If You’re Not Guilty, Don’t Act Like It

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In elementary school we walked a half mile each day to the bus stop at the top of the street. There were about twenty kids at that bus stop (this was during the peak baby boomer years, so it wasn’t unusual for one street to produce twenty elementary school kids). There were two sets of boys. The older boys and us (me, my brother Kenny, my best friend Angelo and his brother Markie). There was also this quite younger boy, Johnny, who desperately wanted to be like us (not the older boys, for even he realized that was too much a leap). We shunned him, as older kids are wont to do with younger kids, but we didn’t bully him like the older boys did to us (to see how I ultimately defeated these bullies – without any need for physical violence – see “Terror at the School Bus Stop – A True Life Story,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, January 11, 1990). As a result, Johnny, while not hanging with us, stayed near to us and mimicked our every move. That didn’t bother us. If anything, it made us feel good.

One rainy day the school bus left us off and me, Angelo, Kenny, and Markie decided to run home because it was raining. Johnny decided to do the same. The only thing is, Johnny couldn’t run with us, he could only run near us. While the four of us ran down the middle of the road, Johnny ran beside us off the road on the lawns of the various homeowners between the bus stop and our houses.

Here’s the thing about running in the grass when it rains: It’s slippery. Not only is it slippery, but it’s also muddy. You know what happened. Little Johnny slipped face first into the muddy wet grass. He got up soaked in wet mud. Crying his eyes out, he said, “I’m going home and telling my mother you did this to me!”

We didn’t think much of the threat. After all, we were running down the middle of the street and Johnny was yards away from us running on other peoples’ lawns. Nonetheless, we stopped running and walked the rest of the way home. Angelo and Markie, lucky for them, lived before Johnny’s house. They could escape his mother’s wrath. As for me and Kenny, well, we lived in the last house on the street. We had no choice but to walk past Johnny’s house.

As we neared that gauntlet, Angelo came up with what we, at the time, thought was a brilliant idea. He said we could duck into his driveway and then walk deep in the backyards, for, surely, Johnny’s mother would be waiting by the road at the end of her driveway to scold us. Kenny and I agreed. We shifted our course into Angelo’s driveway and into the back of his backyard. There, we began our trek home.

There was one risk to this plan. We would have to cut across Johnny’s backyard to accomplish our escape. We figured, since his mother was in the front yard waiting for us, the risk was minimal. For the most part, Johnny’s house itself would hide us. In fact, if his mother was really at the end of her driveway, there would be only a small window where she could see Kenny and me. And to see us, she’d have to be looking straight back. What were the chances of that?

Kenny and I stealthy moved along the wet grass until we got to Johnny’s house. Our pace slowed to a tentative tip-toe until we finally stopped. We were right on the edge of that aforementioned window. We hesitated like a diver the moment before diving. We took a breath and leapt. Only a step or two away from freedom, and what did we see? Johnny’s mother, walking up the driveway, looking straight at us with a stern face that said only one thing…

Nailed!

Caught with our hands in the cookie jar, Kenny and I froze. We thought for a brief moment about running, but something told us only cowards run away from their fate. (Mind you, we never said this, we thought this. Together. Silently.)

We waited patiently and respectfully for Johnny’s mother. When she was close enough, she began hollering at us. She asked us why we pushed Johnny down in the mud. We told her we didn’t. She didn’t believe us. She then asked why we were cutting across her backyard. We made up a white lie about doing something with Angelo and Markie and this was therefore the shortest way home. She didn’t believe us.

Then came her closing argument – strike that – then came her killer closing argument. “If you aren’t guilty,” her logic slowly penetrated our hearts, “then why are you acting guilty?”

The precision of her cut stunned me and Kenny. We were almost too numb to hear her say she was going to immediately call our parents. We left, shaken. It wasn’t the crime that got us in trouble, it was our attempt to cover up our tracks.

Unlike Nixon, we didn’t have a presidency to lose, but we did have our reputation to lose. We decided enough of this “playing defense.” We had nothing to hide. We were going on offense, and our target was the only thing that really mattered to us: The opinion of our parents.

We quickly ran home (still a quarter of a mile away) in some weird belief we could beat the electronic signals of Johnny’s telephone to our house. When we got inside our house, we immediately told both our parents everything that had just happened. (By lucky coincidence, my father was home early from work.) They never said if Johnny’s mother had called them. They just quietly listened to their boys.

When we finished our story, we waited for the inevitable comforting words from our mother and father. Instead of an immediate “There. There.” (they never actually did that – ever – but you know what I mean), there was a momentary pause, as if for emphasis. My father then broke the silence with this simple admonishment: “Never act guilty if you’re not.”

“Never act guilty if you’re not.”

I never forgot that. My brother never forgot that. From that day forward, we stood bravely athwart the usual parade of false accusations one generally encounters during one’s life. How did we do this? Although we taught ourselves, years later I discovered an impressive book that bluntly laid down the best way to defend your honor by going on an impenetrable offence. Called The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, by Suzette Haden Elgin, (Dorset House Publishing Co Inc, June 1985), it is unfortunately out of print (although the “At Work” version is still available).

Bullies like to use the tactic “give them something to deny” because it causes their victims to act guilty. And the minute someone has been duped into “doth protesting too much,” that person’s reputation is forever sullied by whatever scarlet letter happens to be the fad at that moment in time.

Don’t act guilty if you’re not. If a bully tries to trick you into behaving like you are guilty, don’t play into the bully’s hands by defending yourself when there’s nothing to defend. Instead, go on offense and reverse the narrative from being about you to being about the bully.

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