(From Tokoni, 6/12/2009)

Toilet Training

When I was in third grade we did something rare for us: we went on a winter’s vacation, looping through Iowa and Wyoming. In preperation for my long leave of absence from the school I was in, my teacher gave my mother and I a thick sheaf of papers.

“These are his worksheets and homework to be done,” she told us, handing what seemed to me an impossibly thick pile of paper. I looked at it and my mom with dread. We were going on vacation – and yet so much like modern times, my work was coming with me. All I could see in my future ahead was days sitting at a dining room table, coloring, working on math problems, and practicing spelling. As we walked out of the school, I was certain it would be no vacation for me.

I really don’t know what happened, though I rather suspect I know now. My mom’s habit was to drop us off at some relative’s house, and then pretty much disappear for a month on end. This time was no different. And once we got out there – out West, away from the rolling sand hills of Georgia, and away from the demands of school – those papers seemed to just disappear, and I forgot all about them. Being with my relatives – people I rarely saw – was much more important to me. My crazy uncle Rick, who could keep me laughing for hours with silly faces and amazing tricks; my old great grandmother, with her fascinating house and stern ways, the other relatives: the cousin that I was a bit more than just ‘kissing cousins’ with and her aggravating sister, the other grandmother who had a basement full of junk that offered rambling opportunities for hours – all these things were there to preoccupy me, pushing my mind further and further from that mound of disappearing paper.

Finally time was up, we came back home, and my momma sent me to school

That very first day I discovered something: those endless worksheets and paper. None of them had been filled out, every last one was empty. It was all in a big folder my momma handed to me without a single word of advice. It was just “Here. These are yours. Now get on the bus.”

I arrived at school, that thick folder of undone work clutched in my hand, my little heart in panic. What was I to do? I would open the folder, look at all those forms, a hopeless feeling rising in my chest. There was no way I could get this all done in time, not on the bus, not before school. Without knowing the words for it, I knew I was up the creek, I’d lost my paddle – and there was a hole in the boat. Not a good place to be! Glumly I made my way to class and sat down, waiting, desperately trying to think of a good excuse for the teacher, some way out of this mess I’d made. There simply had to be a way of resolving this, I thought, racking my little brains. I wasn’t so much afraid of what the teacher would do to me – at worst, she would put me in the corner, or going one step further, send me to the office to get a paddling by the principle. No, those weren’t the things I feared. What I feared was the punishments I would get at home for being punished as school – being stripped and beaten; hung up by one foot and pounded until I screamed, and then pounded a little bit more. That’s what I feared, more than anything else. My parents were kind of mean in that way.

The teacher came in and the class started. Not wanting to remind the teacher of the assignments she’d given me, I surreptitiously slipped the thick volume of undone homework beneath my coat. An idea was forming, one that I was certain would work.

I raised my hand, catching the teacher’s attention.

“Yes, Michael?” she asked.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” I said, feeling the thick bulk slipping beneath my jacket.

“Number one or number two?” she asked. I don’t know why teachers always ask that. What does it matter? One or two – I gotta go!

“Number one,” I said shyly. I always hated answering that question. Even if it was number two, I’d say ‘number one’. ‘Back there’ was a sensitive subject for me. There were reasons for that, but we won’t go into them.

“Okay, you may go.”

Breathing a silent sigh of relief, I stood up and made my way to the bathroom.

Now in this school, bathrooms were set up a bit different than in any of the other schools I’ve ever attended. Every pair of classrooms were connected by a single-seater bathroom with a door on each side, so that students from either class could use the bathroom. I don’t know why they didn’t have the communal bathrooms of my later schools. Perhaps they just didn’t want us little kids to get lost going down the hallways or something. But while it seems odd to me here and now, it wasn’t back then. It was just nicely convenient.

So I go into the bathroom, and after carefully making sure both doors were locked – I didn’t want anyone coming in while I committed my crime – I pulled that thick sheaf of papers out from beneath my coat. I looked at them and the toilet. I didn’t know much about toilets, just that things went down them, disappearing forever. And so with a firm determination, I began wadding up the papers and flushing them down the toilet.

After about the fourth or fifth flush, I heard a knock on the door.

“Are you all right in there, Michael? Or are you just playing?”

“Yes ‘um,” I said, a feeling of panic growing in my heart. The papers weren’t going down near as quickly as I had anticipated, and I certainly hadn’t considered the sounds of repeated flushing, or the suspicions they might bring. “I’m okay ma’am.”

I looked at the thick sheaf in my hand. I can still see that thick wad, engulfed by a shiny blue folder. With sudden desperation, I threw the folder, contents and all into the toilet and gave it a big flush.

Whooshhh! The water came rushing in the bowl; the papers, separating, swirling around the bowl – and choking the thing. I flushed again; the water is rising quickly in the bowl. The only thing I know to do to make things go DOWN the toilet is to flush again – so I flush again. And again.

The next thing I know, I’m standing in a huge puddle of water – the toilet is a mass of swollen paper – there’s water running beneath the door – and I hear a rapid pounding on the door.

“MICHAEL!” The door opens. (I don’t know, maybe the teacher had a key.) I’m standing there, looking in horror at the betraying toilet, water everywhere. I’m caught, I’m sunk, the room is a mess, and there’s water everywhere. I can hear giggling and laughter in the other room.

“WHAT are you DOING!” The teacher stands there, hands on her hips, staring in horror between me and the overflowing toilet.

So I did what any good first grader does.

I burst out into tears.

Goose is cooked, gander done, I know I’m in trouble with everyone.

I don’t recall exactly what happened after that. I have vague memories of them calling my mother to school; the teacher telling me I didn’t need to do that – I could of done the work, bit by bit, day by day until I’d had it all done. And I seem to recall my mom both laughing and scolding on the way home. Telling me I was stupid for trying such a trick – and that I should have had my work done. What happened after we got home; what happened after my dad arrived – I haven’t a clue.

Sometimes memories are like that. They just slip off into darkness.

I don’t know if that is a good thing, or a bad thing, but I do know this:

I learned a thing about toilets.

They aren’t your friend. Not always.

Sometimes they can betray you.