Dear Robert Pike Elementary,

I pride myself on quick thinking and spontaneous excuse generation. I like to think I can deflect with the best of them when someone invites me to their kid's first communion.

The first step is to stall for time.

"That's really great! What a milestone for little... (unlock phone, open Facebook, wait a second, type something, wait a second, scroll down) ...Noah. I bet he's really excited."

Then the proud parent beams and launches into some story about how Noah picked out his first suit but then he jumped into a mud puddle right outside the store and they had to go back and whatever, whatever, whatever. I'm smiling and nodding with a vaguely distant look in my eye because this is the crunch time. My mind cycles through plausible excuses at warp speed, applying the double Goldilock's test to each- not too generic, not too exotic. Not too general, not too specific.

All too quickly the mother's diversionary tale comes to an end. "And I expect you to be at our son's first communion on Sunday," my wife adds. 

"I'd love to, but I have to work," I blurt out.

"You don't work on Sundays," my wife retorts flatly.


I don't win them all. But when my brother invited me to attend his daughter's/my niece's elementary school spring theater production for the SECOND year in a row, I really dug down deep and tried to pull out a masterpiece of an excuse. 

After a litany of stalling tactics that culminated in me saying, "look over there," and pointing over my brother's shoulder at nothing, I finally came up with, "I'd love to go, but I have to show up at a big 4th of July party and everybody's counting on me to bring the meat."

It might have worked, but I slipped up a little insomuch as the school play was scheduled for April 5th. So my brother just walked around my excuse, ignoring it like so many twigs by the side of the road, and told me the play started at 7:00 P.M., but that we should probably all meet in front of the auditorium half an hour beforehand so we could sit together near the front. Then he wished me luck on my extremely foresighted 4th of July plans and left. I had been duped for the second year in a row.

I don't know why people go to these things. I like to support up-and-coming new artists as much as the next guy, but these Elementary theatrical productions are just juvenile. Audience aside, I felt like I was sitting in on a rehearsal; possibly the first-ever rehearsal, three months before opening night. The kids had barely memorize their lines, and the acting was shoddy at best. The protagonist and "star" of the show had two "emotions"- barely audible and shouting. And then they sell DVDs afterwards, as if anyone would be interested in just casually slipping a copy of The Robert Pike Elementary School Theater Presents "Over the Rainbow," Spring 2016 into their library right next to Citizen Kane and There Will Be Blood. I'll just arrange the new DVD alphabetically by director's last name... but oh wait, that's right, the director of Over the Rainbow is a anonymous hack who shall remain forever nameless. I suppose I could try to identify her from the puffy outline of gray hair silhouetted on the first row, but I shan't, because this was the worst-directed thing I have ever seen.

In all fairness, the main antagonist did the best he could with the poorly-written material he was given. This kid might have a future some day. I'm not saying he's Sir Daniel Michael Blake Day-Lewis material, but he could easily replace a Ben Affleck or a Keanu Reeves. And that might be a good thing, because I'm not convinced we need a second Daniel Day-Lewis. Everyone remembers his peerless on-screen performances, but it's easy to forget that the dark arts of the thespian's craft can also be used for evil. I don't trust Daniel Day-Lewis, or anyone with that kind of unchecked, unilateral power. Daniel Day-Lewis is like one of the mutants in X-Men. He could get away with any crime he wanted to, and for all we know, he does. How would we ever catch an actor that good? A teller at a bank closes the vault door at the end of the day and gives the tumbler wheel a twist. Daniel imitates the clicking and whirling exactly. The teller turns off the lights and leaves, and that's when an ordinary bank vault door climbs off its hinges and reveals itself to actually be Daniel Day-Lewis method-acting a bank vault door. It's not as preposterous as it might sound. Few people are aware that Daniel Day-Lewis has indeed played several bank vault doors throughout his career.

Didn't catch Daniel Day-Lewis' cameo in The Dark Knight? Look again.

It's too much power for one person to have. We need to keep an ankle bracelet monitor on him or something. Who knows what he's up to between films. It's enough to make you paranoid if you think about it for a while. How many open-and-shut cases are really as simple as they seem?

If Daniel Day-Lewis can travel through time and channel the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, how hard would it be for him to don some lipstick, climb into a Porsche and portray a drunken Lindsay Lohan? It's impossible to know. Was it really a dingo that ate Lindy Chamberlain's baby, or was it Daniel Day-Lewis playing a dingo? We'll never be able to say with certainty. Did my aunt lose her foot to diabetes or did she lose it to Daniel Day-Lewis method-acting diabetes? I wouldn't put it past him.

As bad as the 2016 Robert Pike Elementary School Spring Play was, the worst of it by far was the fact that it was at least 80 degrees in the auditorium. It was an unseasonably warm April evening, just as it had been the year before. I was wearing my tuxedo, as I am wont to do at any performing arts production, and though I did enjoy the smug superiority of casting a disdainful glance down on the slovenly jeans-and-loafers set which encompassed everyone else at the play, I soon had a serious case of swamp ass.

For the second year in a row I sought out the head usher, and finding none, tracked down a teacher, who directed me to the janitor. I found him in his office, filling out some paperwork while a Mike & Molly rerun played on a tiny television, which sat on the back corner of his desk. The laugh track erupted quietly; tinny and hollow. The door was half open and he looked up as I knocked on the door frame.

"It's pretty warm in the auditorium. How about some AC?" I asked.

"It's like I told you last year, bud," Bill replied, "we haven't switched the system over from heating to cooling yet this year. It's too early. It's supposed to get chilly again next week."

I grimaced. He had said that last year. "Can't you just... switch the AC on for tonight and then switch it back to heating next week?"

"That's not how it works," Bill said. "We only switch the system twice a year- from heating to cooling in the spring, and then from cooling to heating in the fall." Mike said something unfunny on the TV and Molly and everyone else laughed uproariously.

"But it's just a switch."

"It's not that simple," Bill insisted. "There are several switches. And we have to open and close ventilation and return vents."

"Is that hard to do?"

"Hard enough," Bill said, looking back down at his paperwork.

"Does it take a long time?"

"I don't know. Maybe half an hour." Bill looked back up at me, annoyed. "The point is we're not doing it until May," he added gruffly.

"So you're telling me that in the year 2016 buildings can only switch from heating to cooling twice per year. Google Maps turn-by-turn navigation automatically switches to the night theme the instant I drive into a tunnel and goes back to the bright theme five seconds later when I exit the tunnel, but HVAC systems adapt biannually to the weather. To the WEATHER, something so notorious for changing rapidly that we use it as hyperbole for other things that change rapidly."

"That's what I'm telling you," Bill murmured, eyes solidly on the paperwork he had returned to. Molly said something which must have been hysterical because everyone on the TV laughed.

"Well then," I said, angry at Bill's dismissive tone. Bill didn't look up, but after I turned to leave he added, "Nice tux. Looks a little warm, though." I walked away stiffly, hoping Bill hadn't noticed any sweat stains bleeding through what was indeed, a very nice tux.

Like I said, this was the second year in a row I had been forced to endure an awful school play in a sweltering auditorium. But this year I had come prepared to exact my revenge in the event of just this kind of situation. I walked down the main hall, which was plastered in cheesy motivational posters like all elementary classrooms and hallways are, and out one of the big double doors. It was still warm outside, but the fresh breeze was a relief compared to the auditorium. I walked out to my car by the basketball court and returned five minutes later with three long, thin, cardboard tubes and a pack of removable poster putty.

I knew my targets in advance, and I was relieved to see that they were all still hanging in the same spots they had been the year before. I suppose that's not surprising, considering elementary school posters are usually rotated out on a twenty-year cycle.

My three targets were excellent posters by elementary school standards. Very inspirational. Very colorful. Very mid 2000s. But from the moment I had seen them twelve months earlier, I knew I could improve upon them. They only needed a few small tweaks to become comedic gold, and so I created fresh versions with subtle alterations. I didn't steal, deface, or replace the old posters- I simply mounted my modified posters on top of the old ones, Thomas Crown style; only I was more sharply dressed than Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair

It was time to play a little game of "Who Will Notice It First- Parents or Faculty?" My money was on parents, because the faculty would surely be inured and hence virtually oblivious to the gauntlet of garish posters running along the walls. Walk by something every day of your life and it becomes invisible.

I snickered quietly to myself as I hung each poster up, imagining outraged parents demanding an explanation from the school for these sacrilegious posters. 

Original version on the left; my version on the right. The author is unknown apparently, so technically it could have been Hitler. My poster may actually be more accurate than the original.

It's actually the proselytizing part that would bother me the most if I saw this as a parent.

As a child these positive-thinking propaganda posters always felt like an innocuous attempt at 1984-style brainwashing to me. You know who else likes brainwashing via we-statements and imperative sentences disguised as declaratives? Weird sex cults from the 70s, that's who.

I managed to slip back into the auditorium before Over the Rainbow had ended, and I applauded louder than anyone when the curtain finally closed, savoring the mischief I had sown.

A week later I got a call from my brother. 

"Hey Basti, remember the school play at Robert Pike last Tuesday?"

"How could I forget?" I replied. "It was a masterpiece. Your daughter was amazing in it."

"Yeah," my brother laughed. "I guess it was alright. We've got the DVD if you want to watch it again sometime. But listen, I'm actually calling because, this is going to sound weird, but they found some posters at the school this week; like really weird, fucked up posters that some sicko must have taped to the wall at some point. They don't know exactly when it happened, but they're thinking maybe someone did it during the play last week."

"Oh wow," I said.

"Yeah, I just remembered that you had left in the middle of the play to go talk to the janitor again about the AC, and I thought maybe you might have seen something; like someone messing with posters or wandering around the halls or something."

"No. No; definitely didn't notice anything like that," I responded. "Now you said these posters must have been hung up by a 'sicko' of some kind. Why do you say that?"

"Oh, the posters were just totally gross. Really fucked up shit. Like perverted sexual stuff and talking about Hitler and stuff."

"Hmmm," I intoned, starting to sweat.

"And to think that my daughter, and I mean, all of our kids were walking by these disgusting posters, being exposed all week. And then when you think about the fact that this sicko was actually in our school- right in the same building with our children. I mean, he's probably some sort of pedophile that gets off by exposing his filthy mind and trying to corrupt children. Like one of those... uh... you know, those guys in the trench coats with nothing on underneath... flashers! Like a flasher. That's exactly what it's like."

"Well, now...." I started, "I really doubt he's a pedophile. I mean, I don't know what's on the posters, but we should probably give this prankster the benefit of the doubt. I'm sure there are different ways of interpreting the posters, and viewed in a more humorous context, there's probably..."

"Are you sure you don't remember seeing anything unusual?" My brother interrupted me. "You were gone for a long time. What were you doing out there the whole time, anyway? You were gone for over half an hour. You missed most of your niece's lines."

"She had lines? But she was a tree... I didn't think she would have any dialogue..."

"She was a chipmunk in the third act," he said.

"Well then still, chipmunks don't..."

"It couldn't have taken you that long to talk to the maintenance guy. Where were you?"

The excuse-making part of my mind sprang into action. I needed time.

"Hey, you're an engineer, what's the square root of 192 again?" I parried.

The line was silent for a few seconds. "A little less than 14, I think, but what does that have to do with..."

"I had to go to a 4th of July party," I blurted out. "An early one. Quickly. I told you that when you invited me, but you ignored me. I had to stop by at an early 4th of July party on Tuesday, and everyone was counting on me to bring the meat."

My brother sounded confused, but it seemed like he bought it. I think I'm in the clear.

Sebastian Braff


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