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Does this look like the face of a criminal?

In 1968, when I was in 7th grade in Fels Jr. High School in Philadelphia, someone thought so.

Even a little bit of trouble when you’re a goody-goody like I was can make your adrenaline spike, dampen your palms and dry your mouth, and tighten your throat in that feeling that is a signal that you’re about to cry. But for me, the biggest signal of my own fear was my heart pounding.

I remember getting called to the Vice Principal’s office, and he started to ask me questions.  He looked at my innocent face with braces.

“Were you in the girl’s bathroom on the second floor between at three o’clock?”

I looked up at the ceiling to think. “Yes.”

“Was anyone else in there with you?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Ok, then have a seat on the sofa there.”


“We are going to call your parents now. You are being suspended.”

My heart started to pound. Hard. I can still feel the fear now. I didn’t do anything wrong, all I did was pee when I was in the bathroom.

I just sat there while he called home, trying not to cry. Fortunately, my mother was home. She was a pro at asking questions too. The Vice Principal was saying, “Yes. No. Yes, I did.She wrote something on the mirror in lipstick. Hold on a minute.”

Then he looked at me. “She wants to talk to you.”

My mom said to me, “What happened? I exploded, wanting to cry and yell all at once. “What? I don’t even own lipstick. What is he talking about? I didn’t do it.”

My mom said to put him back on.

She said something, and the Vice Principal said, “OK, I’ll wait.”

We lived only a few blocks from my Fels. My mom never walked anywhere, I’m sure she hopped in the car and drove right over though, going as fast as our 67 Impala could go–legally, that is.

Fifteen minutes later she was in the office of the Vice Principal. I’d never been so happy to see her. She smiled nicely and greeted the Vice Principal as though he was her best friend. “Can we see the bathroom, please?”

We walked over with the office secretary, who went in to check that there were no girls in there. We walked in and there was red lipstick on the mirror. What the words said, I don’t remember. But I remember how my heart started pounding again, the scariness of being falsely accused.

My mother said “that’s not Debbie’s writing. Did you check with her teacher? She knows her writing.”

“She is teaching right now, Mrs. Eisenberg. I can talk to her later.”

“Well, my daughter didn’t do this, as she has told you. Can she go back to class now?”

The Vice Principal looked discouraged. “Oh, all right. Go ahead, Debbie.”

“Doesn’t she need a note about why she wasn’t in class?” asked my mom, who had been a teacher herself.

He scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it to me. I hugged my mom and ran back to class.

I never talked to that Vice Principal again. What a jerk. Maybe he was just doing his job. Maybe someone had written on the mirror after I left. Or someone was in the stall next to me and was quiet and I didn’t know they were there. But ever since then, I have always had a lot of sympathy for people who are falsely accused.

As I tell this story, I realize how it relates to what is happening these days with black lives matter. Being falsely accused sucks.

In 2019, I’m writing stories in response to weekly prompts from Storyworth, a gift from our daughter Sarah. All of these stories will be made into a book in January 2020. We all have stories, I hope these will help you remember yours.

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