I learned at a very early age that stealing was not all it was cracked up to be, and I have to admit that the lesson has stuck with me all my life.
I was in the first grade at Bowerman Elementary in Springfield, Mo., and I must have had a wonderful teacher, because I learned to read, and this has been my most treasured gift. Additionally, our teacher brought interesting objects to the classroom from her travels. We had our own "Window on the World."
One day, I came into the classroom to see a large table covered with strange objects from under the sea--shells, unusual rocks, pieces of coral. I had never been to the ocean, and these objects were as alien to me as moon rocks!
I think perhaps our teacher passed the items around the class, so we could hold them. I obediently passed the shells and the other objects, but then, I looked down and saw a tiny seahorse skeleton in my hand. It was the most fascinating thing I had ever seen in my entire six years of life. It was so tiny, so fragile and delicate... I couldn't let it go! I couldn't pass it on! I kept it and hid it, so I could take it home and look at it some more.
When I got home, I realized that I couldn't show my little treasure to anyone! My parents would say, "Where did you get that??"
How could I lie? Where else could I have gotten a dead seahorse--except at school? My guilt would have shown all over my face. I've never been good at lying. It's just never seemed worth it.
I doubt that I slept very well that night, with the little seahorse tucked away in some hiding spot. I don't remember if this happened on a weekday. I hope it did, so that I didn't have to suffer till Monday morning.
The next day of school, I took my little dark secret back to class, and when I thought no one was looking, I put it back on the table with all the other items from the sea. I walked to my desk and looked back at the tiny seahorse with regret, but I knew it wasn't mine to keep.
Earlier this year, I was basking in the sun at Naples beach, when I saw something dark on the sand. On closer inspection, I saw that it was a large seahorse, and it was still barely alive. Several other beach goers gathered around, and we speculated on what to do. We threw it back into the ocean and hoped that it would survive.
For me, the little dead seahorse in my first grade classroom has stuck in my memory as a lesson. I sometimes wonder if my teacher knew, and if she waited for the seahorse to reappear on the table--or if it really didn't matter to her, at all.
Still, it mattered to me.