by Andrea Lani
This story begins with a Pop-Tart. No, not a Pop-Tart, but, as you explained to the teacher, the principal, the deputy sheriff, the sheriff, and two muzzle-faced State Troopers, an organic toaster pastry with whole-grain crust and all-natural, no-sugar-added, real-fruit filling. Definitely not a Pop-Tart. Perhaps the story does not begin there anyway. It could have started six years earlier, with a pair of Duplo-sized Lego blocks, on the day one square Duplo, attached to the bottom of one rectangular Duplo, was clasped in the dimpled hand of your sweet babe and pointed at you with an accompanying, “Blam-blam!”
And yet, the story may have begun two years before that, when one of several million of your husband’s sperm, having squirmed its way through the labyrinth of your fallopian tubes, united with your freshly released egg and conferred its genetic material, including that gun-toting Y chromosome, through the otherwise-impermeable shell. Then again, this story may go back tens of thousands of years, to your ancestors squatting around a campfire, discussing strategies for the following day’s woolly mammoth hunt, while little boys ran around the camp, picking up sticks and jabbing them at imaginary mastodons, in the guise of their friends and parents.
In any case, because you are the mother of four boys under the age of eight, you had quit worrying about imaginary weapons some time after that first shocking, heartbreaking incident in which your child turned to you from the Lego table where he stood, looking like the Christ child in a Renaissance painting, with his golden curls and round cheeks, and mowed you down with two pieces of primary-colored plastic. By the time your fourth male child was born, you had resigned yourself to the fact that boys turning any remotely L-shaped object into a firearm was as inevitable as their making fart sounds with any remotely concave part of their bodies–armpit, inside of the elbow, back of the knee, ear, neck, palm of the hand, bottom of the foot. One time, they performed the “William Tell Overture” with body farts. Even the baby got into the act, blowing big, wet, noisy bubbles with his pursed lips.
But let us get back to that toaster pastry and the Tuesday morning on which you oh-so-blindly placed it into your oldest son’s PVC-free insulated lunch bag. Tuesday, riding on the frantic heels of Monday, finds you both less organized and less well-rested than the previous day. You had closed your eyes after your husband left for work, intending to doze for five more minutes when, half an hour later, you leapt from the bed, wide awake and aware that it was nearly seven o’clock. When you rushed into the boys’ room to wake up the two oldest, you saw your three-year-old squatting in the corner, his face red and scrunched in concentration. Forgetting your initial mission, you scooped him up and dashed into the bathroom. As you yanked down his training pants and set him on the toilet, two warm, moist turds rolled out and landed on the bath mat. The day rolled downhill from there.
By the time you hustled the oldest two out of bed and into semi-clean clothes and had fed them a breakfast of bread heels with jam, you had no time to make their lunches, and, since you had made every excuse you could think of–the baby was teething, the floor needed mopping, you had to catch up on laundry–to avoid grocery shopping on Monday, your kitchen was woefully devoid of anything with which to make said lunches. So you resigned yourself to letting the boys eat the school-cooked lunch of shepherd’s pie–pink slime and all–rationalizing that they would take one look at the oily glop and subsist off of a carton of milk and a spoonful of fruit cocktail, thus negating concerns over mad cow disease and e-coli. To make up for your maternal negligence, and because you were also out of fresh fruit for snack-time, you rummaged in the back of the pantry until you found the box of organic toaster pastries with whole-grain crust and all-natural, no-sugar-added, real-fruit filling, which you had stashed there for such an emergency, and stuffed one foil-wrapped package into each boy’s backpack as you kissed them on their way out the door and onto the waiting school bus.
Two hours later, you had cleaned the shit off the bathroom floor, bathed your three-year-old, changed and fed the baby, tidied the kitchen, straightened the living room, and written a comprehensive grocery list. You were feeling like a model of domestic efficiency and ready to brave the grocery store with your two youngest children in tow when the phone rang. It was the school secretary. Your oldest child had threatened another pupil with a weapon and you needed to come to the school immediately.
What kind of weapon could your seven-year-old possibly have gotten ahold of, you wondered? You pulled open the utensil drawer. The sharp knives appeared to be accounted for. In the boys’ room, you tiptoed over Legos and Beyblade parts and turned a slow circle in the middle of the room, trying to see if anything was out of place, wondering how you would know if anything was out of place. Your eyes lit on three wooden swords, tucked hilt-up in the dress-up bin. They were not the culprits.
Your three-year-old had been following you around this whole time, saying, “What are you doing, Mommy? When are we going to the store? Why are you in my room?” The baby, riding on your hip, was starting to fuss. He whapped his fist on your chest and whimpered. You sat down to nurse him and sent the three-year-old to sit on the potty, then you loaded them both in your mini-van (the one you could no longer avoid succumbing to once the fourth baby was on his way), and drove to the school.
The town where you live is not so much a town as a scattering of houses–modulars, capes, trailers, old farmhouses–tossed like a handful of dice along directionless roads. Your children’s school squats in a clearing along one of these roads eight miles from your home. An exhausted slab of yellow brick, it had exceeded its expiration date twenty years before your children were born, but considering your fellow townspeople’s allergy to tax increases, it will no doubt continue to draw students into its weary hallways long after your grandchildren have mastered their ABCs.
The school secretary directed you to sit on one of the chairs lined up along the dingy white-painted cinder block wall outside of the principal’s office, chairs designed to accommodate children the size of your weapon-wielding son. You nestled your right butt-cheek into the cradling embrace of the molded plastic, letting the left one hover in the air, propped the baby on your hip, and tried to encourage your three-year-old to take a seat on one of the other chairs. But he was too busy jumping up to try and reach the banner hanging across the hallway, displaying the school’s motto: “Aim High.” This was another mystery you had discovered about boys: their insatiable urge to make contact with objects much higher than themselves. You had never understood this behavior, when the boys in your high school jumped in the halls, scraping their fingertips against the acoustical tiles, and now you have a houseful of males climbing on the back of the couch, trying to transfer their grubby fingerprints onto your white ceiling. For now, they are too short to reach it.
A squat woman in a corduroy jumper, your son’s second-grade teacher, Mrs. Greene, shuffled down the hall. She looked as weather-worn as the old school building. Budget cuts had resulted in a reduction in teachers and a consolidation of classes. Mrs. Greene now had to contend with twenty-four second- and third-graders, most of whom appeared to suffer from some form of attention-deficit disorder. You had been into your son’s classroom once, thinking it would be fun, or at least virtuous of you, to read to the students on a Friday afternoon. The experience had been like being rubbed with meat juice and placed in a room full of Jack Russell terriers on meth. Ever since, you had found excuses for not going into the classroom whenever the teacher called. The baby would have a mouth like a shark if he actually grew a tooth for every time you told Mrs. Greene he had been teething.
“Mrs. Sheffield,” Mrs. Greene said, addressing you by your husband’s name, which you did not adopt on principle, believing at the time that by retaining your own last name, you would retain your own identity. She opened the door to the office and said, “We can wait in here.” As you hoisted yourself and the baby out of the tiny chair and herded your three-year-old in behind her, she added, “Mr. Peacock will be with us shortly.”
You cannot hear the teacher’s and principal’s names together without thinking of the board game “Clue.” Normally, you busy your mind pegging other teachers as Miss Scarlet or Colonel Mustard, but on that day, your brain leapt straight to lead pipes, revolvers, and candlesticks, and you wondered out loud what sort of weapon your child had wielded that day. You refrained from asking if he had been in the ballroom or billiard room.
“You sent your son a Pop-Tart for snack today,” Mrs. Greene said
“An organic toaster pastry with whole-grain crust,” you corrected her. Had he gotten high off of the all-natural, real-fruit sugars in the filling and gone berserk, rolling his poster of the water cycle, which the two of you had painstakingly put together late last Thursday night, into a club and beaten other children with it?
Mrs. Greene pursed her lips and blew air out her nose. “You are aware of our school’s zero-tolerance policy on weapons?” she asked. You nodded your head, although you were not aware of this policy. However, at the beginning of the year, you had signed a form confirming that you had read the school handbook, and telling the truth now would prove that you had lied then, and somehow it seemed worse to have lied on paper, with your signature, than with a slight incline of your neck.
At that moment Mr. Peacock walked in, greeted you by your husband’s name, and waved both you and Mrs. Greene into a pair of straight-backed wooden chairs which were at least sized for someone who had lost all of their milk teeth. He looked even wearier than Mrs. Greene. If your sons’ reports of their classmates’ behavior were any measure, this was likely the third or fourth disciplinary conference Mr. Peacock had held already that morning.
“I’m sure Mrs. Greene has informed you of this very grave situation,” he said.
“Not really,” you replied.
“The Pop-Tart,” he began, and you corrected him, wondering if your son had slipped a razor blade into his organic toaster pastry when you weren’t looking, or had perhaps molded the foil wrapper into a shiv and started a prison riot in Room Seventeen.
“We take violence,” Mr. Peacock said, pausing to extract your three-year-old from the Zen fountain sitting on a table beside his desk, and handing your dripping-wet child to you, “and threats of violence, very seriously.”
You merely nodded your head, because who wouldn’t agree with that, and, with one arm around your baby, who was growing fussy, and the other around your three-year-old, who was squirming to get at the lamp cord plugged into the wall near your chair, you could scarcely think, let alone form sentences. Also, you wanted Mr. Peacock to get to the point and tell you what horrible deed your son had committed, so that you could go home and find him a psychotherapist.
“Today at snack time,” Mr. Peacock intoned, “your son bit his Pop-Tart–“
“Organic toaster past–” you began, but he held up his hand and cut you off.
“Bit his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun and pointed it at a fellow classmate,” he finished.
You waited for the rest, but Mr. Peacock folded his arms across his chest and leaned back in his chair, lips pursed with finality.
“And?” you asked. When did the shiv come in?
“Zero Tolerance, Mrs. Sheffield,” he said.
You shifted the three-year-old so that you could clamp him with your knees and propped the baby up on your shoulder, patting his back to try and quiet him.
“I’m sorry,” you said. “These kids are making so much noise. I missed the part about the weapon?”
“Perhaps this would refresh your memory,” Mrs. Greene said, holding a copy of the school handbook open in front of you.
“Section 7.6.9. Weapons Policy,” the page read. “Any student who brings a Gun onto School Property will be immediately Expelled and the matter will be Handed over to Law Enforcement Authorities.” The writer’s enthusiasm for capital letters continued down a full page that dealt with knives of varying size and function, blunt instruments, brass knuckles, and even shurikens, nun-chucks, and various other Ninja weaponry.
“But,” you said, not entirely sure you grasped the situation. “It wasn’t a gun. It was an organic toaster pastry.”
“Mrs. Sheffield,” Mrs. Greene said. “If you look at the definition of ‘Gun’ in Section 18.104.22.168(G), you will see that it includes ‘simulations.'”
You smiled, thinking that perhaps they were playing a joke on you, or maybe you had stumbled into a bad reality TV show. You looked around for hidden cameras. But when your eyes settled Mr. Peacock’s face, your smile dissolved.
“But what could he possibly do to hurt someone with a toaster pastry?” you asked. “Rot their teeth? Give them diabetes?”
“Mrs. Sheffield,” Mr. Peacock said, “this is not a laughing matter. We take these situations very seriously, especially after the tragedy in Connecticut.”
“But,” you said, your brain aching with the effort of following his logic, “that was a deranged man with high-capacity assault rifles, not a child with a snack of dubious nutritional value.”
“That is really not the point, Mrs. Sheffield,” Mrs. Green said. “Zero tolerance is zero tolerance. If we make an exception for a Pop-Tart gun, what next? Water pistols? Cap guns? Air rifles? Bazookas?”
“We are going to have to suspend your son from school until we decide how to handle this matter,” Mr. Peacock added.
“What do you mean, ‘handle this matter’?” you asked.
“Expulsion is not off the table,” Mr. Peacock responded.
“Expulsion?” you repeated. “Are you kidding me?”
“We have an obligation,” Mr. Peacock replied. “Under the Federal Gun Free Schools Act, to protect students in this building from others who pose a threat to the overall safe learning environment. My hands are tied, Mrs. Sheffield.”
By now the baby was whimpering and clawing at the front of your blouse, and your three-year-old had squirmed so that he was dangling upside down, his pants pulled halfway down from the effort of trying to escape the vise-grip of your knees, exposing his Jake 7 underwear, and you just wanted to get the hell out of this office.
“Please, can I see my son?” you asked. You would take your kindergartener home, too, and homeschool your children. Perhaps un-school them. Show up these brainless bureaucrats by raising four independent-thinking human beings who didn’t need a handbook to tell them what’s right.
“I’m afraid that’s impossible, Mrs. Sheffield,” said Mr. Peacock. “He’s been taken to the sheriff’s office for questioning.”
Your head felt like an animal was trying to claw its way out through your skull as you sputtered out a “What?” hoping you had heard incorrectly.
Mrs. Greene tapped the handbook.
“Law Enforcement,” she said. “That’s the policy.”
After buckling the now-wailing baby and your still-damp three-year-old into the van, you punched the address for sheriff’s office into the GPS device your husband had given you for your anniversary. As you pulled out of the school parking lot, the supercilious British woman inside instructing you to “turn right,” you dialed your husband’s work number. When his voice mail picked up, you left him a terse but pointed message that you needed him. Now.
Inside the sheriff’s office, a woman with a thick, dark braid and a shiny “Deputy” badge on her brown uniform led you into a small, cluttered room. The prisoner sat on a swivel chair, using his legs to push against the desk and spin the chair around. He stopped when he saw you on his next pass.
“Hi, Mom,” he yelled. “Check it out!” He raised his left arm as high as the handcuffs that shackled him to the chair’s arm allowed.
“Oh my God,” you shrieked and ran to him. With the baby in one arm and your three-year-old grasped by the wrist with your other hand, you managed to half-hug your firstborn child with your elbows, then turned to deputy.
“Why is my child in handcuffs?” you demanded.
“After the incident with the Pop-Tart gun, we needed to hold him while the sheriff completes the charges and a judge sets bail,” she said.
Your three-year-old climbed into the chair with his brother and wriggled his wrist into the loop of handcuff fastened to the chair’s arm. “Now we’re both in jail,” your oldest son yelled and he spun the chair, kicking the backs of your knees with each revolution.
“It was not a Pop-Tart,” you clarified. “It was an organic toaster pastry with whole-grain crust and all-natural, no-sugar-added, real-fruit filling. And since when was there a law against biting food into a gun-like shape? I believe you are violating my son’s First Amendment rights, as well as his Second, Fifth, and Thirteenth.”
“Want Pop-Tart,” your three-year-old hollered from the spinning chair. When you left the house that morning, you had given him a toaster pastry as well, hoping it would tide him over through the school visit, but it was now past lunchtime, and you sensed the first tremors of a low-blood-sugar-induced meltdown.
A man who looked like a Doberman Pinscher in a uniform walked in the door, his eyes on a piece of paper in his hands.
“Okay,” he said. “Charges are obstructing education.”
“Excuse me,” you said. “Why are you charging a seven-year-old?”
“Pointed a Pop-Tart gun in class,” he said, holding up three fingers and ticking off his list. “Threatened violence. Obstructed education.”
“It was not a–” you began. “Never mind. But, seriously, what kind of violence can a seven-year-old commit with a bit of crust and jam? And the incident, if you can even call it that, happened during snack-time. There was no education taking place at the time.”
“Tell it to the judge,” he said, as if he stayed up late watching reruns of old cops shows.
“Please, release my son.” You pointed to the boys spinning and laughing like stoned college kids. “Can’t you see how distressed he is?”
“Sorry, lady. Gotta wait for the Staties,” he said. “School violence situation we always bring in the State Police. Should be here any minute.”
“My son is not violent,” you said, as your three-year-old shrieked for his brother to stop the chair. When the chair didn’t stop, he wiggled his wrist out of the handcuff and punched his brother. Your oldest son punched back with his un-cuffed hand, and your three-year-old cried so hard he threw up what was left of his toaster pastry in a stream of purple foam down the front of his brother’s shirt. Your oldest son screamed and kicked his brother, whom you scooped up the under the armpits with your free arm. The baby, who had been resting his head against your shoulder, half-asleep, became agitated with this disturbance and started to cry.
“Sorry, lady,” the sheriff said. “Gonna have to ask you to leave.”
Realizing that crying, vomiting children may constitute the world’s best agent of civil disobedience, you planted yourself with two of your three howling offspring onto the only other chair in the room.
“I’m not going anywhere without my child,” you said. “And we need food and water. And I need to make a phone call. We’re allowed one phone call, right?”
The sheriff twitched his head toward the door and deputy exited as you pried your phone out of your pocket and tried calling your husband again. You held the phone with your shoulder, bouncing the baby with one arm and patting your three-year-old on the back with the other as you left yet another message, pausing to make sure the recording picked up their wails.
When the deputy returned, she tossed three dusty bottles of Poland Spring water and several packets of oyster crackers onto the table, and drew the sheriff aside. The boys tore into the packets and even the baby quieted down when you gave him a cracker to gum. But you knew you had only gained a temporary armistice. Your children had eaten nothing but toaster pastries since breakfast, you had eaten nothing at all, and you were all in desperate need of protein-based nourishment.
You chugged from one of the bottles, putting thoughts of corporate takeover of public water supplies out of your mind, and tried to overhear the deputy and sheriff’s hushed conversation. You only caught words like: “DA,” “election,” “land mine,” and “ten-foot pole.”
After a few minutes, the sheriff walked over, unlocked your son’s handcuffs and said, “All right, we’re going to drop the charges. This time. But I’m going to have to warn you about the use of weaponry on school grounds…”
As he spoke, you gathered up water bottles and half-eaten packages of crackers. You stuffed them in the diaper bag, lifted the baby to your shoulder, and turned to gather your other two children as two burly men in blue uniforms and black hats walked in. If the sheriff was a Doberman, the state troopers were Rottweilers.
The sheriff squared his shoulders and said, “We were just wrapping up here.”
One of the troopers gave him a curt nod, then looked down at your oldest son, “Heard there was an incident with a Pop-Tart at school today,” he said.
“Actually,” you began, “it was an organic toaster past–” you trailed off at the look he shot you.
For ten minutes, he lectured your son on firearm safety, bullying, and avoiding violence. Your son’s mouth gaped as he gazed at the huge men standing in front of him, their legs wide, hands on their hips. Meanwhile, you strategized the remainder of your day. You had never made it shopping, your refrigerator was still as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, and the last place in the world you wanted to take three fractious children was a grocery store. On the way to the sheriff’s office, you had passed a gas station with a sign out front advertising, “Best Pizza in Town.” It was undoubtedly true, considering it was probably the only pizza in town. You would stop there on the way home and pick up a pepperoni pizza, and whatever else the kids asked for–Doritos, root beer, real Pop-Tarts–nitrates, genetically modified organisms, and high fructose corn syrup be damned. Afterward, you would collect your kindergartener, who will be sitting in the principal’s office after school lets out. He will probably have wet himself and Mr. Peacock’s guest chair by the time you get there, because he refuses to use public bathrooms. You smiled at the thought.
“Any questions?” the trooper asked your oldest son after he wrapped up his speech.
“Yes,” your child replied. “Can I see your gun?”
Author’s Note: I feel a mounting sense of outrage every time I read a news story about a kid being suspended or expelled or arrested for a toy gun or a toast gun or a finger gun. This story arose from that rage and the absurdity of a society that criminalizes children’s make-believe but refuses to address real gun violence.
Andrea Lani is mother to three sons who have fashioned guns out of everything from crayons to grilled cheese sandwiches. She lives in Maine where she works a tedious day job, teaches nature writing and journaling classes in her spare time, and writes on the sly. You can find her at www.remainsofday.blogspot.com.