Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Good Story is a Terrible Thing to Waste

  As I was about to start my ninth grade physical science class a polite young girl raised her hand and asked me if I had ever been arrested. I was taken aback. Through the years I have been asked any number of personal questions, but never this one.

I responded, "No, not really. I mean I have had traffic tickets and things like that but no, I've never been arrested." Then I thought a little more and said, "Well maybe I have…"

If you want the attention of a classroom of ninth graders, telling them that you may have been arrested is a good way to start. I went on to tell them that I really wasn't sure. "What do you mean you aren't sure?" someone asked.
I explained that when I was ten or eleven, I had been picked up by the police and put in a little room for 2 or 3 hours until my parents came and got me, but I don't think I had actually been arrested.
"What were you picked up for?" several kids demanded. 
There was no retreating now, getting the class on task wasn't going to happen unless I told them the story. Which I did, honestly, and factually, and with little embellishment, at least as honestly and factually and unembellished as an event some fifty years earlier could be remembered. 
I grew up in a small town that we kids had the run of.  A new building that housed a drug store and a grocery store had been built out of bricks right downtown. As you entered the building the drug store was on the left and the grocery store on the right. In an effort to make a blank brick wall more aesthetically pleasing, the masons had laid every fifth brick or so standing about an inch out from the rest of the wall. This created a geometric pattern that ten or eleven year old boys could be pleased with and also a pattern that ten or eleven year old boys could immediately see was a pre-climbing-wall-era climbing wall. So that's what we did.  When we had nothing else going on we would wander down to the Nelson's Drug/IGA climbing wall and climb to the top, touch the overhang, climb down, and move on with the business of young boys in a small town. 
One Sunday morning my friend Dale Moore and I were roaming the downtown and came to the climbing wall. There were two other boys only slightly older than us there as well. We knew of them but we didn't really know them. And while we tackled the grocery store side, they started up on the drug store side. Dale and I both made it to the top and were headed down when we heard a crash off to our left. One of the other boys had touched the large plastic N of the Nelson's Drug sign and it had fallen to the sidewalk and shattered. 
There was a fellow sitting in his car reading a newspaper who had watched all this transpire. We stood on the sidewalk as he told the other two boys to go into the drug store and tell them what had happened. The man said nothing to us and we wandered off on our Sunday morning rounds. 
We were about two blocks away when a squad car pulled up and the policeman told us to get into the car. He drove to the police station and placed us in a small white room saying little. There was no sign of the other two boys and after an hour or so Dale Moore's parents came and took him home. I sat there for what seemed like a couple hours more until my folks picked me up. I don't remember being questioned about the event, but I am sure I was, and I was an honest kid so I am sure I told them just what had happened. 
"Were you scared Mr. Miller?" one of my students asked. 
"No, I what did I have to be afraid of? I hadn't done anything wrong except maybe climb a wall that every kid in town climbed." I replied. 
"So then what happened?" someone asked.
"Well not much. My folks took me home and I don't even remember being punished.  But when I got older I realized that those other two boys had gone into the store and told them that Dale and I had broken the sign, not them. We'd been framed. I was sent to the slammer for something I hadn't done."
My students all agreed that I had gotten a raw deal, and that those two boys were scoundrels and that I should have beaten them up. So finally I got the class back on track after this fifteen-minute diversion. 
About a week later, just as class was about to begin a different polite young girl raised her hand and asked if she could ask me a question. This  is always a red flag but I said, "Sure."
"So like when you were in jail did you get any tattoos?" she said with huge smile. 
I started laughing so hard I could barely choke out, "No! I didn't get any tattoos."
"Oh come on, show us your tattoos," someone shouted, "Everybody gets tattoos in jail."
Another kid chimed in, "Did you join any gangs, Mr. Miller? Did they make you join a gang?"
"What about the police, did you have to make some kind of deal to let you out of jail?"
The questions came rapid fire; I tried to maintain control but it was hopeless, a teacher doubled up laughing has no credibility. I don't know if my class had planned this ahead of time or not, but it didn’t matter, they had where they wanted me.  Kids love to get their teachers to this point. It's their ultimate victory, to make us join them. 
Finally after everyone settled down, I told them if I had ever imagined my little story would have made such a big impression I would never have stuck to the truth. I would have added the beatings, the interrogations under hot lights, the screams of the other inmates and of course the tattoos. 
But I guess I didn't really didn't need to, they made up their own version better than any that I might have fabricated.