The Key

February 19, 2012
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The boy was ignoring everything the principal said. He was fiddling with his sweater string, looking at the ground and rocking side to side in the chair. He had stolen a little girl’s house key. She had come running into the principal’s office, crying because she couldn’t find her key. Joey, the boy, had been sent into his office for not doing his homework. The small, silver key had slipped out of his pocket as he was leaving. Now, they were both in the principal’s office. Joey was refusing to say he was sorry and the little girl, Mattie, was crying. “Joey,” he said sternly to the small first grader, “you need to listen to me now.” He waited until the boy looked up from the string he was playing with on his faded and unwashed sweater. “Joey, why did you steal the key?” A few seconds passed but there was no response from Joey. “You knew the key wasn’t yours, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” Joey mumbled. “Then why did you take the key?” the principal asked. The boy looked down at the ground, didn’t answer. “Joey, I’m going to give you one more chance. You need to tell me why you stole the key. If you don’t want to tell me, then I will have to call your mother.” Joey seemed to respond to this. Bringing the parents into the situation always seemed to help. The kid was probably afraid his mother would take away his new video game or movie. He looked up and quietly muttered. “I’m sorry I stealed the key.”

“Don’t do it again.” The boy walked out of the office. The principal shook his head, amazed at the boy’s rudeness.

This is a story from my childhood. Through the eyes of my elementary school principal, I am a troublemaker, a thief. But that’s the thing about story; you have to get the whole picture. You have to look at the events through the “villain’s” eyes. If you don’t, how can you say you know what really happened?


It was cold that day. I hadn’t slept much, because of the cold. I walked to school, shivering in my thin sweater and counting on my small, numb fingers the number of months left until spring. My stomach growled and I walked faster through the desolate street, keeping my eyes focused on the grey sidewalk so that they wouldn’t water with the whip of the icy wind.

After forty minutes of walking in this cold, I finally reached the loan building on a deserted street: my elementary school. It was fairly large and made of old bricks that crumbled slightly at the steps. A fence went all the way around the back of the school to contain a field and jungle gym that bustled with the laughter and shouts of children. The absence of the other children and their laughter on this day told me that I was late, again. I ran up the steps and through the hallways lighted with powerful fluorescent bulbs and littered with artwork, but all I noticed was the warmth. Slowly, I was able to feel my fingers, and my muscles, tight from the cold, began to loosen again.
I ran through the door labeled “Miss Bates- First Grade” and walked to the back of the room where my seat was left, empty and waiting for me. Miss Bates, our tall young teacher, stared at me and I mumbled an apology for being late. She sighed and spoke in her strict voice that I was usually subject to. “Put your backpack on the rack Joey, and take out your homework. And don’t be late again.” I nodded, feeling the sting of tears in my eyes as I took my ratty, torn backpack to the coat rack and felt the glares of nineteen other students blaring into my back.

It was as I was hanging up my backpack that I noticed the house key. It was a shiny, silver color, hooked to a pink backpack with a stretchy blue elastic string. From the second I saw it, I knew I had to have that key. I went to my seat and took out my homework, proud that I hadn’t lost it and would not be yelled at by Miss Bates. My stomach sunk though, when I looked down at the half completed work sheet on adding and remembered that my fingers had been too numb last night to hold the pencil. I would be in trouble after all. Sure enough, when Miss Bates stopped at my desk to stamp homework, she took one glance at my unfinished work and began yelling. “Joey!” all the other children turned in their desks to stare at me. “Everyone else in the class has finished their work, except for you!” Her eyes were wide and angry and strands of her dark hair began to fall out of her bun as she shook her head. “Go and sit in the corner next to the coat rack.” she pointed. Slowly I stood up and walked to the coat rack, bowing my head in shame as the other kids snickered.

I sat down across from the coat rack, my back turned to the classroom. The green tile floor was cold and my stomach growled fiercely. I had been too late to get my breakfast from the cafeteria this morning and dinner the night before had consisted of weak chicken soup, which was more broth than chicken. I had lied and said I wasn’t hungry so that my mother would eat something since I got food at school and she didn’t. To distract myself from my stomach, I stared at that key. I wanted to grab it, to take it and shove it in my pocket. I slowly turned my head around to make sure no one was watching me. Everyone in the class had their head turned sharply to the white board, entranced in the subtraction lesson Miss Bates was giving. The class was silent except for the occasional rustle of paper and the hum of the heater. Slowly, I reached out and let my fingers grace the key. I couldn’t remember ever feeling a house key before. The ridges were jagged across my fingers and I imagined what it would feel like to slip that key into a lock, to open the door to a warm and loving home. My mother had told me not to take what wasn’t yours. I knew it was wrong, but all the same I sat up on my knees and yanked the key down from the backpack. For a moment I just held it in my palm, marveling at the way it felt in my hands. Then, I slipped it into the pocket of my thin pants and continued to stare blankly ahead at the wall.

You already know what happened next, so I will only tell the details that got left out. The large, warm office of the principal had terrified me. The principal himself had frightened me too, the way he looked at me with stern eyes and said that my stealing could not continue. He took the key from me and I swore to him that I wouldn’t steal again. But see, my mother always taught me that I should try to be fair, when I could. The principal had an array of keys jingling from his key chain and my mother and I didn’t even have one. So, when the principal wasn’t looking, I snatched a small key from his big oak desk and slipped it into my pocket.

Once I was outside of the school, walking in the cold again and staring up at the dark, cloudy sky I began to smile because I had been fair and I had something to give my mother, something to make her smile for once. Then I began walking faster, realizing that I was late and my mother would be worried. When I reached the dark alley behind the bar, I saw my mother kneeling in front of the fire we built every night from sticks. Even in the dark night I could see that her eyes were red and puffy. Her long dark brown hair was matted; she was subconsciously running her fingers through it. As soon as she saw me, her face sank in relief and she scooped me into her arms. “Oh, Joey, thank goodness you’re safe,” she whispered to me as she hugged me. She felt warm as I shivered from the cold night. I whispered back, telling her I was sorry that I was late. Then, beaming, I took the key from the principal’s desk, this one long and skinny attached to a golden colored ring. Everyone who had one of these keys seemed to have everything: a warm home and a big loving family. So, in the shadow of the light from the bar, I folded the key into my mother’s icy hands.





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