I don’t remember how old I was. 7, 8, 9? Certainly no older than 10. Period. And probably younger. I was in the third of fourth grade. Had to be, had to be.
In Denver, Colorado. In the 1970s. Ellsworth Elementary School. Doesn’t even exist, anymore, I was astonished to find out when I was trying to get my passport (I didn’t get it in time and missed my high school reunion on a cruise ship in the Caribbean).
I was like any other kid, not popular but not unpopular, either. I was known well enough to get elected to the Student Council, but not one of the cool kids – not ever, not one day. Well, maybe one day, but that is another story.
Sarah Hickey went to my school. That name means nothing unless you have heard of Marilyn Hickey Ministries (MHM), which is a global ministry. Marilyn Hickey is a famous evangelist and a huge celebrity in Colorado, where MHM is based. Marilyn went all over the world, preaching the gospel, teaching, healing, etc. And Sarah went with her, everywhere.
I guess I got jealous, even though I was friends with Sarah, or friendly, at least. Sarah was friendly with everyone, and sweet, and innocent, and filled with light and love – and people still liked her, even when she would innocently say she was going someplace exotic…
Egypt. France. Australia. Israel. Mexico. Africa. Saah went everywhere and did everything. And the school let her. She could take off when she wanted and return when she pleased and she was allowed to just pick up her studies and continue on. She wasn’t held back. She wasn’t required to stay at home, in school, while her parents travelled. She was special. They were special. And she was treated special.
And I guess I just got jealous, or something. She would come back from someplace exoic and great and special and expensive to get to or live in, someplace I knew I would never see with my own eyes, and…and our teacher would let her give a presentation. Sarah Hickey would give a presentation about China (or wherever she had been) like she was delivering a report about a field trip, and she would tell us all about the places she had been, the people she had met or seen, what her mother and father did and said, complete with pictures and souvenirs and short funny stories and fascinating anecdotes. She was always going someplace special or doing something special or being treated special and I guess I just got jealous.
One day, out of nowhere, I said, to my friends and anyone within earshot:
“We’re moving to Africa.”
It was an amazing thing. Everyone believed me. Students. Teachers. Any and everyone. And I don’t know why they did. We were almost dirt poor. Granted, we lived in a solidly middle-class neighborhood around people who vacationed and could certainly have gone to Africa if they wanted to do it. But, that was because my father’s mother died when I was young and left her house to my mother. We were on welfare at the time but the state of Colorado let her keep the house. That’s how the law worked at the time. I guess my classmates didn’t suspect how poor we are. But, most kids didn’t know what poverty was, at the age. Because they were middle class.
“Monday,” I said, without thinking about it.
And, so the story went forth. Mark Johnson and his family were moving to Africa on Monday. Permanently. Teachers stopped me to ask about the trip and where we were going to live (I had no idea) and what we were going to do (same answer) and to wish me well, and I couldn’t believe how well that lie worked.
I was the belle of the ball, the visible envy of every kid I knew. They couldn’t stay away from me, couldn’t take their jealous eyes off of me, wished for all their marbles that they could be me, and couldn’t believe my tremendous luck. I got to go to Africa. Africa! When we dreamed of Africa, we saw lions and tigers and elephants and Tarzan. I also thought of slavery but that was because my family kept regaling me with stories of slave ships and cotton plantations and the Deep Dark South.
They never called my mother and asked her about the trip. They just….believed me.
I was a celebrity and half for days. Days. I don’t know what my brother and sister said when people asked them about it, but it didn’t stop the parade. Mark Johnson was the talk of the school for days. Days. Everybody wanted to sit next to me. Even the cool kids wanted to speak to me. The halo of specialness surrounded me, encircled me, glazing me in its irresistible glow and I was finally Special. Special. Yes, just as special as Sarah Hickey and her family. Just as special as anyone in the entire school.
Special and desirable….and absolutely screwed.
Because Monday was coming round the mountain and what was I going to do when it arrived and we had not moved to Africa. What was I going to do?
The predicament hit me on Thursday. I should have said two weeks, three weeks. A month. But, I hadn’t. Friday was tomorrow. Then there was the weekend. Then monday and I was going to do what?
Even as I basked, I sweated and stewed in agony. Trapped in a lie. And there was no easy way out. I couldn’t just laugh about it and tell my teacher I had lied and go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. I couldn’t just roll in through the front doors on Monday all clueless and whatnot as if my behind wasn’t supposed to be on an airplane bound for the Dark Continent, I couldn’t play stupid. I couldn’t play it off like my evil twin had taken my place and told a bunch of lies to get me in trouble and make me look bad.
I was screwed. What was I going to do?
I fretted over the problem in between telling new lies whenever someone asked me a question about my move, and I was astonished to discover I wasn’t expected to turn in any homework, since I was leaving. I wish someone had told me that before I did my homework, but no bother. I would be back on Monday and I would have to have it, then.
I was sick as a dog by Friday, as I said my final good-byes and promised to call and write and send postcards to the school and to people who have never spoken to me and people I secretly could not stand. I boarded the bus, looking at all the people I had lied to all week and wondered how bad it was going to get.
I could barely enjoy my potato chips, or dinner on Friday night, or cartoons on Saturday morning. I sat in front of the television and worried and schemed.
I could say we had changed our minds or changed the move-out date. I could say we weren’t allowed to go for some governmental reason. Passports. Something. I could say I got the dates wrong. I could say my mom left me behind. And my brother and sister apparently; they would be on the bus with me.
Oh. Why did I tell the lie in the first place? Why?
Sunday rolled around and I sat in the pews, deaf to the sermon, as I begged God to take the consequences of my sin away from me. Please. Please. I would never lie again. I would give him a dollar every week in the collection plate. I was sorry. I was scared. I couldn’t admit I lied. Please help me.
And nothing happened. No one showed up at our house with tickets to Africa. Lightning didn’t strike the school and force everyone to go to school elsewhere. I didn’t get sick and die…
Maybe that would work. I could play sick on Monday, and have another day to think of something, or run away from home, if I couldn’t.
It wouldn’t. I had never been able to fool my mom into thinking I was sick. Except for a few times, when I needed to avoid school badly enough. But, it was rare. I didn’t think I could pull it off.
Finally, Sunday night, down to the wire, and I had no other play. I knocked on my mom’s bedroom door, and confessed the whole sordid affair to her. I couldn’t go to school tomorrow, I told her, I needed to call in sick. Why? Because I told everyone we were moving to Africa on Monday.
Did she laugh at me? I think I would remember if she had. I asked her if she could take me out of Ellsworth and I could go to school somewhere else. I couldn’t live with the embarrassment and shame and laughter. I needed to call in sick tomorrow.
Mom. Good, strong, upright Christian woman.
No. You told a lie and you will just have to go to school tomorrow and face the music.
And I don’t want to hear it. Good night.
I didn’t sleep.
I have never been more scared or miserable on a Monday morning. Cereal has never tasted so wooden. Life has never been so grim.
I can’t even bear to relive the memory vividly enough to write about it properly. Walking ut of the house and looking into all the wide open eyes staring at me in shock because I was supposed to be on my way to Africa. And here I was at the bus stop with them.
It never ended. Well, yes, it did, at some point. But it felt endless. I couldn’t face my teacher, couldn’t confess. I couldn’t look my best friend in the eye. I couldn’t go to the cafeteria.i skipped half my classes. I hid in the janitor’s closet. I thought about walking home (it was miles). I didn’t hear the end of it for months. I never lived it down. I was a laughingstock. My word was worthless. My name was kicked around like a ball at recess. I have never been so embarrassed. There was nowhere to turn. Life sucked.
I don’t know how I thought I could get away with it.
And I have never forgotten it. The memory creeps up on me and laughs in my face.