A Sea of a Thousand Thou Shalt Nots

by Meredith Betz

There’s a scene from the movie Splash, when Madison the Mermaid is captured and confined to a 10×10 glass tank so that scientists could study the way she swam, breathed, and ate. Stripped of her people clothes, she was a swimming naked Barbie doll with a massive fish tail. Exposed. Vulnerable. Fortunately, her boyfriend and a shark of an oceanographer, rescued her, taking her back to New York Harbor where she swam away. As I write my memoir about my childhood, that image came to mind.

I was a preacher’s kid, a “PK.” As such, I was perpetually on display. My parents warned me, that what I wore, what I said, what I did from day to day could be a topic of conversation around everyone’s dinner table. We lived on Church Street, a main drag in Rockaway, New Jersey, in a massive fishbowl of a Victorian house with floor to ceiling windows that allowed curious passersby the chance to get an occasional glimpse into our private lives.

We PKs were expected to bear our trident of perfection at all times. Examples for the lesser mortals, in other words, all Rockawanians. I was showered with adoration. More than one parishioner exclaimed, “Meredith is such a bright pretty little girl!.”

But some of their daughters reveled in leveling me. On one occasion, my “friend” Amy Bottomfeeder Wilson ran home and told her mother, “Do you know what Meredith did today? She twirled a garter snake over her head at recess!” I know this because Amy squealed to our 5th grade teacher Mrs. Dickerson, a member of our church, who went out of her way to reveal my unladylike behavior to my parents.

Just for clarification, I had to play with the boys because all the girls had Barbie dolls to play with. My parents wouldn’t let me have one. My father would say,  “It’s not right for little girls to play with fully developed naked young women and expect they’ll look just as perfect one day!” So I had to swim with the boys, figuratively speaking, compelled to shock them in order to win their approval.  Swinging that poor little snake over my head was one of them. I silently hissed, “Yeah, who cares if I don’t have a Barbie doll!”

People were just waiting to snag me in a misdemeanor and gloat over having done so. It’s no wonder that many PK’s became notorious rebels determined not to be confined in glass tanks. They preferred jumping into an ocean of trouble splashing around in the Sea of a Thousand Thou-Shalt-Nots. I guess you could say I was a naughty PK dipping my toes ever so slightly into a pool of iniquity.

As I swung that reptile, I felt a breeze of satisfaction wafting over me. That’s when the pool began to ripple. From the stirring water, I heard a a barely audible chuckle: “I’m your evil alter ego. You can call me EAE. I’ve been waiting a long time to meet your acquaintance. Just waiting for the portal. Nice work with the snake. Having fun yet?” Startled as I was, I tried not to react–as if I hadn’t heard her. “Hey, if you’re stuck with being a PK, at least you can get some fun out of it! Come on, let me out,” she coaxed.

We danced the Swim for two years. She tempted. I held her at bay. I did not succumb to her in sixth-grade even when Mr. Liss made me read Treasure Island to the class every day after lunch for two months. I had to endure constant mockery from fed up classmates.

By seventh grade, I let EAE have her way. She surreptitiously did some unsavory things on my behalf.

My math teacher Mr. Phillips, also a parishioner, was one of the few people who was on to me. Math was not my friend, and having to do math homework was an anathema. Sometimes I refused to do it. On one particular day of resistance EAE came up with a clever plan to get me out of trouble. “I’m sorry Mr. Phillips,” I practiced. “A gust of wind came up just as I was walking over the Rockaway bridge. It blew my homework right into the river.” The performance didn’t get a rise out of Phillips. He said nothing. So, I figured that the next week, I’d try it again. Apparently he was not the sucker I thought he was.  He had been baiting me for the next time. “Yeah right,” he said. “No recess for you!”

That’s when EAE devised the perfect scheme. The math homework pool. I called a meeting of my five trusted friends, which did NOT include Amy. After we had convened in a remote corner of the chain linked playground I warmed up the group. ”How many of you hate math homework?” Ten hands went up. Then I floated my brilliant idea. “What if each of us took a day to do the homework, bring it to school and then the others would copy it and turn in the work as their own?”  “Cool! Neat!,” the group exclaimed. “Let’s do it!”

It was two weeks into the perfect lie—lunch time. My turn to copy. I had sneaked into the classroom to copy Carol’s homework. The rest of the class and Mr. Phillips were outside. With only five minutes to spare, I pulled the original out of my Dr. Kildare Nifty notebook, ripped out a blank sheet of paper and plunged into a desperate effort to beat the clock. I was terrified. EAE was exhilarated. Both of us were so immersed in our cheating that we didn’t notice Mr. Phillips standing over us.

Waves of humiliation crashed over me. Not wanting to get Carol into trouble I confessed, “I’m sorry I stole Carol’s homework because mine flew off the bridge.” Drowning in fear, I gurgled the fishy excuse. EAE, on the other hand, was simply treading water while wracking her brain to figure a way out. “I’ll see you after school,” a frothing Phillips commanded.

By the time school was out, my teacher was roiling with rage. He grabbed my notebook, tore out an empty page and said, “I want you to write a note explaining what you’ve done!”   I reluctantly obliged.

That’s when my brilliant but nasty doppelganger plunged us into a whirlpool of deceit in order to shift the tide. I wrote, “I’m so sorry I didn’t do my homework and feel really bad about it but my parents took me out of school to go to Radio City and I didn’t have time to do it.”

Then, with twisted magnificence, EAE grabbed an eraser from my notebook and partially erased the Radio City part–just enough that you could see that I had tried to erase it–with just enough of the writing still visible.  It looked like I had tried to pass the buck and then thought better of it and erased it. I handed over the confession and ran out of the room.

Some people might have been wracked with guilt over ratting out their parents. EAE swam in her cleverness while I was thinking I was off the hook. No such luck! Just as soon as I walked through our front door after school, I knew I was doomed, caught in Mr. Phillips net! There he was with my parents. My father held my note in his hand. He probed, “Meredith, do you have something to tell us?” I was convinced he saw through my vain attempt to frame him. My mother looked like she was about to blow? A deluge of remorseful tears gushed from my trembling body.

A satisfied Phillips said “goodbye” and pivoted toward the door, probably whispering  “Gotcha,” under his breath. As he exited, my father called out, “Thanks for stopping by.” “Yeah, thanks for nothing,” I said under my breath. As the front door closed, I received my sentence. “No Patty Duke show for a week!” Deprived of a whole five days of my favorite tv series, I muttered to myself, “That creep just beached me.”

The next day I discovered that my teacher’s lust for revenge was still not satisfied. It was lunch time. As the class raced out the classroom door, Mr Phillips grabbed my arm,  “Not so fast. I want to speak with you.” With clenched teeth he said, “You should get down on your knees and ask for forgiveness for what you’ve done.”

“Give me a break,” EAE said under my breath. Fearless, I rolled my eyes then stared him down until his smugness gave way to exasperation. I should have sunk to the floor, flailing in penance. Instead with EAE’s assistance I just stood there. As he stormed out of the room, I spewed forth a “Score! You didn’t get the half of it!” I was satisfied I’d gotten under his skin. It was at that moment I discovered that I had grown my sea legs and had dived into the Sea of a Thousand Thou-Shalt-Nots.

Meredith Betz, MSOD, MSEd, is a teacher, facilitator, writer and consultant with a penchant for storytelling. With years of experience in writing for the nonprofit sector, she coaches nonprofits and their leaders as they tell their compelling stories. A published author, Meredith is a contributor to the Nonprofit Quarterly. She is a certified Guided Autobiography facilitator who helps individuals write their life histories because she believes that everyone has a story that must not go untold. Currently, Meredith is co-writing memoir for a 101-year-old Estonian man and is writing a book chronicling her experience as a memoirist. For fun, she writes short stories about eccentric characters doing extraordinary things.