By James Hilston
Originally published in the Post-Gazette
on June 18, 2011
Aren't you going to include your byline?"
It's a question I get every so often; it concerns the "James Hilston/Post-Gazette" line in the lower right corner of news graphics.
Sometimes I withhold my byline because it is little more than a re-tooled chart from a wire source. Other times because I am loath to take credit for simply compiling data and making it look pretty. I tend to reserve my byline for illustrations or more elaborate graphics. I suppose I'm overly obsessive about not taking credit for something I didn't do, or had only a small part in.
You may be thinking, "How nice. He's a modest guy." Or perhaps, "Who gives a rip about this?" Or, if you share my twisted and macabre sensibilities, "What emotionally scarring or profound event happened in this man's childhood that resulted in his obsessive reluctance to take credit for his accomplishments?"
Well, since you asked ...
• • •
It was 1977, the end-of-year awards assembly at Prospect Elementary School in Girard, Ohio, and I was in the sixth grade. I sat among my classmates and our parents, in guilty anticipation, listening to the calling of the names of the Presidential Physical Fitness Award recipients.
Each classmate who had met the physical challenges of the President's Council on Physical Fitness rose and walked to the stage on cue. I watched with growing anxiety as each received a certificate, a patch and a decal with the council's logo. There they were, each of my classmates, adding themselves, one at a time, to the growing line of award recipients.
Long before the day of the awards program, everyone knew whether they had passed the requirements and that their name would be called; except for me. Why didn't I know? Because, first, I had cheated and, second, I didn't know who else knew that I had cheated.
Most of the physical challenges had been easy for me, despite being the smallest male in my class. The pull-ups, the sit-ups, the running; none of these were affected by my diminutive size.
The softball throw was another matter. In previous years, I was able to throw a softball the required distance with little trouble. But, apparently, sixth-grade boys were expected to launch the oversized orb to distances a lot farther than my stunted stature and puny half-Asian throwing arm could muster.
We were given three attempts at each challenge, each performance dutifully recorded on clipboards by seventh-grade assistants. When it was my group's turn to throw the softball, seventh-grade assistant Jakey Wilker (not his real name, for reasons that will become apparent) was holding the clipboard. However, the supervising teacher, who had gone for a smoke in the faculty lounge, was nowhere in sight. Jakey was left in charge, along with his assistant, who measured each student's toss.
At the moment of truth -- which preceded by only a few minutes the moment of untruth -- my first throw was pathetic. Classmates tried to encourage me, offering assurances that my second attempt would be better. So I threw again, accompanied by a determined, prepubescent grunt. It was still far short of the required distance. Despite the reassuring words of my friends, it was clear that I wouldn't be getting the Presidential Physical Fitness Award this year. My third throw wasn't even close. My two-year streak would be broken.
"Let him try again!" urged my classmates, handing me another softball. I didn't want to. I knew it was hopeless, so I demurred. But my friends insisted, and Jakey was getting annoyed.
Jakey was tall for a seventh grader, and very athletic. In his impatience, he swiped the ball from my hand and whipped it down the field, easily clearing the heretofore insurmountable distance. He then picked up his clipboard, wrote something on it and said, "There. You passed. Now get out of here."
"That's it?" I wondered to myself.
I didn't know how to feel about what had just happened. I knew I wanted the award but didn't think I wanted it that way. These conflicting feelings troubled me, so I put the whole thing out of my head. Except for lying to my parents about passing the challenges, I didn't think about it again until the end of the school year -- as the end-of-year awards assembly drew near.
• • •
The names were announced alphabetically, so I had an idea of when my name would (or would not) be called.
As this day had approached, I had recalled my cheating, and I had begun to obsess about it.
Would I get the award? Or did Jakey betray me to Mrs. Faculty Lounge?
Had any of the classmates present at the moment of untruth revealed my crime to the authorities?
My parents were under the impression that I had passed the fitness challenge. How would they react if my name wasn't called? What would I tell them?
This was it. This moment of truth would reveal whether my moment of untruth had gone undiscovered or not.
No. Oh no. This could not be happening. I sneaked a glance at my parents. They looked confused. My father looked down at me. "Did they skip you?" I was terrified. I shrugged my shoulders.
I felt like crying. Standing proudly onstage were my friends, and here I was still sitting in the audience, a loser. A cheater, busted.
My father grew indignant. "You need to find out who's responsible for this. After this is over, you go talk to the principal."
I nodded in compliance.
My thoughts were racing. Someone had ratted me out. And I deserved it. All the teachers would be disappointed. The parents of my friends would know. "That Jimmy Hilston; he's a cheater. No child of mine is going to be friends with a cheater."
• • •
After the awards assembly, I did as my father asked. I found the principal at the back of the stage, standing amid the boxes of certificates, patches and decals. I told him that my name wasn't called for the Physical Fitness award.
"You passed the challenges?"
I nodded. "I'm pretty sure I did," I lied.
"Well, here you go then."
He wrote my name on the blank line on one of the certificates, pulled a patch and a decal out of their respective boxes and handed them to me. I thanked him and skittered away, shouldering as much guilt and confusion as a sixth grader could inflict upon himself and thereafter living in fear, knowing that at any moment this skeleton could come clattering out of my closet for all the world to see.
That was 44 years ago. No one has ever approached me about my crime. It appears I got away with it. To my knowledge, not a single word was ever said; not by Jakey, nor by any of my classmates. But despite any statute of limitations, the guilt lingers, along with the residual fear of taking credit for something I did not do.
The original article can be read here: http://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/Op-Ed/2011/06/18/Saturday-Diary-Taking-credit-where-credit-is-not-due/stories/201106180116