Issues, Life Lessons
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Making Prank Calls: Finding Retribution as a Kid in the 80s

a yellow telephone from the 1970s/80s

Growing up, I was a good kid. Forever on honor roll, obedient, well-mannered, and respectful. The kind of kid teachers in the late 70s and early 80s left in charge of the classroom when they had to step out for a moment. The kid who wielded that piece of chalk like a weapon and wouldn’t hesitate to write your name on the board if you made a sound or got out of your seat, in the teacher’s absence.

So I guess it would be more accurate to say I was a full-fledged goodie two shoes back then. Rules were meant to be followed. And I learned early on in elementary school that following the rules and getting good grades was an easy way to stay in the teachers’ good graces. And staying in teachers’ good graces was important to me — until sixth grade when I had a teacher who had disdain for the kids who got good grades.

Some of us overheard Mrs. K* tell another teacher that she didn’t like the weekly gifted-and-talented pull-out program because it was disruptive and because it made the smart kids think we were better than everyone else. But Mrs. K had no problem telling the class long-winded stories about her college-aged sons and how brilliant they were. So I guess being smart was fine as long as she’d given birth to you.

If a riot is the language of the unheard, then a prank call is the language of the grade school goodie two shoes falsely accused.

Mrs. K thought being in the gifted program made me feel superior, when in reality, being smart was the only thing that kept me from feeling inferior.  I didn’t think I was cute, and I’d already learned that there was currency in being cute. Being smart was the only thing I felt good about. And after having been bussed from my all-black neighborhood to integrate an all-white school in the suburbs for five years of elementary school, I needed to feel good about myself. And I really needed my first Black teacher since Mrs. Nelson (my goddess of a kindergarten teacher, she of the glorious ‘fro) to be in my corner.

But Mrs. K was not who I needed her to be. Her rules had rules, and even my goodie two shoes ass couldn’t keep up with all of them. Like the rule about not leaving your bookbag next to your desk because it might fall into the aisle, and she might trip over it. I forgot one day. And of course that day my bookbag did fall into the aisle. And of course Mrs. K tripped over it and almost did a faceplant. And of course some of my classmates laughed. 

I was sent to the office. This would be only my second time in the principal’s office; the first time was in elementary school when I’d been called down to give a witness statement regarding a playground fight. This time, I was in trouble. I had never been in trouble before. Yes, I had broken a rule, and yes, Mrs. K almost fell. And I was sorry about those things, but also angry because I felt like Mrs. K only sent me to the principal’s office because the other kids laughed and she was embarrassed. 

I was also angry that Mrs. K got away with being biased against the smart kids. I couldn’t prove it, but I felt that Mrs. K’s reaction to my bookbag was driven by this bias. My mother was called into the school because Mrs. K was convinced that I’d left my bookbag in the aisle on purpose, to trip her and cause a scene in the classroom. My mother, my advocate, successfully argued that nonsense away, and ultimately, I wasn’t punished. I just had to apologize to Mrs. K. And I did so, genuinely. But I seethed at the injustice of Mrs. K attempting to malign my character and fuck up my permanent record. I seethed at being powerless, at the mercy of an adult who did not have good intentions.

By summer break, my seething had hardened into a plan for retribution. If a riot is the language of the unheard, then a prank call is the language of the grade school goodie two shoes falsely accused.

I had limited prior experience with pranking. At sleepovers, my friends and I would prank call a boy that at least one of us liked, pretending to be a mysterious girl from school who just had to know who he liked in our grade. The hardest part of prank calling (or “crank calling,” as some folks call it, a la the TV show Crank Yankers) was not laughing in the background.

But the stakes were higher when it came time for me to settle the score with Mrs. K.

I had everything I needed: A phonebook, a phone, and Mrs. K’s husband’s first name. And I had an accomplice. My friend Lana and I had rolled our eyes throughout the school year at Mrs. K’s long, proud monologues about her husband and sons. For revenge purposes, we figured Mrs. K’s family to be her Achilles’ heel for our prank calls.

“Hi, Margaret. This is Candy,” Lana or I would say in our most sultry summer-before-seventh-grade voice. “Is Raymond there?”

“Who is this?” Mrs. K would demand to know.

“Candy. Please ask Raymond to bring milk and Pampers for our baby when he comes over tonight . . .”

And we made variations of this call multiple times, always with a fake name we hoped conjured thoughts of a stripper.

If Mrs. K knew it was Lana and me calling, she never let on. Before slamming down the phone, she would tell us that we should be ashamed of ourselves and that we should be in summer camp somewhere to occupy our idle minds. 

And of course Goodie Two Shoes Me was ashamed. We were awful. What we did was awful. And exhilarating. We hit Mrs. K where she lived, right in her respectability, right in her picture perfect family. We hit back in the only way we knew how.

Years later, when I was in my finishing up my first year of college, I received a care package and note wishing me well on my final exams — from Mrs. K. When she’d heard through the grapevine that I’d gotten accepted to Yale, she tracked my mom down to get my campus address. And, she wrote, she was very proud of me.

As I ate the goodies from the care package, I wondered what had caused Mrs. K’s disdain for smart kids to fade. I’ll never know. Mrs. K reached out to me a few years ago via email, full of nostalgia and maybe a little early onset dementia. I thought about confessing to the prank calls from that long-ago summer. I thought about asking Mrs. K why she had a chip on her shoulder about the gifted program and those of us who benefited from it. Eventually, I decided that all of it was water under the bridge. Maybe both of us had learned a lesson or two in the ensuing years. 

For sure, I never made another prank call after that summer. Pranking felt a bit like chaos. A small bit, but still too much for me to engage in on a regular basis, especially because it came with that side order of shame. But prank calling had been useful chaos, an equalizer of sorts. For summer-before-seventh-grade me, for still-figuring-out-my-worth me, that momentary power was exactly what I needed. 

*All names and initials changed.

Filed under: Issues, Life Lessons

by

Deesha Philyaw

Deesha Philyaw's collection of short stories about Black women, sex, and the Black church, The Secret Lives of Church Lives, is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in September 2020. Her work has been listed as Notable in the Best American Essays series, and her writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, dead housekeeping, Apogee Journal, Catapult, Cheat River Review, ESPN’s The Undefeated, The Baltimore Review, TueNight, Ebony and Bitch magazines, and various anthologies. Deesha is a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a past Pushcart Prize nominee for essay writing in Full Grown People. She is also the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband.

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