Halloween Guilt: How I Scared The Crap Out Of An Eight-Year-Old
It was unintentional.
But I should have known better.
It was the Fall of 1974. I was a senior in college and doing my student teaching in Puerto Rico.
(Yeah, yeah. You’re doing the math and figuring out that I was 23. So I took a few extra years in college. So what? I liked school. I stretched it out a little. Just up to the point where my parents lost all patience. Then I reluctantly graduated.)
So anyway, I’m in Puerto Rico, teaching English in a private school, and living with a family from Indiana. To tell the truth, as a Connecticut native, I had less culture shock with the Puerto Rican environment that with Indiana wholesomeness.
But I digress again…
So anyway - again - there were three kids in my temporary family. Flossie was in college like me (okay, a few years younger). She went back to Ohio State after I had been there about a week. It was just as well. We didn’t exactly hit it off. She was a sorority sister and I was a commie-loving hippie. But I’m sure we’d be great friends today. Although I don’t particularly care to find out.
Julia was fourteen. She was sweet and loving, and exactly the kind of little sister I’d always wanted. The day I went back to Connecticut, she locked herself in her room, and wouldn’t say goodbye. See? Exactly like a little sister.
Then there was Matthew. Matt was eight. My own little brother was eighteen. But I remembered him at eight. He was nothing like Matt. My brother was already beating me in chess by age eight. Matt was still learning to read. He was smart but dyslexic. And observant but rambunctious. Short attention span but quick to laugh. He was – I found out later – just your typical little kid.
I’d been there two months by the time Halloween rolled around. I had become comfortable with these odd conservative midwesterners. I went to church. I wore a bra, even.
On Halloween, Matt went out trick-or-treating in his judo clothes. But he came home pretty early, and he got a kick out of opening the door for the older kids who rang the bell later in the evening.
Until one girl showed up like this:
Brown shirt, black beret, machine gun.
Patty Hearst had been kidnapped in February of 1974. By April, she had joined her kidnappers, changed her name to Tania, and robbed a bank. After a fiery shootout in May, she had gone underground. No one had heard a word since.
That’s all the story that anyone knew at the time. But everyone knew it. Including eight-year-old Matthew.
The Patty Hearst trick-or-treater kind of creeped him out, but he laughed it off pretty easily.
Or so I thought.
Later Matt shared a little of his Halloween candy with me. Over Snickers bars, he brought up Patty Hearst again,
“Where do you think she is?” he asked me.
And given that it was Halloween, and that I was totally unaccustomed to innocent kids from Indiana, I said:
“Here. She’s here.”
“Don’t tell anyone, but …. I’m Patty Hearst.”
And here was this little boy, who had a total stranger living in his house.
His eyes filled with tears. His mouth dropped open. He looked at me with complete terror.
Oh no. What was I thinking? That it would be funny? Eight-year-olds like knock-knock jokes.
“I’m kidding,” I said. “It’s just a joke.” I pleaded. “Really.”
“Okay,” he said, still trembling a little.
He crept off to bed.
I felt horrible.
I read him his favorite book, “Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” seven times the next day.
I kissed him every time we got to the end of the book.
I was happy about one thing – neither of Matt’s parents had heard me say it. They didn’t send me to the airport in a taxicab.
But the poor kid (now 46) probably won’t answer a doorbell to this day.