Remember that time they canceled classes because of me?
And I didn’t even pull the fire alarm.
During Spring Break in the fifth grade at Leak Street School in 1969, my family visited relatives in Washington, D.C. We went to the zoo, to Fort Washington and the Washington Monument, and did all kinds of touristy stuff that remains indelible in my memory.
Nothing is more indelible, though, than the time we stopped by the White House to see recently inaugurated President Richard M. Nixon.
That’s how, at 11-years-old, I shut down the entire school and got classes canceled.
Like most country boys who’ve spent a week visiting city relations, I returned to Rockingham speaking with a Northern accent and with a memento of which few kids could boast – a picture of me with the president. Also in the picture were my cousins, Garfield and Sylvia, and my best friend, Tyrone. He’s the one with his arm draped around the president’s shoulder.
Upon returning to school the next week – and without malice aforethought - I showed the picture and the newspaper clipping with the headline “D.C. Visitors Meet President...” to Miss Fulton, my fifth grade teacher.
Mouth agape, she tore out of the class, showed the newspaper clipping to Mrs. Morgan, whose class was right next to hers, and together they rushed to the principal's office to tell Mr. J.C. “Chief” Watkins about the remarkable experience of one of their most unremarkable pupils.
Over the intercom, he called me to his office.
Now, I'd been called to Mr. Watkins’s office too many times to count, but until then, never for anything good. Before I could explain how I happened to be chilling with the prez, he was on the intercom excitedly instructing all of the teachers in the entire school to bring their classes to the auditorium, where one of their peers would talk about his most excellent Spring Break adventure.
I was led into the teacher's lounge, a hallowed place into which no student was ever allowed. With a sense of dread - but not enough dread to stop nibbling the free Nabs and slurping a Tab - I watched my schoolmates filing giddily past, en route to the auditorium.
For once, and for about an hour, I was a big deal on campus. Miss Fulton, who'd often had to send my rambunctious self home with tape over my mouth - and sent classmates home with me to make sure I didn't take it off until I was inside and my aunt saw it - was bursting with pride.
All of the teachers and administrators were so excited and making such a fuss over me that it broke my heart to come clean: that I hadn't actually met President Nixon, that the picture was taken at Washington's precursor to the National Presidential Wax Museum, and the Nixon beside whom I was standing was made of wax.
The newspaper story?
A souvenir page from the museum that anyone with $2 could have had printed.
Don't look at me like that. Who knew they were going to make such a big deal of one of their students meeting the most powerful man in the world?
I don't recall exactly what happened after I confessed, because that, frankly, was probably only the fifth weirdest stunt I'd pulled that year. I do remember somebody cursing under her breath - the only time I ever heard a Leak Street School teacher curse - and Mrs. Hager looking as though she wanted to commit a crime against nature with that Tab bottle. On me.
Looking at the wax figure and the newspaper clipping through modern, jaundiced eyes, one might easily conclude it was a fake. But I think people were less cynical back then, and the terms “CGI” and “photo-shopping” were unheard of. Besides, despite the strife and the conflagrations rending the country in 1969 – Washington still smelled charred from the uprisings following Dr. King’s assassination the previous year – anything seemed possible, even someone like me meeting the leader of the free world.
Decades later, the memory of that deceit still makes me cringe, and I regret that as an adult I never apologized to the teachers and to Chief.
The most impressive aspect of the incident - and yes, something impressive emerged from it - was how important the teachers and principal thought it was that a student from their school had met the president, and their eagerness to share that experience with the whole school.
Nobody should be proud of lying about meeting the president, but who wouldn't be proud of attending a school eager to make such a big deal of it if you had?
I have since met a couple of presidents - I rode on an elevator with Bill Clinton at a journalism conference in Detroit - and visited the White House for real. President Obama even cited one of my columns when he spoke at the funeral of one of his friends and Harvard Law classmates from North Carolina.
Those were all thrills, but they paled in comparison to the thrill I had when - for about an hour - I was a big shot at Leak Street School in Rockingham.