Third grade was going to be awesome. Ms. Fisher was my teacher, I had three new t-shirts from the Gap, a bunch of friends I’d known since kindergarten were in my class, and with my sister off in middle school, I was the senior most Wilson in the building.
I was buzzing with first day excitement. We’d finished morning music time where we sang Raffi anthems and a couple Pete Seeger songs. Now back in the classroom, each of us were crouched on the floor in front of our desks, pulling supplies out of our backpacks and carefully placing items in neat stacks and rows. For me, this tidy arrangement was unlikely to last through the week.
Most of my supplies were recycled from last year or were hand-me-downs from my sister. I sighed as I stacked another re-purposed spiral notebook into my desk. It was thin, many pages had been torn out, and the wire binding was smooshed at the top making it difficult to flip through. My standard wooden ruler had my sister’s name scrawled across it in magic marker – her handwriting. I quickly flipped it over, to it’s unmarked side, there was something humiliating about not even having my own ruler – even though I would rarely use it that year, if at all.
That’s when I spied it. On the floor to the left of me lay a brand new, glimmering two-inch wide ruler speckled with dinosaurs. Timid as I was I had to touch it, I reached out two fingers and slowly brought the ruler perpendicular to the floor then released it back down. As I did so, the images of dinosaurs came alive – the pterodactyl flapped his wings, the brontosaurus dropped his long neck towards the ground then back to the sky, and the tyrannosaurus took one awkward step and then lunged back. I flitted the ruler back and forth for a mere second or two and then dropped it back into place. I am turning back to my own modest pile of supplies when WHAMP! Five fingers slammed down on the ruler I’d just handled.
“Did you just touch my ruler?” It’s the kid next to me. The owner of the glorious, non-hand-me-down ruler. I’ve never seen him before: a new kid.
“What? No.” I stammer, not well-versed in evasion.
He narrows the lids on his giant brown eyes and points his chin farther towards me. He knows I am lying. “Do you swear it?”
“Sure, I swear.”
“Do you swear… TO GOD?”
God? God! In my family, in my world no one ever, ever swears God. At this point in my life, my faith and my relationship with God were as pure as they could be. I have no idea what swearing to God actually means, but I can tell it’s probably a sin. I say yes.
“Yes, what?” He insists, needling, slyly smiling.
“Yes, I swear to God.” I feel the muscles in my shoulders tense and I brace myself for a flash of lightening or the hand of God to reach through the roof of my third grade classroom and smote me where I sit. I have been changed in that moment.
I look over at the new kid – Ruler Boy – entirely unaffected, happily putting away the last of his brand new school supplies and sitting down, pulling his chair under his desk. The class moves on, but I am stuck thinking about my betrayal, my wanton disregard for the second commandment. I tell no one of it – not my friends at recess, not my sister at home, not my parents at dinner or at prayers before I fall asleep.
But in sleep I am back at school. I am standing on the wooden suspension bridge on our playground. It is dusk and the place feels deserted. A woman I do not recognize comes running towards me. “You did it,” she yells. “You killed Ruler Boy.”
In my shame and anger my dreamself killed Ruler Boy. You know, once you’ve broken one commandment what’s another? I was terrified and it doesn’t take long for my punishment-averting subconscious to kick in with quick revisions to my nightmare: soon I got word that I hadn’t killed my new nemesis, I’d just broken both of his legs.
When I woke, I was relieved to find that I was only a criminal of thought. I dressed and prepared for my second day of school.
Ruler Boy was there, alive and standing on two intact legs. I kept my hands to myself and didn’t so much as turn my head when he made a big show of digging through his fancy pencil pouch. I swear to God.