Grade 8 at the Alliance Academy in Quito, Ecuador where I lived in residence, and all the boys in my class had to do a “Home-Ec” course. Mandatory. It was time to teach us to bake. Our teacher was a middle-aged American woman, blonde and petite, part-time and absent-minded. I don’t remember her name or her face.
At the end of class one day, midway through the term, our class was visited by Coach Howard. Coach Howard was always the coach, sometimes the dean, and, usually, the phys-ed teacher as well. Whatever his official title at any given time, he was the alpha male on the compound, he called all the shots. He stood blocking the exit to the classroom that day. His arms were folded across his chest, not a surprise: his arms were always folded across his powerful and upright chest, and he seethed from underneath his mustache. He said we were all to come with him to his office.
Coach Howard’s office had an antechamber and he told us all to wait there and not to say a word to each other or there would be serious consequences. He sweated us out like that for an hour. When Coach Howard finally emerged from his adjoining office, the school day was already over. Evening approached. One by one, Coach Howard called us in. Whoever went to the other office with Coach Howard stayed gone for twenty minutes, maybe a half hour, and when they got back into the waiting room, no one said anything.
When my turn finally came, I sat down opposite Coach Howard. I’d only been a student at the school for a year and a half and already Coach Howard had spanked me so hard he’d left welts on my behind (for laughing too loudly in the locker room one day after gym class). Coach Howard told me that I should be ashamed of myself, that we all should. Someone in my Grade 8 all-boy Home-Ec class had stolen US $200 from Mrs. Home-Ec, a good Christian woman sent by God to teach us. The money was how she bought the ingredients to show us how to make food. Coach Howard said that he already knew exactly which one of us had done it. He said they had video footage. Coach Howard said he was concerned that maybe the perpetrator had accomplices. He said he wanted to make sure the rest of us were on the side of right. To that end, Coach Howard told me that I had to give him a name. You know who did it! How could you not? Come on, he said, there’s only nine of you!
I said I’d done nothing, I’d seen nothing and I couldn’t accuse someone of something I didn’t even know had occurred. Coach Howard said we could stay there all day, if that's the way I wanted it. I was 13, Coach Howard had a license to hit me (I mean this literally, for our parents had all signed a waiver allowing the staff of the college to apply corporal punishment as needed and abdicating all legal rights as recourse). I said, “I think it was James.”
Then I went back to the waiting room. James was there. I didn’t look at him. He didn't look at me.
We’d been there close to six hours, I’d guess, when Coach came back in, this time with our Home-Ec teacher in his wake. Sorry, he said. There’s been a misunderstanding. The money had been merely misplaced. Mrs. Home-Ec forgot that she’d left the moolah at home. There had been no theft. Mrs. Home-Ec was blubbering a bit and she said sorry a whole bunch of times and then she left. Coach Howard did not leave with her or let us go either. He told us to sit down again and this time he stayed with the group.
Coach Howard told us that although, technically, he had lied to us for the past several hours, that this was standard "United States Police Force Operating Procedure", and that lying in an effort to attain a confession was not a sin to God. He also told us that he was ashamed of each of us. Each of us had collapsed under pressure. God called men to be strong and true and none of us had held up. Each of us had given him the name of an innocent person. This was the sin. It was a big sin, too, Coach Howard told us, it showed how weak of character we all were and so, while we may have been innocent of the crime of theft, we were not innocent of the crime of being cowardly traitors. We disgusted him. Coach Howard said he wanted each of us, publicly, to say who we had named, explain why we had named them, say sorry to them directly, and then ask God for forgiveness.
“James,” I said, when it was my turn, “I said it was you.”
“Colin,” James said, when it was his turn, “I said it was you.”
Neither one of us could say why we’d picked the other.
The only “fistfight” I have ever had in my life was with James, a few months later. I put fistfight in quotes because we were both 13, and neither one of us knew how to throw a punch and neither one of us wanted to hit each other. We took the fight to a field of dirt off-campus and we had an audience—most everyone from our Home-Ec class—and I was completely out-of-breath after a series of ineffectual air punches that mostly sent me careening off balance. So, I kicked James in the groin, one hard kick to the nuts. He went down. He kept crying, “He kicked me in the balls, It’s not fair, it’s not fair.” Me and James stayed enemies ‘til just about the end of high school, as the factions formed the day of the Home-Ec Heist never went away.