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What a childhood prank taught me about people

As a child, my prank-loving self collided with my compulsively honest one. I learned that even the strictest teachers can laugh at a joke – sometimes.

By J. Shannon Roe, Correspondent | September 16, 2021

Miss Baugh taught seventh-grade social studies, which covered state and local government minutiae. She was the kind of teacher that just about everyone has had at least once: scary. Her reputation was not unlike that of Dracula. When my peers learned that I was in her class, they looked at me as though I were bound for the gallows.

Miss Baugh brooked no nonsense. She drilled us and grilled us and taught us to take school seriously. She also introduced to us the concept of “extra credit” for a correct response to a spontaneous question – and a withering frown for an incorrect one.

Miss Baugh had been teaching for a long time and knew how to intimidate even the boys who typically sprawled in the back row. They did not sprawl in her classroom. She had her bluff in on all of us, and I was as intimidated as anyone.

But I also had a life outside of school and had just discovered cheap props for pranks that I could play on long-suffering friends and family. One such prop had two parts: an ink bottle painted to look as though it had overturned, and a piece of shiny black metal shaped like a puddle. It didn’t take long to run out of people to fool at home, so I took my props to school.

Of all the people I could have pranked, inexplicably I chose Miss Baugh. At the beginning of the class period, before she’d returned to her classroom, I dared to approach her desk.

I opened her grade book (what was I thinking?) and placed the bottle and blob on one of the pages, proudly noting that it truly did look like spilled ink!

Then I went to my desk and waited for the fun. I wasn’t disappointed. When Miss Baugh saw the bottle and blob, she let out a little cry and looked for something to wipe up the ink with.

The prank had succeeded way beyond my expectations. But then the realization began to set in that I had put something in motion over which I had no control. The unraveling began when Miss Baugh tried to blot the ink with a paper towel and discovered that it was just a piece of black metal. She picked up the “puddle,” then the bottle, and examined them.

She looked up. Her eyes swept the classroom with a deadly gaze. Some of my classmates who had seen me set up the fake spill carefully avoided looking at me, so as not to give me away. Or maybe they just didn’t want to witness the carnage that would surely ensue.

Then came the inevitable question:

“Who did this?”

After a few pounding throbs in my throat, I meekly raised my hand. All of my life I’ve been afflicted with compulsive honesty. I couldn’t help fessing up. Besides, I wanted my bottle and puddle back.

Miss Baugh fixed me with a stare that struck terror in my heart – as well as in the hearts of my classmates.

And then, most unexpectedly, she laughed.

“Well, it certainly fooled me!” she said.

She returned the prank pieces to me, and for a few seconds a sweet little old lady appeared right where Miss Baugh stood.

In the blink of an eye, however, the drill sergeant returned, and we got back to learning about the state legislature or some such.

But something had changed – for me, anyway. I glimpsed that, if even the likes of Miss Baugh had a warm human being beneath that crusty facade, then other crusty people probably do, too. And I’ve happily proved that hypothesis many times since then.

That may have been the most valuable lesson I learned in seventh-grade social studies – and the most enduring extra credit I received.

© The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.

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