Meghan M. Williams last wrote for The Toast about her homeschooling clothing choices.
Before I was baptized at Westminster Presbyterian in upstate New York, I cried uncontrollably. When my parents asked what was wrong, I wailed that I didn’t want to be “bad-tized,” I wanted to be “good-tized.” I was three years old.
I was always “the good child,” the quiet girl in a passel of boys, the “diamond in the rough” (my parents’ words, not mine.) It helped that I had a naturally conscientious personality and was raised in a religion that outlines things in convenient black and white.
It took 18 years for me to start measuring what it meant to be “good” by any other yardstick than “abstaining from acts routinely defined by the Christian church as sinful.” And it took stealing cucumbers.
Growing up, the tiniest transgressions kept me up at night, ruminating them like loose teeth. I was always aware that my “goodness” was sword-of-Damocles precarious, one big ol’ sin away from badness. Here are the things that cost me untold hours of sleep:
1. At age 7, I found some spilled fries on a McDonald’s playground and threw them like spears at the butt of a woman who was just trying to supervise her kid’s birthday party. I allotted myself points for shots that nailed one or the other buttocks. (I don’t have kids yet, but when I do, I feel there is a karmic punishment waiting for me out there somewhere, in a ball pit that smells like vomit and sweat.)
2. At age 8, I played Bloody Mary in the church childcare bathroom with an older girl while my mother was at her weekly women’s Bible study. Bloody Mary never appeared but the daycare workers still called what I did “black magic.”
3. At age 11 my homeschooled best friend cut a page with her crush’s photo on it out of my older brother’s yearbook. This was especially egregious because my brother has a fairly severe mental and developmental disability and he loved that yearbook dearly. I spent an hour picking the jagged remnants of the page out with tweezers and then lied to my brother and parents, saying the school must have accidentally misprinted a copy (genius, right?) Ultimately an intercepted letter got me busted.
That’s pretty much it. I did some other weeny-like things—pushed my beans onto my brothers’ plates, convinced one brother to pee on himself on a family car trip, lured some neighbor boys into a big cardboard box and then sat on it (after they gave my older brother a wedgie though)—but nothing drastic.
I never drank or smoked or cheated or shoplifted or even violated school dress codes, and I only skipped class with my mother’s full endorsement and to do things like buy prom makeup or study more for the SATs. I was president of my youth group and volunteered at a leper colony outside Seoul. When a journalism trip to Japan descended into debauchery, I was the only one of ten high school students who ordered soda instead of a Sex on the Beach (alcoholic AND risqué!) at the Hard Rock Café Tokyo.
If you’ve ever wondered whether prissy people derive enjoyment from being prissy, I can tell you that yes, they totally do! For me, rules never felt restrictive; they were just handy guidelines to being good. The satisfaction of knowing I was doing the right thing (whilst observing other people doing the wrong thing, because I’d be lying if I claimed there wasn’t at least a tiny judgmental aspect to this) was its own reward.
After high school, I went to a Christian college where all students had to sign a community covenant stating we would not drink, smoke, have premarital sex, cheat or do any anti-Biblical things while enrolled.
Nearly everyone I knew took The Covenant, as we called it, very seriously, and so did I. There were hiccups, including the time a friend spiked a pot of coffee with perhaps half a shot of Bailey’s and severely riled up several unwitting drinkers. And I started to notice seams here and there, i.e., suggesting people “pray for someone” was often a thinly veiled excuse to gossip about how they were totaling making out with their significant other in the prayer chapel. But all in all, I fit in well with a group of like-minded young people. The year passed without incident.
Then, two months into my sophomore year, on a late Sunday morning when I was eating brunch in the cafeteria instead of attending church (RED FLAG), the idyll ended. I found myself on the wrong side of good vs. bad and it was disorienting, as if I woke up and realized I’d been walking on ceilings my whole life.
First, I should point out my college didn’t have a Greek system. For obvious reasons. However, we were more talented at jamming men and women together in forced social interactions than any dating reality show producer.
We had raids, though not of the panty variety. These were late-night surprise parties where a women’s floor would descend on its brother floor, or vice versa, and regale them with skits, food and deranged late-night flirting. We had roulettes: group dates in which partners were supposed to be selected randomly, but we all knew they were as rigged as the chapel seating charts that consistently placed seniors in the balcony. And, finally, we had floor banquets, which ran the gamut from simple dinners to staged talent shows. Everyone (including me; I won’t pretend I was above it) took these things seriously, like, costumes/face paint/practicing-for-days seriously
My floor was hosting a banquet for our brother floor the evening of my fall from grace. Some of the thriftier girls had decided we should take salad toppings from the cafeteria rather than purchasing them at the Jewell-Osco. Apparently there was room in the budget for spaghetti, meat sauce and bags of lettuce, but not olives.
I wasn’t at the floor meeting when this was decided, but my suitemate, who I’ll call Jenny, attended and got roped into procuring the vegetables. I only learned of the plan after I “overslept,” missed church and went to a late cafeteria brunch with Jenny.
At no point when we were discussing what vegetables to take (snow peas? radishes? does anyone like radishes, really?) did it occur to me that we were talking about theft, which was consummately bad. I can’t tell you what my thought process was, because there wasn’t one. There was no explicitly stated rule against taking food out of the cafeteria, so as a dyed-in-the-wool rules-follower, I was footloose and fancy-free.
Jenny came equipped with a half-dozen plastic containers and after we’d eaten our pizza and chocolate milk, in the ten minutes before the cafeteria closed for the day, we went up and started heaping vegetables on plates with less guile than Barney Fife doing his rounds in Mayberry.
I was headed back to our table, carrying a plate piled high with sliced cucumbers, prettily ribboned at the edges, when I felt a presence swooshing in behind me. I set the cucumbers down just as the presence closed in and asked, “Are you going to eat all of those now?”
Not being a liar, I replied, “Umm…no?”
Standing behind me was our cafeteria manager, a very tall, imposing woman with very broad shoulders who didn’t interact with students except to glower from the edges of the dining hall and enforce the 100% markup on guest meal pricing. What I wouldn’t have given for it to have been the head chef, who was German and jovial.
The manager turned to Jenny and, in one unceremonious motion, whipped open the messenger bag resting next to her chair. Inside was a rainbow of containers filled with cherry tomatoes, green bell pepper and other stupid vegetables. Probably carrot shreds.
“This is theft,” the manager said in that tone of voice that’s not quite yelling, but several steps above the standard “inside voice.”
“Give me your ID cards. I’m going to see to it that you don’t eat here again for the rest of the semester. And you’re lucky I’m not calling the police.” (This is all paraphrased; the tongue-lashing went on for several minutes.)
We didn’t protest, just handed over the cards, cowed into silence, and slunk back to our dorm. Without our ID cards we couldn’t unlock our rooms, so we slumped on the dingy carpet in the hall until one of our roommates, flushed with the warm glow of someone who’s faithfully attended church, showed up.
I remember Jenny, who was more of a badass than me, reacting calmly, or at least projecting calm. I, however, was a total mess.
I couldn’t stop rehashing my sin and its potential consequences—if forced to forfeit my meal plan, which cost eleventy billion dollars, I’d be able to afford about five bran muffins from the campus coffee bar before starving.
Even worse was the thought that I had done something really, truly bad, Covenant-breaking bad. And I did it as blithely as falling down an unmarked step. Was I not actually a good person? Was I total shit head? My mind went into that hyper-drive (also commonly experienced after car accidents) where you replay the moment of doom, over and over, willing yourself to somehow go back in time and undo it. At that moment, I realized the “funny” time I broke off and ate a large piece of a waffle cone resting on the counter at our campus hamburger/ice cream joint was also stealing. And ruining a perfectly good ice cream cone.
I was a shit head. No doubt.
In the middle of my existential crisis, banquet preparations were in full swing and I was still expected to attend with my “date” from the brother floor. My friends gamely fixed my hair and makeup (at one point ordering me to stop crying so my eyeliner and mascara would stay put) while I sobbed on the phone to my parents in Germany, who, to their credit, were as nonplussed as Jenny. They assured me the whole thing would blow over.
They were wrong. Our RA returned our IDs that night and informed us the Dean of Student Life had scheduled separate meetings with us the following day.
I was an editor at the school newspaper and had to leave our weekly staff meeting early to see the dean. My fellow editors and writers were supportive and amused— word of mine and Jenny’s misfortune had already spread faster than the campus tower bells announced engagements, plus the cafeteria manager had called the editor-in-chief suggesting they write a story about my crime.
When I heard that, the briefest ray of sunshine interrupted my self-flagellation as I thought, “How absurd. An article about someone stealing cucumbers. That is the least newsworthy thing that has ever happened here since they started allowing square dances.” But then I just went back to self-flagellation, as you do.
I bawled all during my meeting with the dean, who was very kind and relaxed. I explained my side of the story, which amounted to the ignorance defense, apologized profusely and waited for her to pronounce the magic words: “You are forgiven.”
But no, I was ushered out and told to expect her decision by campus mail. I didn’t sleep for two days until I received the letter—incidentally, on the same day that my now-husband first contacted me after we met during a flood (but that’s another story.)
The letter said that, due to my “repentant heart,” I wouldn’t have my meal plan revoked or be otherwise seriously scourged. The relief was like stepping into a cold shower after the first time you go running in Texas during summer (trust me, just trust me.)
They didn’t let me off easy on making amends—instead of paying for the vegetables (which I offered to do in my meeting with the dean), the letter outlined that I was required to stand at the cafeteria exit for 90 minutes during one lunch period and one dinner period, attempting to catch thieves.
I followed through on this, lurking in the shadows near the tray accumulator, though I didn’t confront anyone because 1. what was I supposed to do? Ask them to empty their pockets and escort them to campus police? and 2. I was just too ashamed—of myself, of the public punishment, of everything.
The whole saga (this is a funny pun if you figure out what school I went to) crescendo’ed and faded out in less than a week. Eight years later it’s just another funny anecdote I throw out when trying to explain my unique college experience.
But stealing cucumbers and getting caught did have a long-term effect on me, more powerful than all my other sins combined. It cured me of my desire to be good.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t break laws and I’m still constitutionally incapable of going over to “the dark side” of anything. I still believe there is such a thing as right and wrong, objectively, in most scenarios. And I know that stealing cucumbers (or waffle cones or anything else) is wrong, and that, in many ways, I was lucky the consequences weren’t more serious.
I took a hard look at my tendency to value rules (or the lack thereof) over common sense and realized my devotion to goodness had been brainless. In a sense, the letter from the dean was prescient: I did begin to think more carefully about my decisions, eventually coming to understand that just because something isn’t proscribed doesn’t mean it’s ok, and just because people are following the letter of the law doesn’t mean their intentions are pure.
Instead of seeing goodness as an innate trait achieved by trying super hard, I now think of it more as an external measure of how the things I do/say/believe affect other people.
In short, I started thinking for myself.
The cafeteria posted signs the week after my bust, designating the maximum amount of food to be taken out as one sandwich and one other small item, i.e., a piece of fruit. I saw dozens of pranksters continue to sneak out entire pizzas and fruit pies, but as far as I know, none of them ever got caught.
Meghan Williams is a former military contractor, former homeschooler and current writer living in Austin. Her #1 piece of advice is do as many embarrassing things as you can now, so you can write about it later.