So many times, I have wondered how it was that my new school friend and I got away with our shoplifting sprees. We only did it three times before I resigned from my part in a life of crime; but that was enough to give me a good understanding of how ones actions dictate ones state of mind and quality of life. Big lessons for a third grader in 1955.
Our area of town was post World War II housing; new homes, young couples and children everywhere. We kids all were about the same age, and for the most part, our neighborhood was the same day in and day out. Nothing new. Not much changed at home or in school from year to year.
Until third grade. A new girl arrived at our school that year, and took the place by storm. Her name was Suzanne, and besides being completely fearless, she knew no boundaries. I was shocked the first day of school, watching her march into our classroom, talking to our teacher as though she, Suzanne, was the person in charge, and staring at the other kids in the room, sizing up everyone in a heartbeat. I remember when her glare met my stunned gaze, she lingered only a second, and moved on. Thank goodness I was not posing any threat to her. Best guess was she placed me way down the list of potential problems for her adjustment period as the new kid in El Vista Elementary School.
It was around Hallowe’en that Suzanne began making friendship overtures toward me. She had seized control of the playground, in that she could run faster, dodge a ball quicker, throw harder, and win every game of tether ball played during recess or lunch break. I almost was as agile and accomplished as she in games requiring speed and coordination, and usually came in right behind her as the almost winner.
But, try as she did to dethrone me, I was the third grade champion at hopscotch, jacks, and whirling by one knee on the monkey bars. No one could match my speed and endurance in spinning around, over and over, on that metal pipe, hanging on by two hands and one knee. I found it exhilarating, and never tired of it; other kids found it fun to a point, and then either became fatigued or dizzy. I think Suzanne respected my accomplishments, and decided we both could reign in our respective areas. We owned the third grade.
And as a fellow champion, Suzanne decided to let me in on one of her secret activities. At first, she asked me if I wanted to have some fun with her during lunch break. That sounded good and I accepted the invitation. The next thing she told me was, instead of eating our lunches with the rest of the kids, we would have to jump on our bikes as soon as the bell rang, and leave school. She would tell me the rest when I needed to know. I was intrigued.
The next day, when the lunch bell rang, we ran as fast as we could to our bikes, jumped on and pedaled at maximum speed out through the gate, and down the road. That was fun! She still had not given me any details of our great adventure, so I just followed her every move. Within ten minutes, we had arrived at our local grocery store.
We parked our bikes, and I asked Suzanne why we were there. She told me we were going to get candy. I was crestfallen. As I tried to convey to her I could not buy any candy, because I had not brought any money, she convulsed into gales of laughter. Silly me; I did not need money! We were going to steal our candy. Yes, steal our candy.
I was stunned beyond the ability to speak, and followed my friend into the store. She headed straight to the candy aisle, and as we stood looking at the huge variety of treats, she whispered to take something small, shove it in the waist band of my skirt, and just walk with her out of the store. I obeyed without question. The ease with which we both grabbed our candy and hid it still surprises me. I was focused, and determined to get the job done. We turned and casually walked to the doors of the store, and once outside, ran to our bikes, jumped on, and pedaled for all we were worth back to school.
Once our bikes were parked, we walked arm in arm to the playground. On the way, Suzanne pulled a candy bar out from her skirt waistband. I pulled out a dispenser of Pez candies. My first venture into crime paid off in Pez. We laughed, and strutted back into our classroom, both feeling clever; smarter than the rest of the entire world.
It was later that evening when I was alone in my room, sneaking Pez candy, that it began to dawn on me all the possible ramifications of shoplifting if I had been caught. I rationalized and convinced myself it was not that bad; I had not taken much, and no one would know. I also admitted to myself it had been exciting and fun. There had been something very gratifying in the act of stealing and getting away with it.
Suzanne and I kept our secret, and bonded over the knowledge we had stealth skills that could pay off if we chose to use them. We repeated the candy swiping adventure two more times before I came to my senses. But, I found each time was more stressful than the previous, and I actually became so anxious over the thought of someone knowing what I had done, I could not go to that store with my mother anymore without breaking into a sweat, and turning beet red. The only thing she could attribute my peculiar malaise to was they must have set the temperature in the store too hot for me, so we agreed I would stay home when she went shopping. That worked. No problem. Thank goodness, I could hide out at home, and not risk being identified by anyone as the candy thief.
There did not seem to be an answer for my very real dilemma. I could not tell anyone so they could help me, nor could I figure out how to continually turn down Suzanne when she wanted to steal again. I felt worse and worse as the days rolled by, caught between not wanting to steal anymore, and not wanting to have Suzanne for an enemy. Each option was equally scary.
I made excuses right and left, and after about a month, she stopped asking me if I wanted to go with her to the store and get candy. We both knew what she meant. Then, one day in December, Suzanne announced that during Christmas vacation, she and her family were moving. They were going back to Spokane, Washington. Oh happy day! I was going to survive this awful experience after all, it only taking relocating an entire family out-of-state for me to get back on track.
As I periodically looked back over that year and my foray into crime, I realized I had learned some important life lessons. Truth be told, initially, it was not my conscience telling me stealing was wrong; it was the dread fear of being caught. I can remember dreaming about grabbing candy, and running out of the store with the checker chasing me, yelling, “Stop! Thief!” I did not want to go to jail, and I was certain that is exactly where I would land if I had been nabbed in the act of pilfering one more Pez dispenser. I also realized just how easy it was to do things when no one was looking. I understood it was a lot harder to abide by the rules when no one was nearby to enforce them.
So, even though Suzanne led me astray in the third grade, I was responsible then, as I am now, for looking in the mirror, and choosing my life path. She may have shown me an easy, not so upright way to get something I really wanted, and caused me to struggle with issues of choosing right from wrong; but today, when I make good choices I can say, “Thanks, Suzanne! Those were good lessons, and I am glad they were learned so early in my life.” And once in a while, I buy a Pez dispenser just to keep it all fresh.