The Cruelty of Children
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From PRI, Public Radio International. From PRI, Public Radio. From PRI, Public Radio. Public Radio. Public Radio International.
I was talking to a first-grader about libraries, and I suddenly found myself talking about bullies. That's the thing about the idea of the bullies, the idea is so powerful that it can derail any conversation and pull it towards its own orbit. Here's how it happened. We were on a school bus. I was asking the first-grader what kinds of books he takes out from the library, and that was all it took. Suddenly he launches into this big thing.
This kid in our class, he's a bully, and he takes out bully books. He takes out bully ones.
Like what are the bully books?
They teach you how to be meaner, to push people around and stuff.
There are books to teach you how to be mean?
Yeah. And nice. There's this one book that's called, bully, bully's are made for pushing around, and bullies make all the rules, and they be picking on nice kids.
As far as I was able to determine later, talking with parents and teachers and consulting with books in print, there is no book. There is no real book that corresponds to the book this first-grader thinks he saw the bully read. And you know, it's a shame. It was such a comforting thought. Why are people bullies? Why are they so mean? Why do they push you sometimes, and take your change, and say nasty things? Maybe they're just getting it from a book.
I'm surprised. Are you sure that that's what the book was about? I can't believe somebody would write a book saying, here's how to be mean to other people.
Well, maybe the person who wrote it was probably a bully himself.
Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Back for another week documenting stories of these United States using all the tools of radio storytelling-- documentaries, monologues, overheard conversations, found tapes, anything we can think of.
And today we bring you three stories about the cruelty of children. Act one, writer David Sedaris explains why he made fun of sissy boys when he was one himself. Act two, children and a man trapped in a well. And act three, well, just stay with us and listen.
Act One. I Like Guys.
Act one. David Sedaris is a regular contributor to our program. His latest book is Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. And this next story was recorded a few years ago at a fundraiser for the program Stories on Stage here in Chicago. In this story, David Sedaris describes a web of meanness which he participates in, as a victim sometimes, and as a perpetrator sometimes. Quick warning-- some moments in the story might not be suitable for younger listeners.
These are things I'm working on for a new book, a collection of nonfiction stories. When asked if they're true, I prefer to answer that they're true enough. The only thing you'll need to know in terms of this first story is that during the seventh and eighth grade, I normally spent my summers working at Dorothea Dix, a state mental hospital, and that by law, every homosexual must at some point write a variation of this exact story-- "I Like Guys."
Shortly before graduating the eighth grade, it was announced that, come fall, our county school system would adopt a policy of integration by way of forced busing. My Spanish teacher broke the news in a way she hoped might lead us to a greater understanding of her beauty and generosity.
"I remember the time I was at the state fair, standing in line for a snow cone," she said, fingering the kiss curls that trained her squat, compact face. "And a little colored girl ran up and tugged at my skirt, asking if she could touch my hair, 'Just once,' she said, 'just one time for luck.' Now, I don't know about the rest of you, but my hair means a lot to me."
The members of my class nodded to signify that their hair meant a lot to them, as well. They inched forward in their seats, wondering where this story might be going. Perhaps the little girl was holding a concealed razor blade. Maybe she was one of the troublemakers out for fresh white scalp. I sat marveling at their naivete. Like all her other antidotes, this woman's story was headed straight up her ass.
"I checked to make sure she didn't have any candy on her hands, and then I bent down and let this colored girl touch my hair." The teacher's eyes assumed that dewy, faraway look she reserved for such Hallmark moments. "Then this little fudge colored child put her hand on my cheek and said, 'Oh,' she said, 'I wish I could be white and pretty like you.'"
She paused, positioning herself on the edge of the desk as though she were posing for a portrait the government might use on a stamp commemorating gallantry. "The thing to remember," she said, "is that more than anything in the world these people wish they were white."
I just wasn't buying it. This was the same teacher who, when announcing her pregnancy, said, "I just pray my first baby is a boy. I'll have a boy, and then, maybe later, I'll have a girl, because if you do it the other way around, there's a good chance the boy will turn out to be funny."
"Funny as in having no arms and legs?" I asked.
"That," the teacher said, "is far from funny. That is tragic. And you, sir, should have your lips sewn shut for saying such an ugly thing. When I say funny I mean funny as in," she relaxed her wrist, allowing her hand to dangle and flop, "I mean funny as in that kind of funny." She minced across the room, but it failed to illustrate her point, as this was her natural walk. A series of gambling little steps, her back held straight, giving the illusion she was balancing something of value atop her empty head.
My math teacher did a much better version. A former coach, he accompanied his routine with a high pitched lisp, snatching a purse off the back of a student's chair, he pranced about the room, batting his eyes and blowing kisses at the boys seated on the front row. [? "'Tho 'fery nice to meet you," he'd say. Not wanting to draw any attention to myself, I hooted and squawked along with the rest of the class, all the while thinking, that's me he's talking about.
What really bothered me was that this was such an easy way to get a laugh. As entertainers, these teachers were nothing, zero, they could barely impersonate themselves. "Look at you," the coach would shout, skipping across the basketball court. "You're a group of ladies, a bunch of silly queers."
I had never done anything with another guy, and literally prayed it would never happen. As much as I fantasized about it, I understood that there could be nothing worse than that. You'd see them on television from time to time, the homosexuals, maybe on one of the afternoon talk programs or filling in as a contestant on one of the game shows. They were the celebrities never asked about their home life, the men running a scarf under their toupee or framing their face with their open palms in an attempt to eliminate the circles beneath their eyes. "The poor man's face lift," my mother called it.
Regardless of their natty attire, they were always sweaty and desperate, willing to play the fool in exchange for the studio applause they seemed to mistake for love and acceptance. I saw something of myself in their mock weary delivery and the way they crossed their legs and laughed at their own jokes.
I pictured their homes, the finicky placement of their throw rugs and sectional sofas, the magazines carefully fanned just so upon the coffee table, with no wives or children to disturb their order. I imagined the pornography hidden in their closets and envisioned them powerless and sobbing as the police led them away in shackles, past the teenage boy who stood bathed in the light of the television news camera, shouting, "That's him. He's the one who touched my hair."
It was my plan to win a contest, cash in my prizes, and use the money to visit a psychiatrist who might cure me of having homosexual thoughts. I would tell my family I'd given the money to charity, and then, under the doctor's supervision, I would really buckle down and change. I swore I would.
My parents knew a couple whose son had killed a minister while driving drunk. They had friends whose oldest daughter had sprinkled a bundt cake with Comet, and once vacationed with a man whose children had set fire to the family's elderly border collie. Yet they spoke of no one whose son was a homosexual. The odds struck me as bizarre, but the message was the same. This was clearly the worst thing that could happen to a person.
I washed my hands until they were pink and wrinkled, and then, deciding that clean hands were a sure giveaway, I dug my fingers into my mother's planter in order to pack dirt beneath my nails. The day to day anxiety was bad enough without my instructors taking their feeble little potshots. If my math teacher were able to subtract the alcohol from his diet, he'd still be on the football field where he belonged, and my Spanish teacher's credentials were based on nothing more than a long weekend in Tijuana as far as I was concerned.
Except for a few transfer students, I'd known most of the homosexuals since third grade. We'd spent years gathered together in cinder block offices as one speech therapist after another tried curing us of our lisps. Had there been a walking specialist, we would have met there, too. These were the same boys who avoided the shortcut through the woods and were the first to raise their hands when the teacher asked for a volunteer to read aloud from The Yearling or Lord of the Flies.
We had long ago identified one another and understood that, because of everything we had in common, we could never be friends. To socialize would have drawn too much attention to ourselves. We were members of a secret society based upon self-loathing. When a teacher or a classmate made fun of a real homosexual, I made certain my laugh was louder than anyone else's. When a society member's clothing was thrown into the locker room toilet, I was always the first to cheer. When it was my clothing, I watched as the faces of my fellows broke into recognizable expressions of relief. They had been spared, and now it was someone else's turn.
Several of my teachers, when discussing the upcoming school integration, would scratch at the damp stains beneath their arms, pulling back their lips to display every bit of tooth and gum. They made monkey noises, a manic succession of oohs and aahs I imagined they practiced nightly in their bedrooms. If an ape were seated in the room, I guess he might have identified their's as a cry of panic.
Anything that caused them suffering brought me joy, but I doubted they would talk this way come fall. From everything I've seen on television, the negroes would never settle for such foolishness. As a people, they seemed to stick together, waving their fists against the backdrop of a fiery sky. They knew how to fight, and I hoped that, once they arrived, the battle might come down to black and white, leaving the rest of us alone.
At the end of the school year, my sister Lisa and I were excused from our volunteer jobs and sent to Greece to attend a month long summer camp advertised as the crown jewel of the Ionian Sea. The camp was reserved exclusively for Greek Americans, and featured instruction in such topics as folk dancing and religious training. I detested the idea of summer camp, but wanted to boast that I'd been to Europe. "It changes people," our neighbor had said, marking her garden with a series of tissue sized international flags. "Europe is the best thing that can happen to a person, especially if you like wine."
I saw Europe as an opportunity to reinvent myself. I might still look and speak the same way, but having walked those ancient cobblestone streets, I would be identified as continental. "He has a passport," my classmates would whisper. "Quick, let's run before he judges us."
I told myself I would find a girlfriend in Greece. She would be a French tourist wandering the beach with a loaf of bread beneath her arm. Lisette would prove that I wasn't a homosexual, but a man with refined tastes. I pictured us holding hands against the silhouette of the Acropolis, her begging me to take a recording as a memento of our love.
"Silly you," I would say, brushing the tears from her eyes. "Just give me the beret, that'll be enough to hold you in my heart until the end of time." In case no one believed me, I would have my sister as a witness. Lisa and I weren't getting along very well, but hopefully the warm Mediterranean breezes might melt the icicle she seemed to have mistaken for a rectal thermometer.
My father accompanied us to New York where we met our fellow campers for the charter flight. There were hundreds of them, each one confident and celebratory. They tossed their complimentary Aegean Airlines bags across the room, shouting and jostling one another. Were it an all girls camp, I would have been able to work up some enthusiasm, but spending a month in the company of boys, that was asking too much.
I tried to put it out of my mind, but faced with their boisterous presence, I found myself growing progressively more hysterical. My nervous tics shifted into their highest gear, and a crowd gathered, watching what they believed to be an epileptic seizure.
If my sister was anxious about the trip, she certainly didn't show it. Prying my fingers off her wrist, she crossed the room and introduced herself to a fellow camper. This was a tough looking Queens native named Stephanie Heartattackis or Testacokales. I recall only that her last name had granted her a lifelong supply of resentment. Stephanie wore mirrored aviator sunglasses and carried an oversize comb in the back pocket of her hip hugger jeans. Of all the girls in the room, she seemed the least likely candidate for my sister's friendship.
They sat beside one another on the plane, and by the time we disembarked in Athens, Lisa was speaking in a bad Queens accent. During the long flight, while I sat cowering beside a boy named Semen, my sister had undergone a complete physical and cultural transformation. Her shoulder length hair was now parted on the side, covering the left side of her face as if to conceal a nasty scar. She cursed and spat, scowling out the bus window as if she'd come to Greece with the sole intention of kicking its ass. "What a [BLEEP] hole," she yelled. "Jesus, if I'd known it was going to be this hot, I would have stayed home with my head in the oven, right goils?
I approached her once we reached the camp, a cluster of whitewashed buildings hugging the desolate coast far from any neighboring village. "Listen [BLEEP] hole," she said, "as far as this place is concerned, I don't know you, and you sure as [BLEEP] don't know me. You got that?" "Hey, Carolina," one of her friends called. "All right, already," she brayed, "I'm coming, I'm coming." That was the last time we spoke until she borrowed money a week before returning home.
Lisa had adjusted with remarkable ease. Although we were cut from the same cloth, something deep in my stomach suggested I wouldn't do nearly so well. Camp lasted a month, during which time, I never once had a bowel movement. I was used to having a semi-private bathroom, and could not bring myself to occupy one of the men's room stalls, fearful that someone might recognize my shoes.
Sitting down three times a day for a heavy Greek meal became an exercise akin to packing a musket. I told myself I'd sneak off during one of our field trips, but those toilets were nothing more than a hole in the ground, a hole I could have easily filled with no problem whatsoever. I considered using the Ionian Sea, but for some unexplained reason, we were not allowed to swim in those waters.
The camp had an Olympic size pool which was fed from the sea, and soon grew murky with stray bits of jelly fish, which had been pulverized by the pump. The tiny tentacles raised welts, so shortly after arriving, it was announced that we could photograph both the pool and the ocean, but we could swim in neither. The Greeks had invented democracy, built the acropolis, and then called it a day.
The camp was basically an extension of my junior high school, except here, everyone had either an excess of moles or a single eyebrow. The attractive, sports minded boys ran the show, currying favors from the staff and ruining the weekly outdoor movies with their inane heckling. From time to time, the rented tour buses would carry us to view one of the country's many splendors, and we would raid the gift shops, stealing anything that wasn't bolted down to the shelf. These were cheap plated puzzle rings and pint-size vases, little pom pom shoes and coffee mugs reading, "Sparta is for a lover."
My shoplifting experience was the only thing that gave me an edge over the popular boys. "Hold it like this," I whispered, "then swivel around and slip the statue of Diana down the back of your shorts, covering it with your t-shirt. Just remember to always back out the door, and never forget to wave goodbye."
There was one boy at camp I felt at ease with, a Detroit native named Pete who stepped on the bunk below me. Pete looked away while talking to the other boys, shifting his eyes as if he were studying the weather conditions. Like me, he used his free time to curl in a fetal position, staring at the bedside calendar upon which he'd exed out all the days he'd so far endured.
We were finishing our 7:15 to 7:45 wash and rinse segment one morning, when the counselor arrived for inspection, shouting, "What are you, a bunch of goddamn faggots who can't make your goddamn beds?" I found myself giggling at his stupid choice of words, if any knew how to make their bed, it was a faggot. It was the others he needed to worry about.
I caught Pete laughing, too, and soon, we took to mocking this counselor, referring to one another first as faggots, and then as stinking faggots. We were lazy faggots and sunburnt faggots before we eventually became faggoty faggots. We couldn't protest the word as it would have meant acknowledging the truth of it. The most we could do was embrace it as a joke, and in doing so, embody its darkest meaning, mincing and prancing about the room for each other's entertainment while the others weren't looking.
Faggot as a word was always delivered in a harsh, unforgiving tone, befitting anyone weak or stupid enough to act upon their impulses. This was a game, less humiliating than soccer, but certainly more dangerous. Late at night, I'd feel my bunk buck and sway, knowing that Pete was either masturbating or beating eggs for an omelet. Is that me he's thinking about? Joining in, I would awake the next morning to find our entire iron framed unit had wandered a good foot away from the wall. Let the mountains stay where they were, our love had the power to move bunks.
Having no willpower, we depended on circumstances to keep us apart. "This can't happen" was accompanied by the sound of bed springs whining, "Oh, but why can't it?" There came an afternoon when, running late for flag worship, we found ourselves alone in the cabin. What started off as name calling soon escalated to a series of mock angry slaps. We wrestled one another onto one of the lower bunks, knowing that these were not regulation holds, yet unable to stop ourselves.
"You kids think you invented sex," my mother was fond of saying. But hadn't we? With no written instruction manual or pre-scheduled rehearsal, didn't each of us come away feeling we had discovered something unspeakably modern? What produced in others a sense of swaggering exhilaration left Pete and I with a mortifying sense of guilt.
We fled the room as if, in our fondlings, we had uncapped some virus we might still escape if we ran hard enough. Had one of the counselors not caught me scaling the fence, I was certain I would've made it back to Raleigh by morning, skittering across the surface of the water like one of those lizards often featured on the television wildlife specials.
When discovered making out with one of the Greek bus drivers, a 16 year-old camper was forced to stand beside the flag pole, dressed in long pants and thick sweaters. We watched her broil in the hot sun until, fully cooked, she stumbled for a moment or two before passing out. If this was a punishment for a boy and a girl, I could not begin to imagine the punishment they might level upon two boys.
Nothing, however, could match the cruelty and humiliation we soon practiced against one another. Pete started a rumor that I had stolen an athletic supporter from another camper and worshipped it as a keepsake. I retaliated, claiming that he had expressed a desire to become a dancer. "That's nothing," he said to the assembled crowd, "take a look at what I found on David's bed." He reached into the pocket of his shorts and withdrew a sheet of notebook paper upon which were written the words, "I like guys."
Presented as an indictment, the document was both pathetic and comic. Would I supposedly have written a note to remind myself of that fact, least I forget? Had I intended to wear it taped to my bare back, advertising my preference next time our rented buses carried us off to yet another sun-drenched sexual playground? I like guys. He held the paper above his head, turning a slow circle so that everyone might get a chance to see it.
I suppose he originally intended to plant it on my bunk for one of the counselors to find. Presenting it himself had foiled the note's intended effect. The other boys groaned and looked away, wondering why he'd picked it up and carried the thing around. He might as well have cradled a glistening turd, shouting, "Look what he did." Touching such a foul document made him suspect and guilty by association. In attempting to discredit one another, we round up alienating ourselves even further.
During meals, I studied him from across the room. Clearly he had tricked me, cast a spell or slipped something into my food. I watched as he befriended a girl named Theodora and held her hand during a screening of A Lovely Way to Die, one of the cave paintings the camp offered as a weekly movie. She wasn't a bad person, Theodora. Someday, the doctors might find a way to transplant a calf's brain into a human skull, and she'd be just as lively and intelligent as he was. I tried to find a girlfriend of my own, but my one possible candidate was sent home after her leg brace got caught in the grill of a delivery truck.
Pete looked convincing enough in the company of his girlfriend. They scrambled up the steps of various ruins, snapping one another's pictures and sharing their private jokes, while I watched them, fuming. My jealousy stemmed from the belief that he had been cured. One fistful of my flesh, and he had lost all symptoms of the disease.
"We're thinking of getting married," I heard him boast to one of the other campers. "She lives in Florida, and I'm in Michigan, but if we wait a year, I'm pretty sure 16 is a legal age in Georgia." Yeah right, I thought. Legal age in Greece appeared to be about 12, why not just stay here, raise some goats, and start your own delivery service, you stupid, lying faggot.
Camp ended and I flew home with my legs crossed, dropping my bag of stolen souvenirs to race to the bathroom, where I spent the next several days sitting on the toilet and studying my face in a hand mirror. I like guys. The words had settled themselves into my features. I returned to my job at the mental hospital, carrying harsh Greek cigarettes I offered as incentives to some of the more difficult patients.
"Faggot," one woman shouted, stooping to protect the collection of pine cones. "Get your faggoty hands away from my radio transmitters." "Don't mind her," the orderly said, "she's crazy." Maybe not, I thought, holding a pine cone up to my ear. She'd gotten the faggot part right, so maybe she was on to something.
The moment we'd boarded our return flight from Kennedy to Raleigh, Lisa had rearranged her hair, dropped her accent, and turned to me, saying, "Well, I thought that was very nice. How about you?" Over the course of five minutes, she had eliminated all traces of her reckless European self. Why couldn't I do the same?
Shortly before school began, I discovered that I would not be bused. There had been violence in other counties and states, troubles as far away as Boston, but in Raleigh the transition was peaceful. Not only the students, but many of the teachers had been shifted from one school to another. My new science teacher was a negro very adept at swishing his way across the room, mocking everyone from Albert Einstein to the dweebish host of a popular children's television program.
Black and white, the teachers offered their ridicule as an olive branch. "Here," they said, "this is something we all have in common. Proof that we're all brothers under the skin." Thank you.
David Sedaris, reading years ago at a benefit for Stories on Stage. That story was later published in David's book Naked.
Coming up, kids decide not to save a man trapped in a well. Plus, an experiment that actually made kids less cruel. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Two. The Man In The Well.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and performers to take a whack at the theme. Today's theme is cruelty of children-- not cruelty to children, mind you, cruelty of children. And our next story is by writer Ira Sher. And in it, the children aren't cruel in a mean spirited or typical way, but the effect of their actions constitutes a kind of cruelty.
I was nine when I discovered the man in the well in an abandoned farm lot near my home. I was with a group of friends playing hide and go seek, or something, when I found the well, and then I heard the voice of the man in the well calling out for help.
I think it's important that we decided not to help him. Everyone, like myself, was probably on the verge of fetching a rope, or asking where we could find a ladder, but then we looked around at each other, and it was decided. I don't remember if we told ourselves a reason why we couldn't help him, but we had decided then. Because of this, I never went very close to the lip of the well, or I only came up on my hands and knees, so that he couldn't see me.
And just as we wouldn't allow him to see us, I know that none of us ever saw the man in the well. The well was too dark for that, too deep, even when the sun was high up angling down the stone sides like golden hair. I remember that we were still full of games and laughter when we called down to him. He had heard us shouting while we were playing, and he had been hollering for us to come.
He was so relieved at that moment. "God, get me out. I've been here for days." He must've known we were children, because he immediately struggled us to go get a ladder, get help. At first afraid to disobey the voice from the man in the well, we turned around and actually began to walk toward the nearest house, which was Arthur's.
But along the way, we slowed down, and then we stopped. And after waiting what seemed like a good while, we quietly came back to the well. We stood or lay around the lip, listening for maybe half an hour. And then Arthur, after some hesitation, called down, "What's your name?" This, after all, seemed like the most natural question. The man answered back immediately. "Do you have the ladder?" We all looked at Arthur, and he called back down, "No, we couldn't find one."
Now that we had established some sort of a dialogue, everyone had questions he or she wanted to ask the man in the well. The man wouldn't stop speaking. "Go tell your parents there's someone in this well. If they have a rope, or a ladder," he trailed off. His voice was raw, and sometimes he would cough. "Just tell your parents."
We were quiet, but this time, no one stood up or moved. Someone, I think little Jason, called down, "Hello. Is it dark?" And then after a moment, "Can you see the sky?" He didn't answer, but instead told us to go again. When we were quiet for a bit, he called to see if we were gone. After a pause, Wendy crawled right to the edge so that her hair lifted slightly in the updraft. "Is there any water down there?"
"Have they gone for help?" He asked. She looked around at us, and then she called down, "Yes. They're all gone now. Isn't there any water down there?" I don't think anyone smiled at how easy it was to deceive him. This was too important. "Isn't there?" She said again.
"No," he said. "It's very dry." He cleared his throat. "Do you think it will rain?" She stood up and took in the whole sky with her blue eyes, making sure. "No, I don't think so." We heard him cough in the well, and we waited for a while, thinking about him waiting in the well. Resting on the grass and cement by the well, I tried to picture him. I tried to imagine the gesture of his hand reaching to cover his mouth each time he coughed. Or perhaps he was too tired to make that gesture each time.
After an hour, he began calling again, but for some reason, we didn't want to answer. We got up and began running, filling up with panic as we moved, until we were racing across the ruts of the old field. I kept turning, stumbling as I looked behind. Perhaps he had heard us getting up and running away from the well. Only Wendy stayed by the well for a while, watching us run as his calling grew louder and wilder, until finally she ran, too, and then we were far away.
The next morning, we came back, most of us carrying bread or fruit, or something to eat, in our pockets. Arthur brought a canvas bag from his house and a plastic jug of water. When we got to the well, we stood around quietly for a moment, listening for him. "Maybe he's asleep," Wendy said. We sat down around the mouth of the well on an old concrete slab, warming in the sun, and coursing with ants and tiny insects.
Aaron called down then, when everyone was comfortable, and the man answered right away, as if he had been listening to us the whole time. "Did your parents get help?" Arthur kneeled at the edge of the well and called, "Watch out." And then he let the bag fall after holding it out for a moment, maybe for the man to see.
It hit the ground more quickly than I expected. That, combined with the feeling that he could hear everything we said, made him suddenly closer, as if he might be able to see us. I wanted to be very quiet so that if he heard or saw anyone, he would not notice me. The man in the well started coughing, and Arthur volunteered, "There's some water in the bag. We all brought something."
We could hear him moving around down there. After a few minutes he asked us, "When are they coming? What did your parents say?" We all looked at each other, aware that he couldn't address anyone in particular. He must've understood this, because he called out in his thin, groping voice, "What are your names?"
No one answered until Aaron, who was the oldest, said, "My father said he's coming with the police, and he knows what to do." We admired Aaron very much for coming up with this on the spot. "Are they on their way?" The man in the well asked. We could hear that he was eating. "My father said, don't worry, because he's coming with the police."
Little Jason came up next to Aaron and asked, "What's your name," because we still don't know what to call him. When we were talking among ourselves, he had simply become the man. He didn't answer, so Jason asked him how old he was, and then Grace came up too and asked him something, I don't remember. Finally, we all stopped talking, and we lay down on the cement.
It was a hot day, so after a while, Grace got up, and then little Jason, and another young boy, Robert, I think, and went to town to sit in the cool movie theater. That was what we did most afternoons back then. After an hour, everyone had left except Wendy and myself, and I was beginning to think that I would go, too.
He called up to us all of a sudden. "Are they coming now?" "Yes," Wendy said, looking at me, and I nodded my head. She sounded certain. "Aaron said his dad is almost here." As soon as she said it she was sorry, because she'd broken one of the rules. I could see it on her face, eyes filling with space as she moved back from the well. Now he had one of our names.
She said, "They're going to come," to cover up the mistake. There it was, and there was nothing to do about it. The man in the well didn't say anything for a few minutes, then he surprised us again by asking, "Is it going to rain?" Wendy stood up and turned around, like she had done the other day. The sky was clear. "No," she said.
Then he asked again, "They're coming, you said, Aaron's dad?" And he shouted, "Right," so that we jumped and stood up and began running away, just as we had the day before. We could hear him shouting for a while, and we were afraid someone might hear. I thought that toward the end maybe he had said he was sorry, but I never asked Wendy what she thought he'd said.
Everyone was there again on the following morning. It was all I could think about during supper the night before, and then the anticipation in the morning over breakfast. My mother was very upset with something at the time. I could hear her weeping at night in her room downstairs, and the stubborn murmur of my father. There was a feeling to those days, months, actually, that I can't describe without resorting to the man in the well, as if through a great whispering, like a gathering of clouds, or the long sound, the turbulent wreck of the ocean.
At the well, we put together the things to eat we had smuggled out, but we hadn't even gotten them all in the bag when the voice of the man in the well soared out sharply, "They're on their way now." We stood very still so that he couldn't hear us, but I knew what was coming, and I couldn't do anything to soften or blur the words of the voice. "Aaron," he pronounced, and I had imagined him practicing that voice, all night long, and holding it in his mouth so that he wouldn't let it slip away in his sleep.
Aaron lost all the color in his face, and he looked at us with suspicion, as if we had somehow taken on a part of the man in the well. I didn't even glance at Wendy. We were both too embarrassed. Neither of us said anything. We were all quiet then. Arthur finished assembling the bag, and we could see his hand shaking as he dropped it into the well. We heard the man in the well moving around.
After 10 minutes or so, Grace called down to him, "What's your name?" But someone pulled her back from the well, and we became silent again. Today the question humiliated us with its simplicity. There was no sound for a while from the well, except for the cloth noises and the scraping the man in the well made as he moved around.
Then he called out, in a pleasant voice, "Aaron, what do you think my name is?" Aaron, who had been very still this whole time, looked around at all of us again. We knew he was afraid. His fingers were pulling with a separate life at the collar of his shirt, and maybe because she felt badly for him, Wendy answered instead. "Edgar." It sounded inane, but the man in the well answered. "No," the man said.
Little Jason called out, "David?" "No," the man in the well said. Then Aaron, who had been absolutely quiet, said, "Arthur," in a small, clear voice, and we all started. I could see Arthur was furious, but Aaron was older and bigger than he was, and nothing could be said or done without giving himself, his name, away. We knew the man in the well was listening for the changes in our breath, anything.
Aaron didn't look at Arthur, or anyone, and then he began giving all of our names, one at a time. We all watched him, trembling, our faces the faces I'd seen pasted on the spectators in the freak tank when the circus had come to town. We were watching such a deformity take place before our eyes, and I remember the spasm of anger when he said my name, and felt the man in the well soak it up. Because the man in the well understood.
The man in the well didn't say anything now. When Aaron was done, we all waited for the man in the well to speak up. I stood on one leg, then the other, and eventually I sat down. We had to wait for an hour, and today, no one wanted to leave to lie in the shade, or hide in the velvet movie seats. At last, the man in the well said, "All right, then, Arthur, what do you think I look like?" We heard him cough a couple of times, and then the sound like the smacking of lips.
Arthur, who was sitting on the ground with his chin propped on his fists, didn't say anything. How could he? I knew I couldn't answer myself if the man in the well called me by name. He called a few of us, and I watched the shudder move from face to face. Then he was quiet for a while. It was afternoon now, and the light was changing, withdrawing from the well. It was as if the well was filling up with earth.
The man in the well moved around a bit, and then he called Jason. He asked, "How old do you think I am, Jason?" He didn't seem to care that no one would answer, or he seemed to expect that no one would. He said, "All right, what's my name?" He used everyone's name. He asked everyone. When he said my name, I felt the water clouding my eyes, and I wanted to throw stones, dirt, down the well to crush out his voice, but we couldn't do anything, none of us did, because then he would know.
In the evening, we could tell he was getting tired. He wasn't saying much, and seemed to have lost interest in us. Before we left that day, as we were rising quietly and looking at the dark shadows of the trees we had to move through to reach our homes, he said, "Why didn't you tell anyone?" He coughed. "Didn't you want to tell anyone?" Perhaps he heard the hesitation in our breaths, but he wasn't going to help us now.
It was almost night then, and we were spared the detail of having to see and read each other's faces. That night it rained, and I listened to the rain on the roof and my mother sobbing downstairs until I fell asleep. After that, we didn't play by the well anymore. Even when we were much older, we didn't go back. I will never go back.
Ira Sher's story, "The Man in the Well," was originally published in The Chicago Review. It was his first published story. Just in case there's any ambiguity about it, it's a work of fiction. Ira Sher's the author of the novel, Gentlemen of Space.
Act Three. Human Nature, The View From Kindergarten.
Act three, Human Nature, The View from Kindergarten. One old approach to raising children takes as its premise the idea of that children are by nature little monsters, whose destructive and selfish impulses have to be controlled, with physical force, if necessary. And so far in our program, we've provided, I think, a fair amount of evidence to support this particular school of thought. We've heard so far about boys taunting other boys in a cruel sort of survival of the fittest, we've heard about children leaving a man to die in a well.
And so, for our final act, let's change things up a little bit. I want to tell you about an experiment done in a kindergarten classroom by a teacher named Vivian Paley, and it was an experiment to make children less cruel to each other. Paley is the author of many books about education, including one about this classroom experiment, and she's a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, though she's embarrassed whenever anybody actually says that as part of her credentials. And until recently, she was a kindergarten teacher at the University of Chicago Lab School.
And she got the idea for her experiment when one day, it occurred to her how often she heard children in her classroom tell each other no. No, there's no room here for you to play with us. No, I promised I would play the next 16 games with someone else. No, we're already playing, you can't join in. No, you cannot play with us. And it was the same children, always, who were made into the outcasts.
By kindergarten, Vivian Paley says, a ruling class starts to form among children. Certain kids notify others of their acceptability, and certain kids are told they're unacceptable, over, and over, and over again. And she points out that hitting and name calling are not allowed in school, but for some reason, this still is.
It's every day. It suddenly came to me that this hidden curriculum has taken over. It's almost as if we're teaching children for an elitist life of bosses. Of course, we weren't. We were trying our best to dissuade them. Often, you would put your foot down. Teachers do it all the time. "I'm going to have to insist that you let Johnny play." And before you knew it, the play area would empty.
The kids would stop playing?
The cruelty of the children's behavior seemed clear enough. If adults went around telling each other, no, you cannot sit with us, no, we do not want you here, no, you have to go away, it would be clear that this is not the way to act. And so Vivian Paley proposed to her students that they have a new rule in the class. She wrote it up in front of the room. You can't say, you can't play. That is, if someone wants to join your game, you have to let them. And their initial reaction?
Disbelief. Both the ones who did the rejecting and the ones who were already used to being rejected could not see how such a plan could work. They understood the language. They understood what I was saying. But their amazement and distrust and fear that they would not be able to handle what it was that I was talking about, that play would be spoiled, was very apparent.
Vivian Paley wasn't exactly sure what she should do, and so seeking some sort of input, she turned to the older children at the school where she taught. She visited all the grades from first grade through fifth grade and explained her proposed new rule, you can't say you can't play, and asked the children if they thought it was fair, and if they thought that it could work.
And interestingly, what she ran into was a kind of pint size version of not in my backyard, not with me you don't. Third and fourth and fifth graders said the proposed rule might work with those kindergarten kids, because the kindergarten kids are nicer, and they're more willing to accept the rules from the teacher, but they said, kids their age, at their advanced age, were already way too mean with each other for this ever to catch hold.
And they had a kind of nostalgia, even in third, and fourth, and fifth grade, a kind of nostalgia, and would talk wistfully about the days when they themselves were nicer, back in kindergarten.
From grade to grade going up, they were more and more convinced of two things, that it couldn't work, it was against human nature, but they all seemed to feel that it could have gone differently at a younger age.
When children said that it didn't seem natural, a lot of the argument just came down to the whole point of play was that they want to play with their friends, that it's an extension of friendship.
And let me ask you to read from the book. You recorded and then transcribed the conversations you had with the children about this. Let me ask you to read to the bottom of page 19.
Right, this is one of the first formal discussions we have on the issue of you can't say you can't play. And this Angelo, who is about to speak, is certainly one of those who is-- not only feels himself, but is-- often rejected.
Angelo, "Let anybody play if someone asks."
Lisa, "But then what's the whole point of playing?"
Nelson, "You just want Cynthia."
Lisa, "I could play alone. Why can't Clara play alone?"
Clara was one of the other children who was often rejected.
Often rejected, and goes and sits in her cubby.
Angelo, "I think that's pretty sad. People that is alone, they has water in their eyes."
Lisa, "I'm more said if someone comes that I don't want to play with."
Teacher, "Who is sadder? The one who isn't allowed to play, or the one who has to play with someone he or she doesn't want to play with?"
Clara, "It's more sadder if you can't play."
Lisa, "The other one's the same sadder."
Angelo, "It has to be Clara, because she puts herself away in her cubby, and Lisa can still play every time."
Lisa, "I can't play every time if I'm sad."
One of the children you talk about a lot in the book is this girl who you call Lisa, and when you put the rule into effect the first day, Lisa, you say, she pouts, "It's not fair at all. I thought we were only just talking about it."
"I just want my own friends. What if someone isn't nice and hits me?" And then the discussion, you say, "Well, you know we have a rule about hitting." And then Lisa's not impressed with this, and she says, "There's some people I don't like." And there's this really amazing moment where Angelo says, you write here, Angelo says without emotion, "You don't like me." And everyone looks at him as if acknowledging the sad truth of his statement.
What happened once the rule kicked in? How much did you see Lisa resist? I mean, what finally happened?
Within a week it was as if this had always been the way life would be. And she was-- it was a tremendous event for Lisa. And if I may add parenthetically, it's not in the book, but all the years later, whenever Lisa, the child I call Lisa, met me in the hallway, she would always stop and ask me how is the rule doing, and give me an example of something she had done that showed she was still trying to follow the rule.
The last time I met her was in the grocery store with her mother, and she said, "Mrs. Paley, it's still pretty hard for me, but I know I can do it, and I always try." And her mother nodded, and said, "She really does, you know."
Vivian Paley. Back when her class was debating the new rule, she wondered, can you really legislate this type of morality? Can you order people to be kind to each other, not to exclude others? "Is there not," she wrote, "a natural desire to include certain people and exclude others?"
And, she says, that once I put the new rule into effect, there was a palpable sense of relief in her class, as if they'd been rescued from meanness. The children were grateful for a structure that let them feel good about themselves and each other. Her book, You Can't Say You Can't Play, is published by Harvard University Press.
Yeah, let's go. Our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself, with Peter Clowney, Alix Spiegel, and Dolores Wilbur. This is our production manager Todd Bachmann's last week on the program. He's actually been our production manager since we've had a production manager, years and years. So much about our radio show, and the fact that our computers run, the fact that we actually have network computers, the fact that or contributors get promptly paid, to the existence of our online store, are thanks to him. It's going to be very hard to work around here without him. That we wish him the best.
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WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who I met this way.
What started off as name calling soon escalated to a series of mock angry slaps.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.
PRI, Public Radio, International.