Tuesday, October 14, 2008

And that's the truth

When I was young and really stupid, there were some rules I just thought were nonsense, so I broke them. They were tiny, like my habit of running red lights if it was very late and there was no traffic in sight. I rationalized that traffic lights at that hour and under such conditions should be blinking, with stopping required only if there were pedestrians or other cars present. Any reasonable cop would have to agree with me if I should be caught. (I never was.) When I was very little and my parents made me go to bed earlier than the rest of the family, I would never go right to sleep. I'd lie awake until my parents came upstairs to bed. I knew they'd come in and check on me, so I'd close my eyes, lie very still and pretend to be sleeping. But I'd move something they couldn't see--a finger or toe or something--right at the moment when one of them stuck their head into the room. I was pleased to be able to fool them. Got one over! Proved it was dumb to make me go to bed so early. (Of course my parents never knew about these machinations, so the point was made only to myself, but that was its own reward.) I never harbored any guilt about these little ruses because they proved some point or other, demonstrated some tiny injustice.

Outright lying is something else again. I'm at a total loss when it comes to that because I'm not capable of dissimulation. Any time I've tried to lie, or to cover up something important, I've failed when the chips were down. Whatever I was trying to hide would invariably be overtaken by events beyond my control and I'd be forced to own up to something I should have admitted from the start. My most memorable such occasion was when I was in the 4th grade. My teacher, Mrs. Wilson, gave me special jobs because...oh heck, I was a goody-two-shoes teacher's pet. One day she gave me a check for $20 and asked me to go to the bank in the shopping center next to the school and cash it for her. Very cool! I got to lord it all over my classmates by doing something special for the teacher, and I got a walk outside to boot! I cashed the check and, instead of just carrying the money visibly in my hand (something the world told you never to do), I tucked it inside my coat. There was no pocket in there but the coat was tight and I knew the bill would rest securely.

Of course, when I got back to the classroom, the $20 bill was gone. It must have slipped out of my coat. In that moment, I came crashing down from my pedestal. I'll never forget the look on Mrs. Wilson's face when I told her I couldn't find the money, morphing from a kindly, expectant smile to horror, and finally utter disdain. (Twenty dollars was a lot of money at the time.) I was undone for the rest of the day, just sat limp at my desk, feeling my classmates' eyes all on me. In the cafeteria, even other teachers pointed at me and whispered to each other.

This episode was too shaming for me ever to tell anyone about it, least of all my parents. I resolved to shoulder the burden alone. I wrote a note to Mrs. Wilson apologizing for the loss and telling her I would pay her back in weekly installments from my allowance. I put the note in my pants pocket to sleep on it, and then forgot about it--until my mother found the note as she got clothes ready to wash. It was a Saturday afternoon. She called my father and they both confronted me and asked what happened; I had to spill out the whole sordid mess, in full expectation of being berated for my irresponsibility. Indeed when they heard the story my parents were furious....but not at me! They couldn't believe that Mrs. Wilson had entrusted a 9-year-old boy with such responsibility (I really had never had $20 in my hand before), and that she had the nerve to ask me to do such a thing in the first place. So instead of my groveling note, Mrs. Wilson received a blistering reprimand from my mother and father.

Mrs. Wilson never mentioned the incident again, but a while later she gave a lecture to the class about responsibility that included a claim that we were "not too young" for certain things. So she got the last word, but my life was liveable once again, and I'd had lesson number one, literally, in "life isn't always pretty." I was a bit more seasoned by the time I reached 10, a bit more careful. And I never tried to lie again about anything. The shame at being caught was much worse than simply admitting whatever it was at the start and accepting the consequences.

It was a good lesson but sometimes I think I took it too well. With me, what you see is what you get. I'm so implacably myself that I've never been a good actor. I'd find an acting class a worthwhile challenge just to be able to learn to pretend creatively, gaining some new insight from living for a while in someone else's skin. I'm envious of people who can pull such a thing off so effortlessly and movingly. But then, I can do things they probably wish they could do. Everything balances out and the world spins on....

9 comments:

Kat said...

Ralph,
I'm lost with this one. To whom did you lie? It seems you neglected to tell your parents so is that the lie?

Ralph said...

I consider these things "living lies," Kat. Carrying a burden of truth untold. No, I didn't verbally lie to anyone, but for a short while I lived a lie.

Jeff said...

A mentor of mine once said about a situation we faced with a client - "It depends upon how much truth you want to tell."
We do hide sometimes - all of us do. We spin tales about ourselves that we tell ourselves and occasionally to other people. But the problem with the lie is that we have to remember the ones we told while the truth always remains constant.
Who ever said it would be easy? :)

Ralph said...

You're right of course, Jeff...we all have our cherished myths. Maybe I think I've been caught out more than other people, but maybe I haven't.

Nan said...

Isn't it amazing how we hold on to these kinds of things from our childhoods? I loved this post. I can relate to in in a number of ways.

Oh, and thanks for the Joni post. One of my favorites. It is actually one of the ones that Tom and I "perform" when we get together with friends for a sing. The range is a bit tough, but I can manage. Such a fun song.

Ralph said...

Thanks, Mim. And I'd LOVE to see this Joni impersonation!

Peggy said...

Wow, this was most interesting! I can relate to the fact that a lie will always come back to haunt you. Although in your case, Ralph, you really didn't lie, you just kept it to yourself. Thanks for sharing.

Ralph said...

Thanks, Peggy. Like I said to Kat, "not telling" is the same as lying to me--misrepresenting yourself, a lie come to life through action instead of words. You know, I wasn't raised a Catholic--in fact my relogious upbrining was pretty loosey-goosey--but I seem to have developed a very strong conscience along the way. Again, probably because I hated being caught in my "lies," spoken or otherwise. I agree with Jeff that we all have our own foundational myths that we nurture and show to the world. Me implying "I never lie" is one of mine. But I try to be honest, and if I can't be honest, then I make an effort to err on the side of kindness.

Mark said...

Ralph - of course a 9-year-old is way too young to be sent to a bank and carry around a twenty. Mrs Wilson had a lot to learn, herself. What she did was place you in a situation where you were in danger of shame and embarrassment. It's sort of like asking an EMT to perform brain surgery and then blaming them if it goes wrong; it's all about whether one is ready and equipped to perform certain tasks.

I love telling young ones that when I was a high school hellcat and spent most of the day in the admin office, the vice principal, Mr Marsilio, used to hand me a dollar and send me to the drugstore and say "Get me a pack of Kents and a coke...and get yourself something too..." For a dollar!! I'd get my Kools and a coke with his change. He also had me drive him downtown in his car and circle the block while he ran into a travel agency and picked up airplane tickets. I could have driven off in his Impala wagon, but why become a felon at 17?

Your blog is invariably interesting and entertaining. So glad to know you!