better NOT to get caught.” Guilt? Not so much. You can’t make people feel guilty. They either do or they don’t. I tended to have a “guilty conscience” when I was a kid. When I did something wrong, and I knew it was wrong, I could just picture my Mom standing there with a sad face, shaking her head, making me feel terrible. However, I was usually able to shake that feeling off because like the kids in A Christmas Story, I knew it was better not to get caught. There was one time, though, that I did get caught.
Somehow, my friend Smitty had found out that you could get into our elementary school through the roof. Apparently there was a door on the roof that wasn’t locked. So one Saturday morning we went to the school, Smitty shimmied up a pole to the roof and about 30 seconds later opened the front door for me. We crossed the hallway to the office and the first thing we did was what a lot of kids always wanted to do – speak over the intercom. That’s right, we turned on the microphone and started doing bits from The Three Stooges. We each did the “Doctor Howard! Doctor Fine! Doctor Howard!” bit, Smitty did the “Ba ba ba boo, are you listening, ba ba ba boo!” bit, and we both did our finest imitations of the school principal reading the morning announcements. Then in the blink of an eye, everything changed.
Smitty was staring out the front door, wide-eyed, pointing. One word was all it took to bring all the fun and games to an end: “Cops!” We turned off the intercom, walked casually out the front door and hoped the police officer would think we were just walking along, minding our own business. That thought was dashed when the police car screeched to a halt directly next to us and the officer jumped out. He asked us what we were doing in the school and how we got in. We tried to say we hadn’t been in the school, but he wasn’t buying it. He told us to wait next to his car and went and checked the front door, while Smitty and I debated making a run for it.
He looked around a bit and came back to us and asked us again what we were doing in the school, studying our faces to see if we were telling the truth. When he told us that a silent alarm had been tripped when the front door was opened (I wish we had thought of that!) and we were the only people around, we were smart enough to confess and told him the whole story. He even laughed a little when we told him we were doing Three Stooges stuff over the intercom. I actually thought we were off Scot-free and was starting to relax a bit when he asked us our names and where we lived. This time I couldn’t get rid of the picture of my Mom standing there with a sad face, shaking her head. I felt terrible. I WAS GUILTY!
Smitty and I walked back to our neighborhood in near silence, contemplating the punishment that was sure to come, not just from our parents but from the school, too. I felt like a juvenile delinquent. I wondered what reform school would be like. We came out from behind my house and, horror of horrors, the same police cruiser was sitting in front of my house with the police officer talking to my brothers and some other kids who had been playing basketball. He called us over, told us he believed us that we were just goofing around on the intercom, and gave us a mini-lecture about breaking into schools and how much trouble we could have been in.
I couldn’t believe that we were actually off the hook, and yet I still didn’t feel good about it. I had done something wrong and I had got caught. Even though I didn’t get in trouble for that incident, Miss Shields in A Christmas Story was right. The guilt I felt truly was far worse than any punishment I might have received.