Transcript

406:

True Urban Legends
Transcript

Originally aired 04.23.2010

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

If you grew up in a big city, you may have heard the urban legend alligators in the sewers. They got there when people brought back baby alligators from vacations in Florida and flushed them down the toilets. That's the kind of thing that, once you turn 12, you don't believe in anymore.

Well, New York Times, February 10, 1935, reports three teenagers were shoveling snow into a manhole on East 123rd Street. They look down and see an alligator, which they pull out. It's not very healthy. And they carry it to the Lehigh Stove and Repair Shop at 441 East 123rd. Lots of neighbors witness it. People are quoted by name. Best guess? The gator came off a boat in the Harlem River.

Or, take this urban legend. I'd heard this one, but I'd never believed it. Turns out to be true. Ian Meyer in Portland, Oregon, three years ago, walks home one night with his girlfriend from a party, where he'd had a couple of beers, three beers. Gets to his house, goes in the bathroom

Ian

Start unzipping with one hand, lifting the lid with the other hand, and, you know, I get the lid maybe halfway open. And there was this wet, beady-eyed rat in the toilet just looking up at me.

Ira Glass

Right? Maybe you heard stories like this that don't seem they could possibly be true about somebody. They go in their bathroom late at night. They sit down. They get bit by a rat that came up through the pipes into the toilet. Here it is.

Ian

The lid was down, so he must have come up through the sewer pipe somehow and swum through the lines and popped up into our toilet.

Ira Glass

Was the rat trying to get out of the toilet?

Ian

No, I think he was just as-- almost as stunned as I was. No, he was just sort of perched in the bowl, looking up when I opened the lid.

Ira Glass

OK. Horrifying. Ian, of course, quickly closes the lid, stands there dumbstruck. What's his next move? It's obvious.

Ian

I took a minute, gathered myself, and then flushed. Cracked the lid just a little bit, and he's still there. He's just more wet now, and he's probably a little more alert now.

Ira Glass

Now he's mad.

Ian

Yeah, now he's ready to get out of there. He's ready to take action.

Ira Glass

Ian picks up the magazine rack by the toilet, which is heavy with three-years-old National Geographics. He puts this on top of the toilet lid, leaves the bathroom to figure out his next play. His girlfriend, Chelsea, is outside.

Ian

I don't want to kill the rat because I've never killed an animal. It should be easy enough to just catch him and let him go outside.

Ira Glass

Sure

Ian

What I told myself that I needed in order to accomplish that plan, one, was some music. I had to--

Ira Glass

Really? That was step one? OK.

Ian

That was step one actually. And that was Chelsea's job. She had to turn some loud music on. This was kind of to psych me up.

[LOUD MUSIC PLAYING]

Ira Glass

Ian puts a leather garden glove on one hand and puts a rubber kitchen glove on top of that figuring, the rat's wet, that's going to be better.

Ian

So I gear up, go in the bathroom, shut the door. And then I guess I must've just kind of stood in there for five minutes or so because the next thing I know, Chelsea has the music turned down, and she's asking me, what's going on in there. I don't know what she thought had gone on, but she was worried and was checking on me, making sure that everything was OK. And once she checked on me I think that kind of triggered the man instinct, like, OK, come on dude, get it together.

Ira Glass

Yeah, time for some pride.

Ian

It's just a rat. At this point, I take the magazine rack off of the toilet lid, crack the seat, and, somehow, before I know it, he's halfway out of the toilet.

Ira Glass

Not good. Ian drops the lid, leans his weight on it, which catches the rat half-in half-out of the toilet. Its head and front arms are sticking out, waving around. Now he just feels sorry for the little thing. But this is his chance to set it free.

Ian

And so I'm thinking, OK perfect, I've got him caught here. He can't move anywhere. I'll reach down, grab him, carry out the plan. Right when I reach down, he bites me. He bites my finger.

Ira Glass

I'll spare you the gory details that follow. Let's just say that after another couple grabs, Ian comes to realize that he cannot capture the rat. He's going to have to kill him while he's trapped there halfway out of the toilet bowl. Which Ian does with his not-bare hands.

Ian

It was terrifying for months after that, maybe a year after that. Chelsea and I, we would just be extremely paranoid about sitting on the toilet especially at night.

Ira Glass

Ian says half the people he tells this story to don't believe it. He thinks they just don't want to believe it. But it turns out that the pipes that lead from your house to the sewer are not full of water. They're mostly empty unless you're doing your wash or something else that's sending a lot of water down.

So rats can climb up through the pipes, and the only time that they actually need to hold their breath is when they get into the little reservoir in the toilet trap. In a way, it's surprising it doesn't happen more often. Ian says he's found another rat in his toilet since then. He now flushes when he walks into the bathroom just to send water down the pipes as a precaution against vermin. As for Chelsea?

Ian

I think it was worse for Chelsea because she didn't actually really ever see the rat in the toilet. I got to see it, and I came to terms with it somewhat. For her, it was just-- it was still just sort of a myth.

Ira Glass

Chelsea was left with the urban legend that rats could come up into the toilet. I mean, now she knew it was true. So when she went into the bathroom, her imagination could just go wild.

Well, today on our radio show, we tried to wave away the smoky vapor of illusion and myth. We dive into a few stories, a few urban myths to see what is real and what is not so our imaginations don't have to run wild anymore. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. We bring you today three stories of real urban legends.

Act One, What's That Smell, in which a retired millionaire tries to understand the reality of a tough, seedy inner city neighborhood. Act Two, Fleeing Is Believing. Foreigners come to the US who believe all kinds of misinformation about us that turns out to be true. Act Three, Sleeper Cells. Is it an urban myth that your cell phone gives you brain tumors? Stay with us.

Act One. What's That Smell?

Ira Glass

What's that smell? The way Steve Poizner sees it, he did something admirable, something daring, something unusual. And when I read his account of what he did, he seemed sincere about it too. He's a bit of a corny writer. Though even that, you can kind of forgive him. He's not a professional author.

At the age of 45, after starting one Silicon Valley company that he sold for $30 million and a second one that sold for $1 billion, Poizner didn't need to work anymore. He says, he wanted to do some good for people. And so he called a dozen public high schools and volunteered to be a guest teacher of some sort. One called him back, a high school called Mount Pleasant. And Poizner got into his car, drove the 15 miles from his neighborhood in Los Gatos in Silicon Valley to East San Jose.

Steve Poizner

I passed nearby my neighborhood French bakery and the local Ferrari dealership.

Ira Glass

This is Steve Poizner reading from the book he wrote about this.

Steve Poizner

"Several miles and a couple of highways later, I took the Capitol Expressway exit and drove into what felt like another planet. Signs advertising janitorial supply stores and taquerias. Exhaust hung over 10 lanes of inner city traffic. Yellowing, weedy gardens fronted many of the homes, as did driveways marred by large oil spots or broken-down cars."

Ira Glass

When he sees the sound walls that separate California homes from the highway, he asks, were they keeping out the city's grit and noise or hiding profoundly sad lives? He's allowed in the school to teach one US government class for one semester under another teacher's supervision.

What he finds in the school are leaky roofs, hardened, unresponsive students, gangs and violence, a drop-out rate twice the national average. He worries that one student is going to punch him. And later, that this student and his thug friends are going to push him up against a wall. He wonders if the students are "too busy ducking bullets to consider their careers." At the end of his first visit to school, he's relieved to find his Lexus still in the parking lot where he left it.

Steve Poizner

"The shadows grew longer and the surroundings became a bit scary. Opening the door to my car, I notice a residential street just over the school's parking lot's fence. There was an old Cadillac resting on two flat tires, something smelled rotten like trash that had sat around for too long, and a dog's raspy bark sounded uncomfortably close."

Ira Glass

And the only problem with this is a lot of it might not be true.

Newscaster

Good evening. Steve Poizner released a new book today. It is about his time as a substitute teacher at a high school in East San Jose. And what he put in print is drawing a lot of heat. ABC7's Lisa Amin Gulezian is live tonight to explain.

Ira Glass

Steve Poizner's book got more attention than most do because in the seven years since he spent one semester at Mount Pleasant High School, Steve Poizner ran for assemblyman and lost, ran for a statewide office, California Insurance Commissioner, and won. He's in his fourth year in that job now. And today, he's one of two front-runners to become the Republican candidate for the governor of California. And right after publication, his book, which is titled Mount Pleasant, jumped to number 5 on The New York Times Best Seller list.

Newscaster

Mount Pleasant High School students, teachers, parents, and alumni are outraged.

Woman

Tonight, we are here to denounce Steve Poizner's comments.

Newscaster

Well, you know, it got very heated inside of Barnes and Noble before Steve Poizner's book signing. Eddie Garcia, the president of the East Side Union School Board, got in Poizner's face, challenging him about things that are written inside Mount Pleasant.

Ira Glass

I heard about Steve Poizner and the controversy over whether his book got things wrong when a publicist for the book contacted our radio program. She wrote an email describing the incident at the bookstore this way, "Liberal activist took offense at how he describes the school, accurately, as plagued by gangs, teen pregnancy, and disrepair. They are trying to shut him up and discredit his argument about charter schools." Poizner makes a case for charter schools late in the book. "This is a classic case of liberals refusing to listen to simple facts and rational solutions."

So I read the excerpt of his book online. There's a full chapter, and Poizner links to it from his campaign website. You can read it yourself. And it raised more questions than it answered. It's a very odd chapter, all about Poizner's first days teaching a class at Mount Pleasant. There's scene after scene where he's floundering, standing in front of the class asking big, abstract questions. "Would you want to live in a country where the leader didn't want to lead, if the money issued by the government wasn't any good, or people were treated unfairly?" None of the students respond.

He's a rookie teacher. He doesn't know how to engage them yet. Nothing unusual there. But here's the strange thing. The conclusion Poizner comes to, again and again, during these scenes isn't that he's doing anything wrong, or he has anything to learn as a teacher. Instead, he blames the kids. They're tough. They're unmotivated. They lack ambition. They're wired differently.

The students, meanwhile, in every scene in the book-- I've read the whole book-- seem utterly lovely. Polite, they don't interrupt, they don't talk back. They just seem a little bored. His very worst student is a graduating senior, who's hoping to go into the Marines. Checking school records, I learn that Poizner's unmotivated, unambitious class included one of the school valedictorians, Charles Rudy, who graduated and went to college.

Could he be getting this so completely wrong, I wondered? Could he have written an entire book misperceiving so thoroughly what was happening in front of his own eyes and was now trying to use that book to run for governor? It seemed too incredible. And that's what brought me to San Jose last week to visit the school and its neighborhood.

Joe Lovato

My eyes were rolling throughout the entire book.

Ira Glass

This is Joe Lovato. He teaches English at Mount Pleasant. His Dad taught English at Mount Pleasant before him.

Joe Lovato

Well, in the book, he tells stories of crossing the valley from his local Ferrari dealership, past his local French bakery, crossing town, getting off the freeway into my neighborhood and passing the taquerias and then wondering about the profoundly sad lives of the people who live behind the sound walls along the highway there. That's me. I live there. I can tell you, I have the white picket fence. I have two--

Ira Glass

Literally?

Joe Lovato

Yeah, literally. A very well-manicured lawn. My Infiniti is in the front. And I've got a real cute dog. I've got two kids running around in the front yard with my wife chasing them around.

Mark Holston

The derogatory statements to our students, the inaccuracies, the exaggerations, that's the part we're upset about.

Ira Glass

Mark Holston is one of Joe's colleagues in the English department. In his book, Poizner talks a few times about wishing that he could have a Stand and Deliver moment with his students. And Mark says, that's a problem right there.

Mark Holston

There's a narrative he had in his mind. He saw teacher movies, and that was the narrative he had. And it fits his narrative to show that this school is a horrible school. I wouldn't work at the school he described. I'd be afraid to work in the school that he described in the thing. It's almost like he's stepping over bodies, and there's gun shots as he goes to his classroom every day.

And it's completely inaccurate, but it fits his narrative. It fits promoting himself for the governor. And if anybody hasn't-- and some people say, well, it's not true, we know it's not true, it's exaggeration. But anybody else outside of East San Jose reads this book, that's the truth.

Ira Glass

Driving around the neighborhood, it is hard to disagree with the teachers who say that it is a perfectly nice middle class and working class area. Occasionally you'll see a house in bad shape, but overwhelmingly it's nicely tended yards, garages, decent cars and SUVs in the driveways. It's suburban. I was surprised to learn that when Poizner taught here in 2003, there was a golf course just a couple blocks from the school. There's still a lake and the Raging Waters water park. He doesn't mention those in the book.

We called a half dozen local real estate agents who confirmed what the teachers told us. That the neighborhood looks the same today as it did back in 2003. If anything, they said, with the recession, it's gotten a little worse. Average house price in 2003 near the school was $457,000. Today, it's $317,000.

Well, it's 4:45, and I'm standing in the staff parking lot where Steve Poizner used to park his car, I suppose. And I am hearing the raspy sound of a dog's bark. I can't see any beat-up, old cars over the fence. Mainly, it's incredibly lush and green and beautiful. There are little purple flowers. There are palm trees. And it's just-- it's lovely. And it smells nice. Though there is the dumpster for the school right by the parking lot. Conceivably, on some day that he was out here, that's what was making the trash smell was the school's own trash.

Ira Glass

Now we went to the neighborhood and were told it hasn't changed that much since 2003 when you were there and--

So I ran all this by Steve Poizner, the tidy houses, the golf course, what I did not smell in the parking lot.

Ira Glass

Are you overplaying the desperate poverty of this neighborhood?

Steve Poizner

No, I don't think so. I mean, it's definitely not like some inner city areas. And I don't know what-- what you described doesn't strike me as the neighborhood I was at. I mean, at least in 2002 and 2003. I mean, the neighborhood is rough and tumble in that there's definitely a lot of crime and, no question, lower income. And there's a lot of signs that people were struggling economically.

That's why the crime statistics for surrounding the school, you can get those from the San Jose Police Department like I did. And we definitely documented that not only did it appear to be kind of a rough up-and-coming area, but the police will tell you that too.

Ira Glass

So we went to the police. And they informed us that no, the neighborhood around Mount Pleasant High School is not especially dangerous or crime ridden. It's average for San Jose. And while San Jose might have a reputation in the richer suburbs around it for being sketchy and definitely was more dangerous in the '70s and '80s, a police spokesman told us that that view is out of date, an urban myth.

According to FBI statistics, San Jose is one of the safest cities in the country. There are 371 violent crimes per 100,000 people in San Jose in 2003, the year Poizner was there. You'd be more likely to be a victim of violent crime in Austin, Texas or Seattle or Phoenix or Columbus, Ohio or San Francisco. When it came to property crime that year, you were more than twice as likely to have something stolen from you in Honolulu, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco or nearly any big city you can name.

In his book, Poizner plays up the violence at the school itself. He mentions a shooting at the school that happened all the way back in 1990 where a Vietnamese student from another school shot a Mount Pleasant freshman. And Poizner tells a story of a student of his who let him know that she wouldn't be at class for a couple of days because her boyfriend was on trial for being the driver in a bank robbery. There's another student in Poizner's class that Poizner assumes must be in a gang. Though confusingly in the book, Poizner never actually goes to the trouble to find out if the student is in a gang. That's the student who Poizner worries will hit him or get his thug friends and push him against a wall.

So is the school dangerous? Well, I checked with the man who knows, Christopher Schroeder, the associate principal at Mount Pleasant in charge of discipline.

Christopher Schroeder

There is a gang presence in the area. They've been here for-- we're into the second and sometimes third generation of gang families. We know this. But at school, we don't have gang problems per se. Our students are able to sit next to each other in a classroom and not have conflicts. We don't have fights in the classroom. We don't have fights on campus. We have few fights. Off the top of my head, I think we've had about a dozen fights this year.

Ira Glass

That's about the number of fights that you would get at any high school even in a fancy neighborhood. There are no metal detectors in the school's entrances. Mr. Schroeder says, the total number of gang members among the 1,900 students here? 50 at most.

Christopher Schroeder

They are aware that we know who they are. But we also have gang intervention specialists who work with them every day. Almost every day, we have a gang intervention specialist out there with those guys, talking about their problems, talking about what's happening on the street, making sure that we have peace on campus.

Ira Glass

When it comes to the drop out rate, Steve Poizner also seems to be choosing his statistics very selectively. Mount Pleasant's dropout rate, including the year he was there, is consistently better, sometimes far better than the state and national dropout rates, which is a huge achievement for a school like Mount Pleasant that is 2/3 Latino. Nationally, Latino dropout rates are much higher than those of other students. In his book, Poizner doesn't mention any of those numbers.

And he doesn't mention the school's stats at all, but instead quotes a number for the district that the school is in, the East Side Union High School District. Even here, he cherry-picks. In 2003, the year Poizner was at the district, its dropout rate was slightly lower than the state and national averages. Poizner instead chooses to quote the number for one of the two years during the past decade, 2005, when the district had twice as many dropouts as the state and national numbers. Statistically, Poizner did not teach at a terrible school in a terrible neighborhood, but an average school in an average neighborhood.

[SINGING]

Student

We got trouble.

Students

Oh, we got trouble.

Student

Right here in River City.

Students

Right here in River City.

Student

With a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool.

Students

That stands for pool.

Student

We surely got trouble.

Ira Glass

These are the dangerous toughs of Mount Pleasant High School rehearsing The Music Man in the brand new auditorium that the school just built. The school has 150 students studying animation in a special studio with rows of Macs and animation stands. This was all going on when Poizner was at the school too. There are 19 AP classes. There's a vocational program teaching metal and woodworking and computer-aided design plus a variety of special projects and programs to close the achievement gap and get less-priveleged kids to college. School attendance is 95%.

[STUDENTS HOLDING A FINAL NOTE]

Woman

All right. "Iowa Stubborn." Everyone into place.

Ira Glass

Some things about the school though clearly could be better. The school doesn't hit its goals in statewide testing. It ranks in the 40th percentile of all California schools partly because a fourth of Mount Pleasant student body is rated "not proficient" in English. But measured against schools with similar demographics, it's in the 70th percentile.

For years, I was a reporter in the Chicago Public Schools for NPR's daily news programs. I've been in great schools. I've been in dangerous schools, urban schools, suburban schools. Mount Pleasant is definitely one of the better public high schools I've ever visited. And I know that it may seem like I'm belaboring all this, putting this one book under a microscope point by point, but so many of the political discussions in our country just seem so disconnected from reality. Every year, there are egregious examples of politicians and commentators who believe that if they repeat some non-fact over and over, it becomes true. And the more I looked into Poizner's book, the more it seemed like one of those rare cases that is so obviously and provably untrue.

Though in Poizner's case, what made this especially interesting was that from his book, it seemed very possible that he really is just a well-meaning, idealistic guy who wants to help people who just got a lot of this wrong. Though when I asked Steve Poizner if that's what happened here, that it is not a dangerous, bad school, he stuck by his guns.

Ira Glass

You write really honestly in the book about how you aren't from a neighborhood like this and how naive you are going in. I mean, you write really, really honestly about it. Do you think it's possible that you went into this neighborhood, and you just misperceived how dangerous and tough it is? And that's what people are pointing out?

Steve Poizner

Well, most people who are reading the book, just don't have that reaction. There are some--

Ira Glass

Well, no, but I'm not talking about-- I'm talking about the people in the neighborhood, who know the neighborhood.

Steve Poizner

I don't think it's a surprise that people who are in that neighborhood bristle at blunt observations.

Ira Glass

But do you think it's possible that--

Steve Poizner

By the way, I just said--

Ira Glass

Do you think it's possible-- I mean, you talk so honestly about this in the book-- do you think it's possible that you just misperceived it because you weren't used to that kind of neighborhood?

Steve Poizner

Well, this is a book about my experience. And so that's all the book is about based on my background.

Ira Glass

So I'm taking it-- so are you saying you do think it's possible?

Steve Poizner

This is the way I perceive it.

Ira Glass

So you think it might be possible?

Steve Poizner

No, I'm not saying that.

Mark Holston

What upsets me from the beginning and even now is his intent.

Ira Glass

Again, English teacher Mark Holsten.

Mark Holston

Soon after his experience at Mount Pleasant, he ran for assemblyman. And I think what kind of turned me off to him was I got some of his campaign literature, and on there he had, businessman/teacher based on his one semester teaching. And he claimed he was a teacher by profession. And right away, that's what kind of offended me. The centerpiece of his campaign was his experience at Mount Pleasant High School. Even in his commercials, he said, I've taught in schools, I know what it's like to work at the schools, I can fix the problems and things like that.

From my understanding, it was obvious that he was there to exploit our students, to exploit our school. He came there saying, he had no political ambitions. He told our principal, this is not about politics, I just want to give back to the community, I just want to see what it's like to teach in a school and get a better understanding what the schools are like. Even in his book, he says, I had no intention of running for office when I went there.

Ira Glass

Poizner still insists on that. It was two months after he stopped teaching at the school that he filed papers to start fundraising to run for assemblyman. In the spring after that, his campaign came back to Mount Pleasant to shoot a commercial with testimony from teachers and students about what Poizner had done for the school. The videographer set up a camera and lights in one of the classrooms during seventh period. And students were ushered in one at a time.

In campaigning, including in one of his campaign biographies-- a biography which, by the way, calls Mount Pleasant "an inner city high school"-- Poizner also touts the fact that the principal of Mount Pleasant named him Rookie Teacher of the Year.

Mark Holston

Oh, the Rookie of the Year thing, it was--

Ira Glass

Mark Holston and Joe Lovato explained that at the end of school that year, the principal quickly wrote up a bunch of certificates on his computer for a staff party. Lots of people got them for all kinds of things.

Mark Holston

And that's the other part that really incensed me when he put out his press release as a result of his he received the Rookie of the Year award as if it was voted on statewide, and there was a board, and there was a panel, and essays were written about great he was. It was a certificate printed out. Everybody that was leaving was getting certificates. And that was a certificate of appreciation.

Todd Richards

The reason I've been wanting to talk to people about the book is just because I hate to see somebody's character get assassinated unfairly, which is my judgement that was what's been happening.

Ira Glass

Todd Richards is the social studies teacher who supervised Steve Poizner in classroom 612 back in 2003. He's still there.

Todd Richards

Well, it's still largely as it would have been when Poizner was here. You can see there's the usual whiteboard in front. There's a screen for the LCD projector.

Ira Glass

In the debate among Mount Pleasant teachers over whether Steve Poizner was a Machiavellian schemer, who used them, or a sincere, perhaps slightly naive guy, who actually wanted to help out, Mr. Richards is a principled agnostic. We can't know what he was thinking, Richards says. So let's judge his actions. Richard says that he was as suspicious as anybody when this millionaire showed up in his classroom. But over the course of the year--

Todd Richards

I came to think that he was someone who cared deeply about the students. I'd had people from the business world come in and really talk down to students, not put any effort into it, speak to them in jargon. I mean, it just-- I never want you back kind of thing. Poizner clearly worked very, very hard on this class. He was a rookie. He made rookie mistakes. But he clearly wanted the kids to have a valuable experience. And he clearly cared that they graduate and do well.

Ira Glass

When I recorded Mr. Richards teaching a class, his sixth-period college-level macroeconomics class for seniors--

Todd Richards

So, C plus I plus G plus X minus M.

Ira Glass

He asked me if I would like to take five minutes and ask a few questions of the students. He left the room, so his presence wouldn't bias anybody. I asked the class if there was anything that they would want me to ask Poizner on their behalf or to say to him. One senior raised his hand and said that he'd just heard from colleges.

Student

I'm going to Berkeley. Take that Poizner.

[LAUGHTER]

Student

No, seriously. Because it's like how is he going to talk about us the way he did when we had almost nine people get into Berkley this year? That's ridiculous.

Ira Glass

Yvette Rodriguez, another senior, spoke up.

Yvette Rodriguez

A lot of things that he said is something that you would expect someone who doesn't live in this neighborhood to think of us. He was just really quick to judge. He didn't grow up here. And he says it in his book. Where he grew up, they don't have any of this, so how is he just going to-- I'm not going to go judge him and say, oh, you know, he's like a rich white guy and doesn't know. Because I don't know him. But yet he's over here judging us. That's stereotyping. So I think he needs to come out and say-- apologize I think, at least, because a lot of us felt really offended by it.

Ira Glass

When I visited the school, I went to Mr. Richards' class. And I asked the students if they had questions for you or anything that they would like me to say to you. And they had one request. One senior girl said, she'd like you to admit you got things wrong. She'd like you to apologize. What do you want to say to her?

Steve Poizner

Well, no. I appreciate her feedback. And I appreciate their passion. And by the way, it's been pretty interesting to see how much school spirit has emerged as some people at the school were concerned about whether their school was being fairly characterized.

Let's just step back for a second and just think about what I've done and what I'm doing. So here, I sell my last company for a lot of money. And I'm pretty financially well-off. And I decide to go into Mount Pleasant High School. And then after I teach at the school for an extended period of time, I then go back to the school every year to do guest teaching. And then my wife and I get all kinds of requests from teachers and students about certain projects. And we end up donating over $80,000 to the school over a period of many years. I love the school.

And then I write this book about my experiences at the school. And the purpose of the book-- even the critics at the school, I guess, seem to understand-- the purpose of the book is to zero in on the fact that Mount Pleasant High School is underperforming. Huge opportunities to improve. The school is in the bottom 40%. And I guess you can argue about my characterizations of the school. I stand by them. But no one seems to be arguing with the conclusions of the book.

Ira Glass

Well, sort of. Some conclusions, obviously, people do argue with. But this particular conclusion-- that being at the 40th percentile among California public schools is not good enough-- is one that's kind of gotten lost in the shuffle in a lot of the discussion at the school.

Sudhir Karandikar

And that's the part that kind of frustrates me.

Ira Glass

Sudhir Karandikar created the AP calculus program at Mount Pleasant. He teaches four classes of AP calculus. He's the only teacher I saw at school who could be described as dapper. And the only one wearing a suit, a charcoal gray pinstripe. He's been at Mount Pleasant 14 years. And he says, sure, Poizner got it wrong when he wrote that this is a dangerous school.

Sudhir Karandikar

The whole ducking bullets and the kid is going to hit him and his Lexus is going to get stolen, it was either a gross exaggeration for the sake of making a dramatic book, or he just misread it. Let's move on. We know he got the safety issue wrong. As far as academic performance of this school, he was dead-on. Academically, I don't find anything wrong in his conclusions or assessments of our school academically.

Ira Glass

"We should be doing a better job with these kids," Mr. Karandikar said. "That's what we should move the discussion to now." A few teachers told me that they agreed with Poizner, that academically the school should be better. And they like the fact that Poizner gives lots of details in his book to help his readers understand the money problems that the school faces and that he shows some of the everyday teaching problems they're up against, stuff that isn't really talked about in the news or normal political discussions about schools. Here's English teacher Vivian Bricksin.

Vivian Bricksin

He talks about one student that tells them, "I don't think I want to do that," when he's trying to encourage them to work a little harder. And that is a kind of a surprising challenge to face as a teacher. "No, I don't think I want to do that." And the lack of motivation is a daily challenge, I think, for teachers in the school even if they're veterans.

Ira Glass

Steve Poizner says, this is exactly what he hopes readers will take from his book. He wants it to lead to a better discussion about how to improve schools. In the book, he talks mostly about charter schools as being a good laboratory for new ideas.

In his gubernatorial campaign, he also talks about cutting down on the central school bureaucracy in California, giving more control of the curriculum and more money to local schools, two things that teachers like, of course. Many of Mount Pleasant's teachers are less keen on two of Poizner's other big proposals, to make it easier to fire teachers and suspend rules at the bottom 40% of California schools and to expel from public schools all the students who are in the country illegally, which would, of course, affect students at Mount Pleasant.

Poizner told me that, in the end, it doesn't matter if he got facts wrong about the school. Because everywhere, but at Mount Pleasant itself, this is the discussion that he hopes his book will engender.

Steve Poizner

Most Californians have absolutely no idea what goes on in a classroom, what goes on in the public education system. And so, at the end of it all, a month from now or a year from now, when people are debating this book, they're not going to be debating whether my characterization of the smells in the neighborhood are the same as yours when you went there. I mean, the purpose of the book is to improve the public education system.

Ira Glass

English teacher Mark Holston sees this one differently. He says for Poizner to misread what this school and this neighborhood are all about says a lot about his judgment. And that does mean something.

Mark Holston

Half the state of California, who he's trying to represent, looks like our neighborhood. Our neighborhood looks more like California than the neighborhood he comes from. So I think he's completely out of touch. I hate to think that somebody, even getting this far, could be that naive, and be that clueless. That's even scarier. Because I'm sure he's going to run for something else. And he can't be that way off. It's terrifying he's that way off.

Again, this is an average high school. And if he was the governor, he'd be the chief educator for the state of California. And if he could misinterpret what he's sees in this school and portray a school as one of the toughest when it's an average high school in California, it's scary for our future in California if he ever got elected.

Ira Glass

One week after Poizner's book made it to number 5 on the best seller list, it dropped to number 33. The campaign declined to give sales figures for the book and declined to say whether it bought enough copies itself in that first week to put the book on the best seller list.

The principal at Mount Pleasant told me she now finds herself with an awkward dilemma. Poizner has donated the profits from the book sales to the school. And she's not sure that they should take it. He got so many things wrong about Mount Pleasant and offended so many people. But at the same time, with budgets being slashed, it's hard for her to turn her back on any money that might help her students.

[MUSIC - "GANGSTA'S PARADISE" BY COOLIO]

Coming up, what refugees halfway around the world know about us thanks to Chevy Chase and other true urban legends. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. Fleeing is Believing.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, True Urban Legends. We're wading into the vapory shadows of urban myth to see what is real and what is not. We've arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two, Fleeing is Believing.

Refugees often spend decades in camps waiting, waiting for wars to end back home, waiting to be resettled, some of them to the United States. This leaves a lot of time to think about what the future might hold and makes for a huge rumor mill fed by third cousins and friends of friends who get to the United States and send back word of what it's like. And that's where the confusion begins. Mary Wiltenburg, a reporter who has spent years documenting refugee life in America, has this story.

Mary Wiltenburg

Say you're a refugee. Once you've survived whatever hell you fled plus 10 more years in a crowded camp, there are rumors about the US you want to believe. America is the land of easy money, endless food, plentiful jobs, machines that cook and clean for you. Still, it's not like you'll believe just anything. The refugees I've talked with say a lot of the rumors they hear seem way too far-fetched to be true.

Man

Some people are very fat. You cannot imagine how fat they are.

Faiza Mohamed

Kissing in public and all of that is normal. You shouldn't look. You shouldn't be surprised by it.

Girl

When people grow old in America, as they become seniors, they send them to nursing homes to live in.

Man

When they go to the beach, they dress up in this swimsuit, which I call it underwear.

Woman

In America, they say white people kiss their dogs, they hold it. And it's like, that is crazy. How can anybody kiss a dog?

Mary Wiltenburg

What makes these rumors so unbelievable often is how inscrutable or frightening or taboo they would have been back home.

Faiza Mohamed

I never, never thought people would show affection in public. It was just unbelievable.

Mary Wiltenburg

Faiza Mohamed is Somali and grew up as a refugee in Kenya where the whole idea of PDA was unimaginable especially among unmarried people. When refugees like her are accepted for resettlement in the US, they're bombarded with information about the country in these three-day orientation marathons that cover everything from fire safety to banking, sexual harassment to how to use an airplane toilet. Faiza's orientation leader actually mentioned that it's common for American couples to express affection in public.

Mary Wiltenburg

And did you believe it when I said it?

Faiza Mohamed

No, because the person that was giving us the orientation was Somali herself. So I really didn't even think that she knew the reality of it.

Mary Wiltenburg

Another problem is Hollywood, the source of some of the most enticing images of America and some of the most exaggerated. Sinisa Milovanovic, a refugee from the former Yugoslavia, spent years waiting in Germany before coming to the US. In Berlin one Christmas, a movie came on TV, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. In case you've been spared the pleasure, it features Chevy Chase as a guy who's, let's say, intense about seasonal decorating. He's covered every inch of his house with lights, nests of sparking extension cords, Santa-related [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Clark W. Griswold

We're going to have the best looking house in town, Russ.

Russ Griswold

Think you might be overdoing it, Dad?

Sinisa Milovanovic

And when you look at the spoof movies or comedies, they overblow out of the proportion many things just to make it funny. And when I saw it, I just thought, oh, this cannot be true. This is too much light.

Russ Griswold

That's a lot of lights, Dad.

Clark W. Griswold

You want something you can be proud of, don't you?

Mary Wiltenburg

A few after they watched this, Sinisa and his wife moved to Fargo, North Dakota. One night their first winter there, Sinisa got home, and his wife told him she had something to show him outside.

Sinisa Milovanovic

And I didn't know what was it, so we got into the car, and we went around a couple of neighborhoods, residential area. And all of a sudden, I saw the whole row of houses. And to me, it seems like every single one of them had some kind of lights on it.

Ellen Griswold

Oh Clark, it's so lovely.

Sinisa Milovanovic

And some people had not only the lights, but they also had the props, snowmen or reindeer and things like that. And we said to each other, they really do decorate their houses as Chevy Chase did.

Clark W. Griswold

It's a beaut, Clark. It's a beaut.

Clark W. Griswold

You taught me everything I know about exterior illumination. Thank you. Thank you.

Mary Wiltenburg

Even years later, former refugees recall these moments with incredible clarity. The shock or bewilderment or comedy of realizing, that's true? People here don't follow soccer? Men really date other men? Americans sleep in bed with their cats? A lot of times, the reaction is, whoa, OK. But once in a while, the moment changes a person's whole image of America.

Hazem Taee, an Iraqi refugee, had heard back home that ordinary Americans could go into stores and buy guns. But that seemed incredible. How could a country keep law and order if its civilians were armed? Then one day, not long after his family arrived in Phoenix, they pulled up to a stoplight next to a guy on his motorcycle. He didn't look like a policeman, but for some reason he had a gun on his belt.

Hazem Taee

We looked at him. He had a tattoo, a leather jacket with a bird on it on the back and a ponytail. He didn't look official to us.

Mary Wiltenburg

Who were you with?

Hazem Taee

Me, my wife, and three kids. And I'm advising them not to look, not to look, don't bring his attention, just take a quick look, and don't turn your face. And then, my kids started asking me, why would he have a gun, what is he planning to do? And I said, I don't know.

Mary Wiltenburg

One especially scary rumor, one that refugees from all over the world told me they heard, but couldn't fathom, is that in America, people without homes sleep on the streets. When you come from someplace where it would be unthinkably shameful to let that happen to a relative, it's hard to believe. When Haider Hamza arrived in the US from Iraq four years ago, he was sure this was a myth. Then late one night, he went walking in Central Park.

Haider Hamza

And there was a bench, and I saw an older woman not looking very happy, sleeping on that bench. And she looked in a pretty bad shape. So I got close, I tried talking to her. And she started asking for help and things like that. And I didn't know why she was there. I didn't know what happened, so I didn't know what to do.

I picked up the phone, I called 911. A lady answered, and I gave a description of the woman. And she said, "Well, is the woman bleeding?" And I went to check, and I said, "No, she's not." And so she said, "Is she naked?" I said, "No, actually." She paused for a second and said, "Well, is she homeless?" And I said, "I don't know." So I walked up to the woman, I said, "Excuse me, ma'am, are you homeless?" And she said, "Of course I'm homeless." So I got up on the phone and said, "Yes, she's homeless."

Hazem Taee

No matter who tells you that there are people who are homeless here in the United States, it's impossible to believe.

Mary Wiltenburg

That's Hazem, who saw the guy on the motorcycle with the gun. Now he works as a case manager at a resettlement agency, helping fellow refugees transition to American life. A couple of years ago, he told a group of clients that if they missed rent payments or couldn't find a job, they could wind up homeless and have to live in a shelter. They thought he was lying. Frustrated, he loaded them into a van and drove them past a homeless shelter in downtown Phoenix with a line out the door. They were shocked.

Hazem Taee

And they asked me what it is, "Are those really homeless people? And I said, "Yes, and you could easily lose your home or apartment. If you don't pay, you'll be evicted after a few months."

Mary Wiltenburg

It happens so fast. You come here lost as can be and within a couple of years, you're the ambassador, the friend of a friend fielding calls from overseas in the middle of the night. You're showing around dazed new arrivals and watching their astonishment at the guns in Walmart, the dogs in handbags, the couples kissing in the park. And you're the one telling them, "Don't worry. Don't stare. That's normal here."

Ira Glass

Mary Wiltenburg lives in Atlanta.

[MUSIC - "BANKING ON A MYTH" BY ANDREW BIRD]

Act Three. Sleeper Cell.

Ira Glass

Act 3, Sleeper Cells. The scariest urban myths are the ones that are about stuff that is everywhere, that we use every day, that we can't avoid, that our drinking water might be impure, that there are toxins in our food, that killer earthquakes might be coming to the west coast, that the polar ice caps might melt. Oh, wait a second, some of those are actually confirmed by scientists. Which brings me to cell phones.

There was an article in GQ Magazine recently about cell phones about whether they're bad for us. "The only honest way to think of our cell phones," the article says, "is that they are tiny, low-power microwave ovens, without walls, that we hold to the sides of our heads." Which is true. Cell phones and ovens both use the same kinds of waves, microwave frequencies. But, of course, microwave ovens use much, much, much more power, enough to cook meat.

And there's lots of research out there that's found no negative effects on our bodies from cell phones. In fact, there's another article in Harper's Magazine just this month about the same thing, are cell phones bad for us? And that article points out that for all the research that's found that cell phones make us lose sleep, make us think slower, break apart our DNA, cause brain damage in children, there are just as many studies, if not more, that say that cell phones make us more sleepy, make us think faster, don't break our DNA, and don't affect children one way or another.

Other countries, especially in Europe, take the possible threat of cell phones much more seriously than we do here in the US. Health ministries in Canada, Russia and Finland have asked for restrictions on sales of cell phones to children. France is trying to ban cell phones in schools. Some European governments are trying to ban wifi in government buildings and on campuses. Wifi also uses those microwave frequencies. And the National Library of France already got rid of it.

People have protested and torn down cell towers in Spain, Ireland, Australia, and Israel. In 2007, the European Union's environmental agency warned that cell phone technology "could lead to a health crisis similar to those caused by asbestos, smoking, and lead in petrol." The operative word there, of course, is "could." The weird word is "petrol."

So what should we believe? Are they bad for us? Or aren't they? Christopher Ketcham, who wrote the GQ article, talked me through some of the most troubling studies.

Ira Glass

Now in your article, you lay out a lot of data, a lot of studies. What's the most alarming evidence you have? Go ahead, scare us.

Christopher Ketcham

All right. Well, there's a lot. There is something called Interphone, which is a 13-country study, European wide and also including Israel, that has been looking at the incidence of brain tumors and tumors generally as related to cell phone use. And the big conclusion from that study is that for those users of cell phones who use cell phones for 10 years or more on the same side of the head, there's a 40% increased chance of getting a brain tumor.

Ira Glass

A brain tumor on that side of the head?

Christopher Ketcham

On that side of the head. Probably shaped like a cell phone. So the--

Ira Glass

All right. That last part you're just making up.

Christopher Ketcham

I'm just making it up. I'm just making it up. There is an independent Swedish study a couple of years ago found that there was a 420% increased chance of getting brain tumors for those who were using cell phones at age 20 or earlier.

Ira Glass

So four times more chances?

Christopher Ketcham

Yeah, four times more. The speculation is that this is because children's or young people's brains are not fully formed. Their skulls are thinner so that they absorb more radiation. Allan Frey, the neuroscientist who, in many ways, shepherded me through a lot of the early studies, when he was working for the Office of Naval Research in the 1970s, he found that cell-phone-type radiation could cause blood brain barrier leakage. That is, it could cause perforations in the barrier between the circulatory system and the brain. Now that's really bad news.

Ira Glass

OK, give me another.

Christopher Ketcham

Well, for example, a researcher biologist named Henry Lai at the University of Washington found that after two hours of exposure to microwave frequencies--

Ira Glass

At the level that comes out of a cell phone.

Christopher Ketcham

At the level that comes out of a cell phone, you can have DNA damage. After two hours, it's double-strand breakage in DNA.

Ira Glass

Now so these are the studies that show that we do have reason to worry. Aren't there a lot of other studies on the other side saying, like, no, no, no, we don't have to worry.

Christopher Ketcham

Oh yeah, there are lots and lots of studies showing that. And the really interesting thing to me is that if you divide the many, many studies on this subject about the biological effects of cell phones radiation--

Ira Glass

And it's hundreds of studies, right?

Christopher Ketcham

It's hundreds of studies, hundreds of studies over the years. When you look at these studies and divide them by funding, you'll find that 75% of those studies that were independently funded-- that is, that had no funding from industry--

Ira Glass

From the cell phone business, yeah.

Christopher Ketcham

The Nokias, the Ericssons, just the telecom industry generally. You find that 75% of those studies show some type of effect. Those studies--

Ira Glass

Wait, wait. Let me just-- So in other words, if there's no funding from telephone companies or people associated with them, 75% of the studies show, yes, the electromagnetic signals out of cell phones actually do affect our cells. They have a biological effect. OK.

Christopher Ketcham

Yes. Now if you pool the studies that are funded by the industry, you find that only 25% of those studies show a biological effect. So there appears to be-- and the argument has been among the scientists who I interviewed-- there appears to be a skewing, a data skewing, that is related to the source of funding.

Ira Glass

Now the EPA used to look into this to see the environmental effect of this kind of radiation. But you're right that it stopped. Talk about why it stopped.

Christopher Ketcham

Well, what happened is in the 1970s, there was serious laboratory research into the biological effects of microwave radiation. EPA was foremost in this. You also had NIOSH.

Ira Glass

National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health?

Christopher Ketcham

Yes. And also FDA, Food and Drug Administration. These were all agencies that were studying these effects. And then the Reagan administration came into office, Star Wars, these huge radar-operated--

Ira Glass

This is all the 1980s, yeah.

Christopher Ketcham

This is all the 1980s. Radar-operated missile defense systems were to be implemented. And military interests-- Westinghouse and Boeing and huge-- that produce all sorts of the radar systems for the military-- along with the military pressured Congress to pressure EPA to stop this kind of research.

Ira Glass

This is what your sources inside the EPA told you?

Christopher Ketcham

Yes, this is what my sources inside the EPA said. And funding was taken away from the EPA. Funding was taken away from the FDA. And those researchers, those civilian scientists who were looking into this, were told, listen you don't need to look into this anymore, we're going to handle it in the Air Force.

Ira Glass

And right now, which federal agency is responsible for making sure that our cell phones aren't killing us?

Christopher Ketcham

The FCC. But Louis Slesin told me--

Ira Glass

And Slesin is?

Christopher Ketcham

Louis Slesin is the publisher of Microwave News. He's, I think, one of the foremost experts on the various studies. Let me just read what he said. He said, "The committees setting the EM-- the electromagnetic-- safety levels historically have been dominated by representatives from the military, by companies like Raytheon and General Electric, by the telecom companies, and now by the cell phone industry." Slesin tells me that it is basically a Trojan horse for the private sector to dictate public policy.

Ira Glass

OK. So I remember when cell phones first came out, and there were scare stories about whether or not they were harmful and whether they might cause brain tumors. And at that point in the '90s, it was all very speculative. And then it seemed like those stories went away. And I, as somebody just like reading the news, I just thought like, well, I guess that means that there's nothing to worry about. Are you saying, yes, we now know cell phones do give us brain tumors? Or are you saying, yes, we now know we need to worry that there's not enough research to know they're safe?

Christopher Ketcham

The latter. Listen, even the FDA will tell you. Their official notice on this issue is that we, the FDA, are not certain about the safety of these devices. But at the same time, the FDA will say, but, there doesn't appear to be a risk either. So they hedge it.

Ira Glass

So if the safety isn't clear, but then they have like hundreds of millions of them out being used, so it's just like a big science experiment.

Christopher Ketcham

Huge science experiment. One of the scientists who I interviewed, Leif Salford, this Swedish neuroscientist, said, This is the largest human biological experiment ever because we really don't know what the effects are going to be, what the long-term effects are going to be, what the short-term effects are going to be.

Ira Glass

And is this one of these things where we don't know the answer, but lots of people are looking into it, and a lot of money is going into it to figure this out? Or is this one of these things where we don't know the answer? And really nobody-- like, not much money is really going into this to figure this out?

Christopher Ketcham

In this country, there is almost-- there is nothing is going on. There's just almost no research. In Europe, there's a lot of research. In Israel, which has one of the highest per capita uses of cell phones, there's a lot of research. In Sweden, home of Ericsson, a lot of research.

Ira Glass

Now how did you get into the subject? Did you know somebody who-- How did you get into this?

Christopher Ketcham

My daughter's grandmother bought her a cell phone in France, in Paris. And at the same time, I saw a little notice in Le Monde about-- it was a little, tiny notice buried deep in the paper about possible risks from cell phones. And I said, wait a minute, let me start looking into this.

Ira Glass

And given all that you've learned, have-- your daughter is a teenager?

Christopher Ketcham

She's 14.

Ira Glass

So have you tried to talk her into not using her cell phone?

Christopher Ketcham

Oh, I talk to her all the time. I'm always yelling at her.

Ira Glass

And how does that go?

Christopher Ketcham

Badly.

[LAUGHTER]

Christopher Ketcham

She now uses it to text most often. But sometimes I catch her on it. And I get really pissed off. And that is, I catch her with it to her ear. And I say, "No, if you're going to use it, you have to use your speaker phone. If you're going to keep it near your body, it has to be off."

Ira Glass

Well, do you think that she believes you that the cell phone is dangerous?

Christopher Ketcham

I'm not sure. I'm not sure. That's the problem. I don't know if she believes me.

Ira Glass

And so, given your success with your own child, how do you feel about your chances of success writing articles and convincing other people to put down their cell phones?

Christopher Ketcham

Oh, most people think I'm crazy. Most people think I'm absolutely bonkers. They just dismiss outright what I have to say.

Ira Glass

Dismiss it like won't even listen to the evidence?

Christopher Ketcham

No, they will listen to the evidence. And then they'll call their friend to tell them about it on their cell phone. It's like--

[LAUGHTER]

Christopher Ketcham

So, you know, they don't care. They just-- One time I was in an elevator coming down, and some guy was pecking away on his cell phone, then put it to his head. And I mentioned it.

Ira Glass

What did you say? Wait, what did you say?

Christopher Ketcham

I said to him, "You know that device could be very dangerous for you." And I don't know why I said that. I guess I was just being nosy and being tiresome and-- And the whole car just started laughing. They just start laughing. They're like, yeah, yeah, you know. And I think they were laughing at me.

Ira Glass

Christopher Ketcham is an investigative reporter. We linked to his GQ article at our website.

[MUSIC - "TRUTH IS" BY BROTHER ALI]

Our program is produced today by Sarah Koenig with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Jane Feltes, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Seth Lind is our production manager. Emily Condon is our office manager. Production help from Brian Reed.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. For this week, you can see the raw data that we think contradicts Steve Poizner's findings at Mount Pleasant. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss Mr. Torey Malatia, who wants all of us here at WBEZ to get back to our exercise programs, back on the stair machine. Summer is coming.

Man

Some people are very fat. You cannot imagine how fat they are.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "TRUTH IS" BY BROTHER ALI]

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.