The Principal, meanwhile, was your prototypical bureaucratic type straight out of Central Casting. Skinner haircut, pastel tie and all. A bit short (even to me back then when I was five), and his diminutive stature was exaggerated whenever The Terminator would join me in the Principal’s Office, a place with which I was not entirely unfamiliar.
First thing off, the Principal requested that The Terminator remove his black Gargoyle glasses.
Once The Terminator complied, the Principal ventured that, “We’re not outside, after all,” though there was the faintest hint of a squeak in his sentence’s final syllable.
The Principal then turned to me and asked why I had chosen to vandalize the outer wall of the Kindergarten classroom. I was sitting on a small, yellow-plastic chair and was still somehow nearly eye-level with him behind his desk between us. He was sunken back into an imperious, burgundy chair.
Just as the Principal leaned forward, I told him in pure innocence that I didn’t know what that word meant.
“Which word?” he asked, just as innocently.
I was about to tell him when The Terminator – God, he knew me so well – submitted that the word was “vandalism” and then followed this admission with the direct definition from Webster’s:
“The spirit or conduct of the Vandals; ferocious cruelty; hostility to the arts and literature, or
willful destruction or defacement of their monuments.”
There was then a pregnant moment of silence in the room.
“Really?” the Principal asked. “Ferocious cruelty?”
Further silence ensued, though this may now have been because The Terminator had taken a small step forward. Toward the dowdy principal with his sumptuary hairstyle. The dowdy principal with his sumptuary hairstyle who just then swallowed and dropped his pencil, I now remember.
He had been clutching the pencil to near breakage in his right hand. Once dropped, the pencil had noisily rolled down the apparently slanted wood-panel desk, tearing through the otherwise silence of the cold room.
The pencil plunged off the edge of my side of the Principal’s desk and, with a lightning reflex born of the best programming money can buy, The Terminator snatched the pencil from thin air.
He then advanced closer still to the principal, all but banging his shapely, black-pant’d legs against the desk.
The Terminator held the orange No. 2 pencil – razor-sharp tip first – up to the conical nadir of the Principal’s cartoonishly pointy chin, as though offering up a gift of flowers.
The Principal was stock-still, tensing up like he had become a frozen Creamsicle. Which, in the harsh yellow light of the room, the Principal’s aforementioned 80s pastel raiment and, melting with sweat droplets trilling down his face and neck, he somewhat did physically resemble now.
The principal swallowed intensely for the second time.
My mom had been called by the secretary by this point, and we all awaited her imminent arrival with a silence that was this time more abortive than pregnant.
When Mom did arrive, she was dressed in her mint-green dental hygienist scrubs and smelled fairly of antiseptic, as always she always had right after work.
She immediately saw the not too rare tableau of the Principal, The Terminator and me, then gave a knowing Oh, what NOW? look to The Terminator whose expression went of course unchanged.
The Principal abruptly rose out of his seat saying, “Your son just graffitied the out Kindergarten classroom wall.” His final syllable squeaked even louder than last time, as he wiped his forehead of glistening perspiration tinctured with the room’s harsh amber light.
I should add here that this squeak was likely a result – as would often be the case throughout the duration of my early public school years among a variety of authority figures I’d end up running afoul of – of the Principal being even more intimidated by my mother than of my stalwart best friend, The Terminator.
Catching the abject fear in the Principal’s bloodshot brown eyes, my mom pursed her lips as she would to keep from laughing maniacally. She turned to me, barely got out a terse, “Do you know what you did wrong?” and immediately went back to pursing her lips to again keep from bursting into a prolonged cackle.
I read between the lines of her sardonically cliché bagatelle and responded in kind, “Yes, Mom. I’m sah-rrrr-eeee. It will nevvvverrrr happpennnnn again.”
My mom feigned the look of the “concerned disciplinarian” – still pursing her lips to keep from laughing – and turned to the Principal who was eying The Terminator (he still hadn’t yet moved the pencil tip from the Principal’s chin, even after the Principal leapt up out of his chair when my mom arrived, courtesy the Principal’s shortness).
“It’s my fault,” my mom said, confessing to her faux pas back in New York City.
Graffiti wasn’t art in the Principal’s provincial opinion, though, and he noted, “Be that as it may, Mrs. Klickstein – “
“Ms. Siegel,” The Terminator corrected at the same time my mom said, “Helene.”
“Helene,” the principal continued, as though no interruption had taken place, “Mathew will have to clean the wall he defaced.”
This seemed fair to all of us, but when I asked with that same boyish innocence, “What about The Terminator? He did it, too …”, the Principal’s eyes glanced down to the razor-sharp pencil tip a mere millimeter from his upside-down pyramid of a jawline and decreed conclusively, “He can watch.”
Which at long last brings us to the Middle Finger Incident.
This time, it was me, another ragamuffin victim of my rather freeform upbringing courtesy my mom, and The Terminator.
Whenever I retell this story, I can never quite remember where I had first seen the Middle Finger. It must have been in a movie I saw. Perhaps The Naked Gun.
I still clearly remember where I was in my summer day camp when Back to the Future first taught me the word “bastard,” screamed at the top of his lungs by one Marty McFly.
It’s certainly possible that an older kid revealed the power of the Middle Finger to me, and he might have even goaded me into its employ. Although, that might be something from a movie or TV show itself.
Whatever the case may be, the Middle Finger was now a part of my ever-growing gesture repertoire. And I did know what it meant, despite what – yes, later when she would retell the story – Mom would say.
That aside, there we were: My best friend The Terminator, my classmate (was it the one with the highly unlikely name of Voul? Had I actually known someone with the name of Voul?) and I.
If Burroughs was correct about language being a virus, I was successfully in the process of infecting the young, spotless mind of Voul (let’s just go with it; I also grew up with a kid on my periphery named Ovidu).
I was showing Voul the Middle Finger itself when The Terminator tapped me on the shoulder.
I’d forgotten he was standing there, next to me. Which may sound unbelievable, considering I was here a tiny, four-and-a-half-year-old (or round it off to five) suburban Kindergartener with his own cybernetic killing machine adorning the finest in Harley Chic directly to his left.
But, being a four-etc./five-year-old suburban Kindergartener, I was easily distracted and forever lost in my own world (cyborgs or folks named Voul/Ovidu on the periphery, notwithstanding).
“Mathew,” The Terminator said after tapping me (lightly, I should add; he’d learned his lesson after an earlier unfortunate incident that resulted in his almost being as intimidated by my mom as those previously mentioned authority figures). “This gesture you are teaching Voul may not be appropriate for the ethos of the schoolyard.”
He went on in his assiduous way to say, “Considering the recent discussion with the Principal regarding the vandalism we perpetrated, this may not be the most strategic tactical maneuver we could take at this time.”
But the viral contagion had spread, Voul had been forever mutated and he was now anxious to whip it out at a prime time.
“Hey,” Voul blurted out impetuously, “the Second Graders are coming! Let’s flick them off! All of ‘em!”
Clearly, he hadn’t paid The Terminator’s admonishment any mind (though this may have been less to do with Voul’s obdurate behavior and more to do with his not understanding much of what The Terminator had actually said, thanks to my best friend’s abstruse terminology and heavy Austrian accent).
Either way, we three of us were off to the other side of the tree-trunk-colored/textured lunch tables where the Second Graders passed us by in two perfect marching band rows.
They each caught the gift of our infantile, toothless smiles and stumpy Middle Fingers as we giggled girlishly.
The Terminator tapped me on the shoulder (a bit harder than last time) to point out two of the stripy-polo-wearing Second Graders who were already running ahead of their group to point us out to the middle-aged bespectacled lady of a teacher in front of them, there with her curly white puffball of hair lining her egg-shaped head.
The result of this being another visit to the Principal’s Office.
In my memory of it, the Principal’s barbershop haircut had grayed slightly in the few weeks since the Charcoal Graffiti Incident. But, perhaps that wasn’t the case.
What had changed this round was the fact I was brought in to his highness’ office separately from my best friend The Terminator. There was also a notable absence of No. 2 pencils.
The Principal began speaking with me and inevitably ended up resorting to the question of whether or not I’d learned the indecorous gesture from The Terminator whom he assumed consorted with a rather “unruly” cadre of leather-clad vagabonds around town.
When the Principal said the name of my best friend, his eyes shot upward, to the effect that I turned around for a moment in my yellow-plastic chair and saw that the Buster Keaton face of The Terminator (sunglasses on inside this time) was peering through the plastic portal of the Principal’s Office door.
Seeing the Principal tensing up when I turned to face him once more, I told the man that he didn’t have to worry about my best friend who had actually told Voul and me not to flick off the Second Grade. And that I had learned the gesture from a movie.
The Principal let out a long sigh of relief followed by an even longer, contemplative Hmmmmmm that even as a child I read as rather fake, obligatory.
I never found out what happened to Voul, but he wasn’t in Kindergarten class the next day and that was the end of his chapter in my life.
Meanwhile, what happened after my short time in the Principal’s Office for this most current offense was that (and here comes the part that my mom loves to tell incorrectly) I ended up in Mom’s navy blue Chevrolet Rabbit convertible with the seats our dog had chewed up to perfection.
It was after school that same day.
“Matt,” she asked me, trying as always not to laugh while attempting to discipline me. “Do you know what that symbol you made means?”
I told her I did.
She asked me to show her exactly what I’d done, and I looked out the car window where The Terminator was waiting to give Mom and me a semblance of privacy.
I showed her what I’d done, and this is the part we’ll never agree on: I say I showed her the Middle Finger; she, on the other hand, is certain I gave her the wrong finger (likely the Index Finger).
Whichever it was, we both remember her – finally – erupting into a cacophony of laughter that lasted well through dinner that night.
As to which finger was actually presented, I suppose it might have been lodged somewhere there in the memory banks of The Terminator’s CPU; he was just outside of the car, after all.
But, frankly, I never thought to inquire as to whether or not he was spying on us. It just never seemed appropriate to ask.