It’s December in 7th Grade Honors Language Arts with the beloved Mrs. C. We are watching Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol (the black and white version). Mrs. C allows us to sit by our friends for this special occasion. Once we are settled, she turns down the lights and starts the movie. Barely five minutes into the movie (I think I just barely heard the “dead as a doornail” line), an annoying chattering is heard right behind me. Some of the boys in my class have begun to talk amongst themselves about football, or something. Mrs. C, everyone’s favorite teacher, calls the boys by their names and asks them to be quiet. There are some mumbled protests such as “I wasn’t talking”, “this movie sucks”, and “he started it” but generally things settle down.
A couple minutes later, Mrs. C calls out one of the boys for still talking. The boy, Jake, protests. He insists he was not speaking. But then, amazingly, his friends encourage him to just drop it.
See, we all were protective of Mrs. C. She was a lovely teacher with a giant heart. She had the most patience a middle school teacher could ever have and she was so invested in each and every one of us as an individual.
In an attempt to let things blow over, Jake huffs, “whatever” and, more in action than in words, gives in. Mrs. C- obviously hurt but also in an attempt to let things blow over- takes his reluctant response in a stride and turns the movie back on.
Almost immediately Mrs. C stops the movie, again. In a shaky voice, she asks Jake one more time to stop speaking.
“Do you think we can’t hear you?” she asks. She was emotional at the betrayal. She then offered Jake the ultimatum of either being quiet and watching the movie or leaving to sit in the principal’s office until the next period.
“I WASN’T TALKING!” Jake insisted so profusely, his voice cracked.
Immediately the whole classroom burst into chaos as everyone leapt to Mrs. C’s defense. Jake began to grow furious, even cursing at everyone for mistrusting him. Mrs. C, now completely in tears, orders him to leave to the principal’s office.
So, Jake- usually one of the “good kids” with very few detentions- left for the principal’s office.
I remember Mrs. C was so distraught. After all of the work she did to teach us right from wrong, on top of reading and writing skills, it had to be hard to watch one of her kids act in a way she never would have expected from him.
We all heard him speaking. We all saw him speaking. Remember? He was right behind me. I turned around and watched his lips move even after he insisted he had not spoken.
He was sooooo convinced that he was not the one speaking. He believed it with every fiber of his being so much that the normally very well-behaved child pushed one of his favorite teachers to tears, insisting he was not doing the thing we all knew he was doing.
It was then that I understood a little better the power of the brain over reality. I think that as much as we could not believe he would do something so blatantly wrong… he couldn’t believe that he would do something so blatantly wrong. Even when his friends called him out. Even when we all watched him. He had so much faith in his good-natured being, in the praises he got at every parent-teacher conference, every report card, every basketball game- that he believed he could do no wrong. Besides, he would never blatantly hurt Mrs. C; he loved Mrs. C!
I have a strong memory of Mrs. C sitting back down at her desk, dejected and almost broken… as if all of the hard work she had put into her job came to a grinding halt because of one student. The image of a dark classroom with the flickering of the black and white movie on the tube TV high up on its elevated pushcart and Mrs. C in the corner with her head on the desk is still ingrained in my brain.
I see that same kind of conviction Jake had in his side of the story in everyone. We all fight for what we believe to be true about ourselves. And unfortunately, there is no “adultier-adult” to send us to the principal’s office if we are wrong. Or even much of any consequences for misbehaving- a fact I am still coming to terms with being newly out of college. I know I have unintentionally hurt people before when many people would describe me as someone who would never hurt a fly (in fact I usually catch them and release them).
Around this season- political campaign season- this particular story always comes back to my mind. It hovers in the background, playing on despite the actual events in my life, just like A Christmas Carol did that day. It makes me hyper-aware of (at least) three uncomfortable and unsettling questions:
How many times has someone lied to me and I believed them?
How many times has my brain lied to me about the true reality of a situation and I believed it?
And… How many people am I unintentionally hurting because of my distorted sense of reality?
Jeez, “adulting” is hard, guys.