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Shrewd as Snakes and Innocent as Doves

September 15, 2011

When I was in third grade, there was a boy named Norman who terrorized the classroom. He was big and dumb, with a scrappy blond head of hair and the vile mouth of a middle-aged truck driver.

One bright Spring morning, Norman ambled into the sun-streaked classroom prior to Mrs. Cunningham’s arrival and announced his presence by drawing a giant swastika on the chalkboard. He then turned around, pointed to the few children gathering at their desks, and shouted, “Yer all a bunch of jews!”

I wasn’t sure what exactly that square-ish symbol on the chalkboard meant, or why the Jewish people whom I learned about in Sunday School would be referred to in such a hateful tone, but it sure sounded bad. I had recently heard about the middle finger, and wondered if this symbol was somehow related. Then, just as our teacher made her way through the classroom door, Norman quickly brushed the swastika off the board and lugged off to his desk chuckling to himself.

So, this was Norman.

Mrs. Cunningham, a worn and weathered veteran of the suburban elementary school system,  eventually decided to discipline Norman by assigning him to a seat in the front row of the class for the remainder of the school year. The seat right next to me.

No doubt, I was singled out because I was such a smart and obedient boy who would set a fine example for behavior. Instead, Norman, who was a full two years older than me and about a foot taller, took full advantage of his proximity by making a habit of threatening me for correct answers on homework assignments, and copying the answers off of all of my tests.

This was the deal: Whenever a test was handed out, I was to answer the questions correctly, and then casually allow Norman to crane his neck to see my answers, and copy them on to his own test. This arrangement would keep me in Norman’s good graces, allowing me the privilege of avoiding a barrage of shoves and punches and vicious name-calling. I gave in quickly, pretending that Norman and I were really friends, and this would help make him like me more.

This went on for some time, right under Mrs. Cunningham’s nose. But there came a day in my third grade career when I grew tired of Norman’s bullying and cheating and terrorizing. Sure, I was a good boy, but I was also smart – much smarter than Norman, I was certain of that. That had to count for something.

So, I devised a plan.

The next day Mrs. Cunningham passed out a test to the class. I smiled confidently as Norman quietly shifted his position like usual, edging up closer for a better viewing angle.

YOU’RE GOING TO GIVE ME THE ANSWERS,” he hissed under his breath as Mrs. Cunningham made her way down the aisle with the tests.

I smiled and nodded, revealing the scrambled mess of crooked white teeth that passed for my mouth.

Once all the tests were distributed, Mrs. Cunningham turned to face the class. “All right, you can begin.” She sat down at her desk and lowered her head to read something that seemed to interest her a great deal.

I gripped my number two pencil and then proceeded to jot down a series of wrong answers to the multiple choice questions. I put on a brilliant act, straining and squinting, inquisitively gazing up at the ceiling, and then suddenly erupting a deep sigh of relief as I circled an answer. In my peripheral vision, I could make out Norman eagerly straining his head towards my paper to see the answers.


When I had finished, I excused myself to the bathroom, leaving the test in full view for Norman’s consumption. Let him at it, I thought.

A few minutes later, I came back to find Norman sitting back, arms crossed, with a satisfied grin. Then, ever so discreetly, I set about erasing and replacing each wrong answer on the sheet with the correct answer while Norman zoned out, thinking about his afternoon plans for lighting firecrackers in live frogs.

The next day, Mrs. Cunningham walked up and down the aisle of desks, handing out the corrected tests. “Good job, Bradley!” she said as she lay down the 98% score with a big red circled “E” (for Excellent) onto my desk. Norman beamed.

“Allll right!” he said, barely able to contain his cheater’s glee.

“Thanks for your support,” I said. “I’m so glad you’re happy for me.”

She slowly made her way down to the back of the classroom, passing out each students corrected test, then back up to the front, to Norman’s desk.

The moment finally came – she placed his test on the desk with a big red “F” scratched out on the top. Every single answer was wrong.

What happened next, the look on his face, I will never forget.

Norman  frantically looked back and forth from my paper to his, over and over again, stupified. “HEYYY! Wha..?”

That was the last time Norman dared to cheat. With me, anyway.

I may not have been as strong, or as tall, or as mean as Norman, but I did learn something about dealing with intimidating colleagues that day.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”  Matthew 10:16

19 Comments leave one →
  1. September 15, 2011 5:45 am

    Well played, Mr. Shrinking Camel! How did any of us survive childhood and the Normans of the world? ” I remember kids like him and now wonder what was going on in the houses they went home to that inspired such meanness.

    A worn and weathered veteran of the suburban elementary school system.” That line’s a keeper.

  2. September 15, 2011 9:03 am

    It hurts to think of a child so young as Norman so embittered and mean. Like Nancy, I wonder what happened to make them so, especially at such a tender age.

    It hurts to think of young Bradley intimidated.

    Sometimes I wonder how any of us survive childhood.

    • September 16, 2011 5:29 am

      Yes, I concluded that his home life must have been pretty rough. Where else does a 10 year old learn that kind of thing?

  3. September 15, 2011 9:20 am

    A delightful read. Norman is still out there, biting at the edges , looking for an edge through unfair means and methods.

  4. September 15, 2011 10:27 am

    Guess I shouldn’t dare plagiarize any of your blog posts 😉 Cute story. I absolutely love your clever solution.

  5. September 15, 2011 11:18 am

    So what happened next?
    Brings back memories of elementary school for me.

    • September 16, 2011 5:31 am

      Well, I actually can’t remember, other than the look of shock and horror on Norman’s face, and then the realization that I somehow tricked him. This memory is so vivid for me, yet the rest of the school year is not, so I kind of assume it went back to routine and uneventful, and mostly, that he left me alone after that.

  6. September 16, 2011 9:41 am

    Okay, shrewd as a snake – my marching orders for the day. That’s where I fail sometimes concentrating too hard on the dove.

  7. September 16, 2011 11:15 am

    I wish I would have thought of that!

    Of course, as a girl who had a boy cheating off her (more than once), I felt the stakes were higher, especially in middle school. I was truly afraid.

  8. September 16, 2011 11:48 am

    i am
    or innocent.

    but, then again, no one would want to copy my answers on a test.

    it’s a wonder that norman didn’t punch out your lights.
    perhaps he wasn’t into physical retaliation.

  9. September 16, 2011 1:27 pm

    I had a knot in my stomach as I read this … and yes … like Nance, I would have thought you would have met your demise!

  10. September 16, 2011 5:55 pm

    Yes, yes–why didn’t he beat the tar out of you for obviously messing with him? This story could have ended so differently. I like seeing how early on you were a risk-taker. It’s continued to pay off for you over the years, it seems!

  11. September 17, 2011 8:26 am

    Yikes! I’m glad for your triumph here, but I’m thinking this kid has grown into an adult with some serious issues. And I’m with Loren. I want to hear more stories from the Peanuts childhood of Bradley. (Did Mrs. Cunningham talk like this: “Wah, wah wah wah…”?)

  12. September 17, 2011 9:39 am

    You know, I look back at some of the things I did in childhood and wonder, “what was I thinking?” I was more intrigued with my own imagination and ideas than thinking through the potential consequences. Which is why I titled this “snakes and doves.” I was very innocent, yet I had this shrewd ability to outsmart the cheating bully.

    With Norman, I had gotten to know him well enough that I didn’t think he would really physically hurt me. He liked to intimidate, but (maybe it was just the young age) did not resort to beating the tar out of me. Probably would have been different if this had happened in middle school – 7th or 8th grade. But by that time, fear and survival was definitely dominant over my shrewd imagination.

    Thanks for reading, everyone.

  13. September 17, 2011 11:10 am

    This is one of your best ever. Now, see, you have your book. 🙂 Business with the Boys, or something like that. Could you let yourself write it?

  14. Phil permalink
    September 19, 2011 12:51 pm

    Brad, I couldn’t help but wonder why Mrs. C allowed Norman to steal your answers so often. Surely she knew he was not acing those tests on his own! Great read. Had you getting pummelled too though.

  15. September 20, 2011 12:51 pm

    Ha! Giving him a taste of his own medicine. I love this verse. I find that it comes in handy in the courtroom. We can be tough (and even a bit sly) and follow Jesus at the same time!

  16. September 29, 2011 4:24 pm

    I am laughing, but then the mom in me wants to lecture LOL I think if anyone copied from me they regretted it on a regular basis, at least in math and science.

    I am laughing at Marcus, I would also love to hear more Peanut stories, I am sure we all have our share…it does make me think of how I was not so popular, maybe by choice, but when we had our annual talent show, they never forgot me that year in 3rd grade! Heh!

  17. October 12, 2011 8:00 pm

    Brad, I’m with L.L. — this is your book. 😉 You had me gripped all the way to the end. I thought you were going to be beat up. For. sure. I hope my boys will be wise as serpents too!

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