Transcript

477:

Getting Away With It
Transcript

Originally aired 10.19.2012

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/477

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International.

Ken Hegan

My name is Ken Hegan, and I'm a travel writer.

Ira Glass

Do you know how tall you are?

Ken Hegan

I'm 6 foot 2.

Ira Glass

So I'm on a flight to Minneapolis sitting next to Ken Hegan, 6 foot 2 travel writer. And Ken is trying to pull off a scheme that is not at all friendly, though, to his credit, he feels bad about what he's doing.

Ira Glass

So explain what just happened here.

Ken Hegan

Well, I can tell you I've only had about four hours sleep, chiefly because I was a little nervous about trying something new. What I just did was I clamped these two pieces of plastic that look like the monsters from Alien-- like those little alien heads-- and they're clamps. You basically slide these clamps onto your tray table, and it prevents the person in front of you from tilting back and slamming into your knees, if you're a tall man like I am.

Ira Glass

He'd read about these clamps on the internet and thought, that is simultaneously the most inventive and the most passive aggressive gadget he'd ever heard of. It's called the Knee Defender. And as a tall guy who flies two or three times a month for his job, he decided he had to try them. Attaching the clamps to the arms of his tray table was simple, but next came the part that kept Ken awake the night before.

Ken Hegan

The makers of Knee Defender have something called a courtesy card that you're supposed to then hand to the person in front of you to let them know you're deploying the Knee Defender clamps. So I just tapped the woman's shoulder in front of me, said, "This message is for you."

Ira Glass

The card says, "This is a knee defender courtesy card, TM-- trademark. I am using Knee Defender, TM. Knee Defender, TM is a small plastic device that helps me protect myself by limiting how much the seat in front of me can recline. I wanted to let you know about this." And then underneath, Ken checked the box that said that her seat would be able to recline two inches. Ken had been scared that handing this to somebody, he was going to end up in some horrible argument with a stranger on a plane. He's Canadian, not to put too fine a point on that. He just doesn't like confrontation.

We discuss what happens next. And remember as we discuss this, we're sitting in the row directly behind the woman that he handed the card to, hoping that she cannot hear us because of the noise of the plane, which is louder than you might think.

Ken Hegan

So I handed her the card, and then my hands were sweaty and shaky. So for about a minute, I just sort of was paralyzed. Eventually she handed me the card back and slight nodded her head. Didn't say a word. Then I asked her, "Hey, are you OK with this?" And then her tone changed. She sounded very cranky and said, "Yeah, you don't see me moving my seat back, do you?"

Ira Glass

And then you and I were sitting next to each other. You wrote a little note on a piece of paper. Do you want to just read what it said?

Ken Hegan

Yeah, I wrote a little note to you because I couldn't really talk. And yeah, my note said, "I feel like a total dick right now." I mean, how would you feel? Would you feel comfortable doing this?

Ira Glass

Me? No. No.

Ken Hegan

Well, yeah. If someone did this to me, I'd think, man, you're just being a bully. And I would immediately start looking for cues in their behavior beyond the card that they're a dick. I'd be looking for extra reasons to hate them. So yeah. I'm conflicted right now, because hey, I got some space here. My knees feel good. But I'm still being a dick.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Ken Hegan

And I'm getting away with it.

Ira Glass

Well, you're getting away with it in the sense that her chair is up. But you're not getting away with it in the sense of she probably thinks you're a dick.

Ken Hegan

Absolutely true. Yeah.

Ira Glass

This is not the kind of getting away with it that most of us want. Most of us want total getting away with it, which means we don't just get our way. In addition, nobody thinks badly of us. You know? Nobody judges. That's what we want. That's just as true for grown men as for little boys.

Ira Glass

Do you think you're going to use the courtesy card and the knee defender again?

Ken Hegan

I will absolutely use the Knee Defender again. The card? I don't think I'm ever going to use this again. No, I'd feel too bad.

Ira Glass

So basically, your hope is going to be that the people, when they try to push their seat back, they're just going to think, oh, the seat's broken.

Ken Hegan

Yeah. Yeah, basically, I'm going to be a sneak. Be tricky. Let them believe the seat's broken.

Ira Glass

I totally relate to that choice. I think lots of us are like this. Sneaks on a plane. If we can get away with something completely, with no one ever knowing, nobody judging us, and, just as important, nobody really hurt, we give it a shot.

Today on our program, we have stories of people trying to sneak their way through, trying to put one over, trying to get away with it. Some of them justifying it by saying that they are doing it for others, for the greater good. Some not bothering with that-- they just don't care. We have a dad hauling marijuana for the sake of his family. We have you, our listeners, setting things on fire and cheating in school. We have politicians lying in a wholesale and utterly effective way for the sake of four year olds. Stay with us.

Act One. Take Your Kid to Work Day.

Ira Glass

Act One, Take Your Kid to Work Day. Of course, the most important thing if you want to get away with some kind of wrongdoing is that you have a plan-- a foolproof, well thought out plan, with safeguards and contingencies along the way to guard against everything you can think of that could possibly, possibly go wrong. Domingo Martinez has this story about his parents, and a plan of theirs years and years ago.

Domingo Martinez

By 1986, Dad had become a truck driver with nothing left to haul but marijuana. Through his early 30s, he could do little with the trucking business he'd inherited from Grandpa except watch as it crumbled around him.

Back then, he began his days by throwing open the door to the bedroom I shared with my brother Dan. He'd stand there in his underwear, looking like a tall diapered child, and say, "You two get up." He would end the day drinking a lot of $1.50 Budweisers at the shanty bars that littered the port of Brownsville.

At home, Mom kept the bookkeeping. She watched the flow of money slow to a trickle and then stop outright when I was in middle school. My brother, sisters and I knew things were dire when our mother stopped shopping at El Centro Supermarket-- the nice grocery store, as she'd always told us-- and started bringing home bags from Lopez Supermarket, the poor people grocery store.

One morning, Mom surprises me by showing up at my seventh grade algebra class and removing me, getting us on the road out of Brownsville headed north. There's no explanation. [SPANISH], she snaps at me-- "Sit down and shut up."

I don't know why I didn't guess what we were doing that morning-- that Mom and I were lookouts for Dad, who was on the road somewhere behind us in one of his flat nose tractor trailers, carrying a large load of marijuana and headed north. I had heard the stories, knew some of the tactics of smuggling by this point, but I didn't make the connection-- that Mom and I were driving ahead of Dad to make sure the custom station was closed. And if it happened to be open, we were supposed to turn back and warn him. This was back in the 1980s, before the Patriot Act, when there were two US Customs checkpoints blocking the migration of drugs, fruit, people, reptiles, and parrots on the roads between the United States and Mexico, both about 100 miles north of the Mexican border at highway choke points.

The station on Highway 77 in Sarita was the busier and the better financed. The checkpoint at Hebbronville though, was an airstream trailer with an attached carport to protect the agents from the sun, and it would often close for breakfast or lunch. So we were headed towards that one this morning, going north on Highway 281, driving through the scenery of asthmatic plants and stunted trees.

The car is hot, no air conditioning. My mom and I are saying nothing to one another. We have each decided that the other is unworthy of conversation. We stare out the windows and think very different things.

Mom is thinking about the $100 she and Dad had spent before 6:00 that morning-- $100 that would help them make $2,000 if things went right, because their first stop on this felony excursion was to Dad's [SPANISH], whom we knew as [SPANISH], dad's personal witch doctor, for an emergency session. They were let right through at 5:00 in the morning, and they had only one burning question-- will the checkpoint be open? After years of sitting through these sessions with my grandmother, I didn't have to be there to know exactly how it went in the [SPANISH] office.

[SPANISH] is older, matronly, dresses in a thin frock with her hair pulled back in a bun. She has my parents sit across from her desk in a black leather loveseat with chrome handles. A panorama of photos hang around her office, some wallet sized, others larger and in portrait. A pencil sketch of a Camaro by one of her grandsons hangs next to a window.

She listens closely to their question, nodding sleepily at their preoccupation, sympathizing, understanding. They've reached a decision, and they can't turn back, they tell her. They need to do it. No other choice anymore. She stands up abruptly and walks behind her desk, which is cluttered with sheets of notebook paper crawling with ink, illegible notes, names of people, sets of cryptic numbers, home addresses of saints. She closes her eyes and scribbles something on her yellow legal pad-- nonsense to anyone else reading it.

On her desk are two cheap leaded crystal bottles, each filled with a clear liquid. She gently reaches for a matching shot glass, and lifts it to the light, making it sparkle. She places the glass on the surface before her and pours from one bottle, then the other. When the two clear liquids mix, they turn to deep crimson, and thicken like plasma. She nods her head as if her suspicions have been confirmed.

She produces a glass orb filled with water sitting on a black plastic ring. She sits up straight, closes her eyes, and regulates her breathing into a loud, rhythmic inhalation, exhalation that unconsciously forces Mom and Dad to do the same. After a few seconds, she opens her eyes suddenly and strikes the glass orb with a metal wand, making it ring in the clear morning air. Then she lifts the orb between her two pudgy hands, and stares deeply into the inverted image of the room around it. Sitting opposite this chicanery and watching everything she does, you're drawn into the ritual, and you can't help but try to figure it out, too.

"No," she says with certainty. "The checkpoint will not be open this morning. Go in peace. God be with you."

When Mom and I reach the checkpoint at 11:45 that morning, it is very much open for business. A line of cars five deep stretches back from the underbudgeted airstream trailer. Our job now is to go through and then turn back around and report to Dad that his doom was indeed imminent.

Mom is visibly shaken. She turns off the radio with a hard click and considers this-- considers her options. From the car, we can see a skinny middle aged white guy in green Border Patrol garb sitting on a reclining chair in the open doorway of the airstream trailer. He's facing the cars as they pass under the tin roof. It must have been 110 degrees inside the trailer, 100 in the shade. From his position, never bothering to get up, the agent sits fanning himself with the newspaper and sleepily peers into the cars, asking if everyone is an American citizen, waiting for an accented answer, smiling, and then waving them through like a sympathetic priest granting absolution.

"Hi, where y'all going to today?" asks the skinny little man. Mom's window is now only halfway open, and in her nervousness, she rolls it all the way up. "Hi, sorry. I mean, San Antonio," as she opens the window.

"Y'all American citizens?"

"Yes," she says, as she leans back so he can get a clear look at me, nodding my head. I don't say anything except a quiet yep when I nod, but he has not heard me. There was an uncomfortable pause, I think because they're supposed to hear your accent. There was an anxious beat, and he still hasn't let us go, when I say,

"Yes, I am," a bit too enthusiastically. Mom laughs nervously. She had been hoping our light skin would exonerate us without a problem.

"Y'all have a nice day," he says, like he hasn't noticed anything awkward. We drive through, and I feel her seethe for the next few miles.

That was about noon. Somewhere behind us, at a roadside rest stop, Dad and my older brother Dan are waiting in Dad's tractor trailer, which is attached to the trailer with the marijuana. The two center I beams that run the length of the trailer make perfect housing once you weld metal plates all along the underside and at the tail end. It creates a long rectangular box sealed at the rear end with the axle of the rig where 20 40-pound blocks of marijuana can be hidden. This is what Dad and Dan are carrying.

I wonder dimly if Dan has figured out what he's doing out here on the road north when he should be in high school. But Dan has always been more streetwise-- much savvier than me. I figure that if I figured it out, he'd have figured it out long before.

Mom and I drive on to Hebbronville. I'm dehydrated. I want to stop at a store. "We can't," she says to me. "We have to turn back. I think we're behind." Still, I'm hungry and really thirsty, so I persist. Certainly we have time to get to a convenience store. They can't have scheduled this thing to hinge on a few minutes. Certainly they've devised this more cleverly than that. "Please," I plead. "Just stop at the 7-11."

Grudgingly, she pilots the noisy car around the small town and finds a convenience store. I get out with a couple of dollars and come up short when I try paying for some doughnuts and a chocolate milk. I return to the car for more money. "Just get in," she yells, and I do, leaving the food at the counter. Mom whips the car around, and I'm in trouble, used to it by now.

We travel like that for a few minutes, and when the checkpoint is back in sight, we hold our breath so the guy won't see us. And right then, we see Dad and Dan and the trailer heading right for the checkpoint. Dad had become nervous, or maybe brave, or maybe he was blinded by his $100 faith in his [SPANISH] and had charged forth without waiting for Mom's report.

"Oh, God," my mother says, and all the blood drains from my face from just the tone in her voice. I had never heard her voice so charged with fear. "Oh, God," she says again. With her left hand, she grabs the knob that controls the headlights and flashes at Dad, who was only a few hundred feet from the checkpoint. She flashes four times, in clear view of anyone who was paying attention. I wonder if that is her signal that the checkpoint is open, but question the wisdom of doing it while he's next in line, in full view of the guy at the checkpoint, were he to look over his shoulder and see the noisy southbound car that just drove through not 30 minutes before.

She slows down, slows terrifically down, going less than 20 miles per hour on the highway, and for a moment I can see Dad is driving. I can see that the blood has drained from his face, too, making his eyebrows stand out a rich black on his pallid, deathly white forehead, a mask of someone pretending desperately that everything is A-OK, but doing it horrifically badly. I see Dan in the passenger seat, holding onto the hand rail above the door as a means to steady himself through this craziness, through this stupid unnecessary risk, and he looks calm, collected, uncaring. Like he isn't there.

There are no cars ahead of him now. The trailer is next in line. It slows to a crawl, and I can see Dad desperately trying to ignore the crazy flashing noisy Bonneville rattling through the southbound lane, keeping his eyes fixed to the road, pretending like he isn't smuggling anything in the empty trailer behind him-- this empty, useless trailer with the eye beams all sealed up, with the two Mexican men driving it, with no obvious destination, no paperwork, no affiliation with any hauling or trucking company.

No sir, not trafficking in drugs. Just driving through, to Houston probably, looking for work. Oh yes, we're American citizens. That's not why we're nervous. We can prove that-- that's nothing. We're nervous because of the pot we're hiding, and because we're only getting $2,000 for risking upwards of 10 years in prison. Isn't that funny? Isn't that just hysterical?

But the skinny white guy is having lunch and can't be bothered.

In one of the weirder moments of this whole debacle, the Bonneville, the Airstream, and dad's tractor are all lined up like some cosmic event, and we see the skinny Border Patrol agent with a white napkin tucked under his chin and Dad's bloodless face up in the trailer through the window of the Airstream, as the agent waves him through with a fork, like he's conducting an orchestra. Go on through. Go on through.

Mom continues driving south stunned by what has just happened, and I'm careful not to say a word. We almost reach Raymondville, and stop at a Whataburger to get a quick, wordless lunch, and spend some time sitting in a parking lot, waiting. When she feels it is safe to return, she turns the car around and heads back north, back through the same checkpoint. "Are you sure this is safe?" I ask. She doesn't answer.

When we pull up again to the checkpoint, headed back to Hebbronville, around 3:00, there was a different Border Patrol agent at the Airstream. He is a small, clean cut militant Mexican with a Southern drawl. "Y'all American citizens?" he demands instantly, leaning into the car through the window, clearly smelling for marijuana smoke.

"Oh, yes," says my mother, who is probably quite relieved the hard part is over, and it looks like we're getting away with it.

"How about you, son? You American citizen?" He gives me a direct glare through reflective sunglasses. There is nothing more potentially hostile than the indigenous ego interpreting the laws of his conqueror upon his own people.

"Yes, sir," I say, careful not to move or fidget or look away, like I've learned.

He looks back at my mother, then at me, like he smells the nervousness of earlier. Something tugs at his intuition. "Where y'all headed?" the sunglasses finally ask.

This catches Mom off guard. Her subterfuge had ended when Dad had driven through the checkpoint. She left all her answers back in Raymondville. "We're going to Hebbronville," she says unconvincingly. Had he asked one more question, had he pressed it, we would have been in some sort of trouble. But he doesn't, and he backs off and motions us through.

Mom drives the noisy car through Hebbronville, and we were about to hit the open highway again when we noticed Dad's trailer in the parking lot of a cheap motel by the side of the road. My brother is lodged between the rearmost tires, working on the brake lights that, ridiculously, aren't working. Mom is as alarmed to find them there as I am. This confirms my suspicion that there had been no planning beyond the consultation at the [SPANISH]. This whole debacle had been based on nothing more than $100 worth of faith.

Mom pulls up next to the trailer, and I think she expects a victorious reunion. When he sees her, Dad suddenly looks like he's about to punch her. "Stupid [BLEEP] woman," he yells at her in Spanish. Mom stops cold. "What the [BLEEP] were you thinking? If they would have just turned around for a moment, it would all be over, and it would all be your fault," he spits at her in Spanish.

We realize what he's upset about-- the flashing headlights. His words continue to snap and hiss around her like bullets in a fire fight, and she follows him forward to the cab of the truck, kowtowing to her punishment. "Lucky for us, [SPANISH] was right," Dad says, walking back with Mom, now excited and seemingly over his anger. "She made them blind, and we were let through like they were closed."

When we left them later that evening, Dan was doing the driving. They pulled out of the parking lot and headed off to Houston and their payoff, the brake lights temporarily fixed in loops of black electrical tape. I watch as the truck disappears. It looks like every other piece of now broken down equipment we've ever owned-- rusting, miserable, and totally criminal.

Mom and I turned south, back to Brownsville. Mom is her usual quite self, except this time, she plays the radio louder. This means she's thinking. It's getting dark, and I'm sleepy. So I sleep. She'll get us home. She knows the way. For that, I could trust her.

Ira Glass

Domingo Martinez, reading a story from his collection, The Boy Kings of Texas, which is a memoir and a finalist for the National Book Award.

Act Two. Get Away With It After the Beep.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Get Away With It After the Beep. So two weeks ago, I invited you-- yes, you-- to call in to a special phone number that we set up here at the radio show and tell us what things you have gotten away with. Over 1,000 of you called. Our intern [? Tarek ?] listened to these messages. And he says that he came away from the experience seeing you all very, very differently than he had before. He says that if these messages are any indicator at all, most of you have either cheated in school or committed some small act of arson at some point in your lives.

So, good to know. I know we should try to capitalize on that during the pledge drive. I have no idea how. But anyway, here's a small selection of the messages we received.

Man

We found new ways of cheating on tests, homework. We're not proud of it, or at least I'm not proud of it. But it's what we did. We learned Morse Code and would tap during class.

Man

I, by all rights, should not have graduated. And I shouldn't have gone to college, which is what wound up happening.

Woman

I got away with graduating high school by lying to my dean and telling her that I had HIV.

Man

My sophomore year of high school, I, uh, turned in a stick for my final project.

Woman

And I'm embarrassed to tell you that I got away with a little bit of extortion. I suggested to him that if I could pass his class with a much better grade, that what I saw in the Super 8 would stay just between us.

Man

Nearing the church, we saw a giant earthworm on the ground in the parking lot. I picked it up and put it in my pocket. And before the service started, my brother and I were playing with it by ourselves. My brother dared me to put it in the hair of a girl in front of us, and, uh-- and I decided to do it. And so I put it in her hair, but because her hair was so frizzy-- it was the '80s-- the worm disappeared, and she didn't feel anything.

Man

I got away with being the featured speaker in a seminar to which I was not even invited.

Man

I'd like to tell you how I got away with posing as the President's cousin to get health care at a hospital in Tajikistan.

Man

It's this incredible rush, because, you know, it had worked. I was able to act my way out of being murdered.

Man

I was, uh, parked at a stop light next to a girl I was trying to impress, and I decided to race her from stop light to stop light. So I slammed on the accelerator, and just as I was flying past her, a cop was going the other way. So he does a U-turn, I make a quick right down a side street, hoping he'll chase the girl. But of course, he didn't. He came after me. So I made another quick right, up an alleyway. He was still coming after me, so I swooped in behind a garage, jumped out of my car, ran though some people's yards, crossed the main street of Sherman Avenue, and wondering what I'm going to do.

I'm now without a car, and the police are looking for me. So, uh, I saw another cop car parked at a parking lot of a professional building, and I ran over. And I said, "Oh my God, somebody just stole my car!"

Man

We thought it would be fun to try to make flamethrowers with WD-40 and a lighter.

Man

You know, I didn't want to tell them, or tell anybody else, because at the time, I was 19, and could get in trouble for arson. So I kept that story to myself.

Man

I knew it was us, because I went back to the spot where I had smoked that cigarette with a friend, and sure enough, that part of the ground was blackened. And I was like, yep. That was definitely us. I feel horrible about this now, but I ended up getting away with it.

Woman

I kept it to myself, and this is the first time I'm revealing that secret.

Man

I got away with it and spent the rest of the night just giggling and eating junk food, uh, like you do.

Ira Glass

OK, we have one final story from a listener. Kind of a long one.

Man

I went to an acting conservatory in New York City for two years, and they told me about a month before graduation that it wouldn't be happening for me. I was like, a credit and a half or two credits shy. And, uh, I was like, this is not a problem. I figured I'd find a way to work it out. I actually think I thought I would Ferris Bueller it somehow and actually be able to get my diploma.

I just kept telling my parents everything was fine, and they made plans to come to New York and go to the graduation, and they were gonna make a whole weekend trip of the thing. And they came to town, and I knew I was not going to be able to walk, and my name was not going to be called, so, uh, I sort of just planted things in their mind all weekend. Like, you know, I hear the graduation's four hours long. I hear a lot of people aren't going. And I made sure they got extremely drunk the night before, and would be hung over the next day.

The graduation was at 1:00. We were all dressed up and ready to go, and I was like, you know what? Let's just skip it. Let's have a day in New York and go do something fun instead. So, uh, they bought it. And we just went out in New York, and, uh, I told my parents that I ended up getting a diploma in the mail to my apartment months later. And to this day, they still think I graduated from college when I didn't.

Interesting side note, the only person I ever told that to in my family was my brother after he came out of the closet and told me he was gay. And I figured I'd tell him my big secret, too. And he went right and told my sister, because that way, if I ever outed him, he'd be able to say I was a huge liar. So there you go.

Ira Glass

Thanks to everybody who took the time to call. See you all in Hell.

Well, coming up, 12-year-old ballerina con artist. You know, I have the whole thing written here to make you want to listen to this story, but, like, that should be enough, right? Like, that is enough right there. I'm just going to say it again-- 12-year-old ballerina con artist. Come on, you can't turn away without hearing that. That's coming up in just a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. Crime and Tutus.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show-- Getting Away With It. We have stories of people doing just that, and usually not feeling so bad about it. We've arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, Crime And Tutus.

OK, parents, I would actually warn you not to let your kids hear this next story, except the thing that the children in this next story accomplish would be impossible for any kids to do today. Basically, they go to the airport, and they try to hop on a plane to go to another city. The comedian Molly Shannon told what happened to Marc Maron on his podcast, WTF, which is a great podcast. They did this in front of a live audience in November, 2011.

Molly Shannon

I hopped a plane when I was 12. We told my dad-- me and my friend Anna were like, we're gonna hop a plane to New York. And he was like-- he dared us.

Marc Maron

How old were you?

Molly Shannon

We were like 12.

Marc Maron

Oh, good. That's good.

Molly Shannon

We went to the airport, and we had ballet outfits on, and we put our hair in buns. And we wanted to look really innocent. And this was, again, when flying was really easy. You didn't need your ticket to get through. And we told my dad, and we were just like-- we saw there were two flights. We were either gonna go to San Francisco or New York, and we thought, oh, let's go to New York. It's leaving early.

So we went. We said to the stewardess, we just want to say good bye to my sister. Can we go on the plane? And she was like, sure. And then she let us on, and it was a really empty flight, because it was out of Cleveland, Ohio.

And we sat back there, and then all of a sudden, you just hear, like, vroom. The plane takes off, and we were like-- And we had little ballet outfits, and buns. And I was like, hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women. And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

And then the stewardess that had given us permission to go say good bye to my sister came by to ask if we wanted snacks or beverages. And she was like, can I get you ladies something to eat? She looked like she was like, oh, mother [BLEEP].

So we wondered if we were going to get in trouble, but she ended up not telling anyone. And then when we landed in New York City, she was like, bye, ladies. Have a nice trip.

Marc Maron

I just, like, I'm-- it's such an exciting story, but the irresponsibility of all the adults in this story is somehow undermining my appreciation of it. You were 12-year-old girls in ballet outfits, and everybody was sort of like, have a good time! What world was that?

Molly Shannon

It was crazy! It was a crazy world.

Marc Maron

What did you do in New York?

Molly Shannon

Well, again, because I had a crazy childhood, we called my dad, and we were like, we did it! And he was like, oh God! Molly! Oh, jeez, well, try to-- so, basically, he couldn't--

Marc Maron

Try to what?

Molly Shannon

He didn't know what to do. He said, try to see if you can stay-- go find a hotel that you can stay in, and me and Mary-- my sister-- we'll come meet you. We'll drive there.

But basically, we didn't have that much. We just had our ballet bags and a little bit of cash. So we went to a diner, and we dined and dashed, and we stole things. We were like little con artists.

Marc Maron

Wait, did you actually make it to the city?

Molly Shannon

We made it to the city. I was like, how do you get to Rockefeller Center? Because I had just seen TV specials.

Marc Maron

Nobody said, are you girls lost? Nothing like that?

Molly Shannon

No. Nothing. So we did try to go to hotels, and my dad would call and ask, could they just stay there until we get there? And none of the hotels wanted to be responsible. So he was like, all right. You've gotta come home. And he was like, but I'm not paying for it, so try to hop on one on the way back. So we tried to hop on many planes, but the flights were all so crowded. So we ended up having to have him pay for it, and he made us pay it all back with our babysitting money. The end.

Marc Maron

So that was the big punishment?

Molly Shannon

Yeah, that was-- there was no punishment.

Marc Maron

Well, no, I know. I mean, clearly.

Molly Shannon

He loved that kind of stuff. Like I said, he was wild.

Marc Maron

I love the-- the sort of strange, nostalgic excitement you have for-- for this borderline child abuse.

Ira Glass

Molly Shannon, talking to Marc Maron on the WTF podcast, which I recommend, and which you can find on iTunes or through an internet search. We spoke with the other girl in that story, who has not talked to Molly Shannon in a while, didn't know that she was telling that story publicly, who confirmed all the crazy details in the story. She says they held hands and prayed while the plane took off.

Act Four. Pre K-O.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Pre K-O. To understand this next story, which is definitely a story about getting away with it in a big, big way, I first need to give you some background about preschool. In recent years, there have been more and more studies showing that preschool is one of the best investments a country can make in children's education.

Probably the most famous piece of research on this is an old one called the Perry Preschool Project. This study began in the 1960s. They took a bunch of poor kids from Ypsilanti, Michigan, put half of them into a preschool program, and then the other half, you know, just led their normal lives. And then after a year of that, both of those groups went back into the same public school system.

And then, every so often, researchers would follow up with these kids to see how they were doing from the two groups. They're following them still even now. And the results have been amazing. At age 27, the kids who got preschool were half as likely to have gotten arrested. They earned an average of 50% percent more per month. They were 50% more likely to have a savings account, 20% percent more likely to have a car, preschool kids got sick less often, were unemployed less often, sentenced to incarceration less often.

Other studies show similar results, not just for poor kids, but for other kids, too. They do better if they have preschool.

But in most of the country, only poor kids, kids in poverty, through the Head Start program, are offered free public preschool. And the very first state to choose to make free, high quality preschool available to almost every four-year-old in the state and then actually delivered on that promise turns out to be a surprising one. In fact, only a handful of states have joined it. Alex Blumberg from our Planet Money team reports the story of how the state came to lead the nation in preschool access is all about getting away with it.

Alex Blumberg

The state is Oklahoma, and to show you just how surprising that is, consider what happened to a guy named Ron Peters. Peters was a freshman legislator in the Oklahoma state House of Representatives, a Republican. One of its party leaders, a veteran legislator, came up to him one day and said, the governor, also a Republican, appointed this task force to look into the issue of early childhood education. They came up with some recommendations, the recommendations were put into this bill, the governor wants us to pass it. Will you be in charge of making that happen?

Ron Peters

I mean, it was a pretty mundane bill to start out with. It's set up a private partnership, set up a private foundation--

Alex Blumberg

Ron Peters said, sure. The bill seemed easy to pass, and pretty non-controversial. There were no state funds involved. It was all private money. The idea was simply to set up a nonprofit to publicize the value of early childhood education so more parents would consider it. So he introduced the bill on the House floor.

Ron Peters

I didn't really think anybody would debate it. I mean, how do you debate-- just the private sector was going to raise money to fund the awareness program, so, I mean, you couldn't argue about spending state money. But when they said will there be debate, seven hands on my side of the aisle went up to debate against it. This is a nanny state bill. The government's going to come take our kids and raise them for us. We think kids should be raised by their mom and dad.

When I was elected, I thought I was Rush Limbaugh incarnate. And then I got to the Legislature, it was like, who the heck are those people way over there? So--

Alex Blumberg

You didn't think there was anybody right of you, huh?

Ron Peters

No. Oh, no. No, but there ended up being a whole bunch of them. I got it passed, and it passed the House, passed the Senate, and then all the people started getting letters from the far right wing saying to the governor, this is a nanny state bill. Why don't we just take our kids from the hospital and take them to you to raise for us? And he got-- he got scared, a little bit, I guess, and he ended up vetoing his own task force bill.

Alex Blumberg

Wait a minute.

Ron Peters

Oh, I was terribly upset.

Alex Blumberg

Actually, the governor only threatened a veto, but it was enough to kill Peters' bill that time around. And that is how unlikely it is to pass universal public preschool in Oklahoma. A bill that simply suggests that the state might think it's a good idea for kids to go to preschool-- a bill, remember, that doesn't involve any state money and doesn't actually set up any new government programs-- that bill gets attacked as socialism and scuttled.

Oklahoma is arguably the most conservative state in the country. It's got a Republican House, a Republican Senate, a Republican governor, four out of its five representatives to Congress are Republicans, as are both its senators. One of those senators, Tom Coburn, was named the most conservative senator in Congress by National Review magazine. And if you need more proof, consider this-- Oklahoma was the only state in the entire country in 2008 where not one single county voted for Barack Obama.

So how in the world did anyone get the conservative state of Oklahoma to agree to a dramatic expansion of the state's public education system in preschool, something that many conservatives would oppose? How did anyone get away with that? The answer? Universal public preschool came to Oklahoma not as part of a bold, evidence based campaign. It was snuck in in the dark.

And to give you a sense of just how secretly it happened, consider this rather amazing fact. At the time, Ron Peters was getting his little bill squashed by his own party in the legislature, universal preschool was already in place in Oklahoma. It had been voted into law three years earlier-- voted into law by many of the same people who were accusing Ron Peters of socialism. And what's more, they had probably voted for that law without even realizing it, which is exactly the way that people who brought public preschool to Oklahoma wanted it.

The story begins in the late 1990s, and it begins with a seemingly unrelated issue. School superintendents around Oklahoma had discovered a loophole in the state's school funding formula, and were using that loophole to run a little scheme that involved kindergarten classes and huge amounts of money. So the scheme was, it was legal in Oklahoma for schools to have either a full day or a half day kindergarten program. The loophole was that schools got paid the same amount from the state either way. And so what school districts began doing was running two half day programs and collecting twice as much money. And if they couldn't find enough five year olds to fill two kindergarten classes, they would pad their numbers with four year olds.

Lloyd Snow

We got right in the middle of that very, very early.

Alex Blumberg

Lloyd Snow was a school superintendent at this time who took advantage of this loophole-- ran two half day kindergartens, enrolled a bunch of four year olds, and got paid double from the state.

Lloyd Snow

It was like a no brainer to not only be able to do this, put it in play, and then have money left over for other so desperately needed underfunded educational processes. I mean, it was-- it was a good thing, and we haven't had very many good things in public schools in my estimation. So I didn't blink twice.

Alex Blumberg

All around the state, the scheme spread. Four year olds were like gold, and the extra money they brought in went to everything from football programs to new school equipment. Even new buildings. That's what happened in the District of Joe Eddins, a state legislator around this time.

Joe Eddins

There was so much money came with these children, the school district bought what we call portable classrooms. A big mobile home, you know, that you clunk it together, and you've got a nice classroom pre-fab here. They bought the buildings, paid cash for them, with the money the first year. I mean, it's that much gravy. And then from then on, they got to use the buildings, in essence, free.

Alex Blumberg

Now, it might sound like Joe was happy about this, but he wasn't. This seemed like a loophole that people were abusing. And so, for two years, he tried to close it to keep four-year-olds out of kindergarten. But he got nowhere.

And Joe Eddins-- he becomes central to the story of universal preschool in Oklahoma-- you'll hear a lot more from him later-- after he meets this next guy, another main character in this saga, a guy named Bob Harbison. Bob Harbison is a self described corporate guy-- conservative suits, tortoise shell glasses. He was, for many years, a senior manager at TWA, and after that an executive in the oil and gas industry. He was also friends with people on the board of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce. And one day--

Bob Harbison

A banker friend of mine that was the incoming president of the Chamber brought me up. He said, I want to talk to you about a project we've been working on at the Chamber. And he said that it started in 1990. They had put together a little task force to evaluate workforce development issues, because they were going through-- Tulsa was going through a pretty explosive growth period.

Alex Blumberg

The banker friend explained that local businesses in Tulsa had a problem. They were finding it harder and harder to hire employees with enough skills and abilities to do the job. The Chamber had been looking into the reasons for this. Was it colleges and universities not training people properly? High schools?

Bob Harbison

They kept working back to this notion of children-- increasing numbers of children-- not being ready for school.

Alex Blumberg

This banker friend handed Bob a cardboard box filled with research and reports on early childhood education and said, here. Look this over and see what you think we should do.

Bob Harbison

Working through this cardboard box of materials in a cubicle at the Chamber. They and the staff had accumulated literature on the subject, and I became familiar with the Perry Preschool Study.

Alex Blumberg

And do you remember reading those studies, like, was that sort of an aha moment, where you were reading, like, these long term effects of preschool? Was that-- what-- do you remember your mindset then, as you were reading through?

Bob Harbison

Well, I tended to frame things in terms of my business experience. You know, I just-- it was just sort of automatic.

Alex Blumberg

Harbison said he thought back to his career in the airline industry, where one of the worst things you can do is fly a plane with an empty seat. But a kid who comes to kindergarten too far behind? Statistically, that kid might never catch up. He's occupying that seat in first, second, third grade, in middle school and high school, but the seat might as well be empty for all the good it's doing the kid sitting in it. And also he thought, when you look at the statistics of what happens to a lot of at risk kids when they get out of school, they end up costing the government a lot of money. They end up incarcerated, or on public assistance-- bad outcomes for them and for society.

Bob Harbison

I always thought about if-- if-- if there was a business or a group of businesses, and they had agreed to pay for all the outcomes, they would be spending money on prevention.

Alex Blumberg

This cardboard box made a big impression on Bob Harbison, who, in his quiet way, became something of a crusader for early childhood education, making the case for it to anyone who would listen, including, sometime in the late 1990s, Joe Eddins. Now remember, Joe was this legislator. He had this bill trying to close that loophole and keep four year olds out of kindergarten. Bob Harbison started making the case that we don't want fewer four year olds in public school, we want more of them. Here's Joe.

Joe Eddins

Bob Harbison is-- well, you know how smooth Bob Harbison is, isn't he? You know what I mean? I never knew I was being lobbied, if I was being lobbied. I just thought, boy, this Bob Harbison's telling me the things I need to know. Which, incidentally, Bob Harbison was telling the truth. But that was the key, that Bob Harbison found me a willing pupil and taught me all I know about four year olds.

Alex Blumberg

Over the course of several meetings, Bob shared with Joe the contents of that cardboard box-- all those studies and research projects demonstrating the importance of early childhood education. And Joe gradually decided that he needed to change his law and make it much bigger. He would still eliminate that four year olds in kindergarten for cash scheme, sure. No longer could schools pack their kindergartens with four year olds to get extra money from the state. But alongside that, he would provide for an actual program for four year olds-- an entirely new grade, fully paid for by the state. Public preschool.

And it turned out Oklahoma had a very good pilot preschool program, with guidelines for choosing the appropriate curriculum and hiring qualified teachers. But this program only existed in a few districts. Because, according to Eddins, the state didn't provide enough money to pay for it. Eddins estimates the state provided only a third of the money that was actually needed to run one of these programs. Joe Eddins' plan was to take that pilot program and fully fund it, so that any district that wanted it could actually get paid enough to put it in place.

Now, there was only one problem with this plan. There was probably no way it could pass. No way the state legislature would ever agree to pay for a program like this. And so, Joe Eddins essentially hid it. He simply offered his amendment again, the one closing the four year olds in kindergarten for cash loophole, only with some new language. A kind of PS in which he proposed a tweak to the state's school funding formula-- made it so that states got the same amount of funding for preschool that they got for other grades. This was, in fact, a massive overhaul of Oklahoma's public school system, but the actual text of Eddins' amendment looked like nothing special.

Joe Eddins

The way you amend a bill-- the staff takes the sections of law that you're amending, and then writes your amendments in underlined, and line out what you are deleting language. And I just had a few words here and a few words there.

Alex Blumberg

Still, there were the traditional and powerful enemies to something like this-- budget hawks and limited government folks, which, as I said, Oklahoma might lead the nation in. Eddins' strategy here? Political sleight of hand. He drew their attention to the stuff in the bill he thought they would like, and didn't mention the stuff they wouldn't.

Joe Eddins

I probably sat down at their desk with each Republican and showed them two or three things in the bill that I thought they ought to know.

Alex Blumberg

And what were those things?

Joe Eddins

Well, I showed them where we were keeping four year olds out of kindergarten, we're saving enormous amounts of money, you can contract with private providers, and they loved that. That's all I said.

Alex Blumberg

Now, everything he said was true. Eddins' bill did allow state money to go to private daycare centers to teach preschool. Also, his plan was voluntary. School districts didn't have to offer Pre-K programs, and parents didn't have to send their kids to one. So it was entirely reasonable to expect that in the beginning, at least, not too many school districts would even take advantage of Eddins' tweak to the funding formula and offer a Pre-K program.

And one other thing Eddins had going for him-- this four year olds in kindergarten for cash scheme? It was growing. And it was feared that the two biggest districts in the state-- Oklahoma City and Tulsa-- were about to get in on it. Eddins says that compared to the sure financial Armageddon that would be, his bill was the cheaper alternative.

Joe Eddins

Everybody could see that my bill was way cheaper than not my bill. If you voted no on my bill and killed it, you were going to have enormous enrollment of four-year-olds in kindergarten. And this was taking an immense amount of money. And all but one voted yes on the bill.

Alex Blumberg

Probably because in almost all his discussions with lawmakers about his bill, Eddins left out the main part. You know, the part about how he'd put the state on the hook to pay for an entirely new grade level. He knew almost nobody in any legislature actually reads all the bills, and the number of people who actually understood Oklahoma's school funding formula, you could probably count on one hand. And his strategy worked. It was a huge and costly expansion of the government's role in public education in a state more opposed to costly expansions of government than perhaps any other in the country.

Steven Dow is the director of an anti-poverty agency, and a long time early childhood education advocate in Oklahoma. He worked very closely with Joe Eddins to get this law written and passed.

Steven Dow

I think it's fair to say that the number of people that understood what was going on in terms of the adjustment to the state aid formula, that most certainly you could count the number of people that were aware of that on one hand.

Alex Blumberg

Now, if there had been-- if everybody in the state was aware of it, would it have passed?

Steven Dow

I-- I don't know that I would say that I think it's likely that it would have passed.

Alex Blumberg

Basically, if you guys hadn't snuck this provision in--

Steven Dow

Right. I would say had the enactment of universal Pre-K not been done through this what I would call stealth campaign, I think it's fair to say that it would not have been embraced.

Alex Blumberg

The irony is, now that the law is in place in Oklahoma, it just adds evidence to the case for preschool. Researchers who've studied Tulsa's preschool kids say they enter kindergarten an average of five months ahead in math, seven months ahead in writing, and nine months ahead in reading. And the gains are even more pronounced for at risk kids who get preschool. Lloyd Snow, the Oklahoma school superintendent, says he didn't need a study to show him that. He could see it the very next year, after his district started offering preschool.

Lloyd Snow

I mean, one year after we started, I mean, we had to have department meetings and all kinds of stuff, because our kids, you know, had better word recognition and letter recognition, better social skills, better hand eye coordination skills, better-- you know, just almost better everything as it relates to readiness for school. So now we've got all of our kids from whatever background-- I mean, they're voracious learners now. Don't start me with that stuff.

Alex Blumberg

I know my ABCs, I know my--

Lloyd Snow

Yeah, yeah, yeah. So that was kind of a game changer for us, and I think most schools.

Alex Blumberg

A game changer that, according to Joe Eddins, the legislator who arguably did more to change the game than anyone else, would not have been possible without the strange four year olds in kindergarten for cash scheme. The scheme that Eddins used as a smokescreen to sneak universal Pre-K through a skeptical legislature.

Joe Eddins

I don't see it ever being funded if you had it like other states do. If you had to say, here's a program that we want to implement. Here's how much money it'll take. Whoo, where are you going to get the money? OK? You know, if you would have to have a line item appropriation, nobody would have supported it except the young mothers, and they have no political clout

Alex Blumberg

What lessons could other states-- say other states want to try to do something like this?

Joe Eddins

Haven't got a prayer. They don't have a prayer. They don't have a prayer. Because it's expensive. And their state legislatures are run by people that don't want to-- they want to cut programs, not add programs.

Alex Blumberg

Not everyone would agree with Eddins on this. In fact, if you talk to experts, the trend around the country is for more and more kids to be enrolled in state funded preschool programs. States as diverse as Georgia, Iowa, Vermont, and West Virginia are all hard on the heels of Oklahoma with preschool programs of their own.

And as for Oklahoma, parents, says Lloyd Snow, the school superintendent, they love this program. And statistics across the state bear that out. Remember, parents don't have to send their kids to preschool. It's voluntary. But almost 75% of the state's four-year-olds are now enrolled in public preschool. However it arrived, it seems that universal Pre-K is here to stay in Oklahoma.

Ira Glass

Alex Blumberg is one of the producers of our program. Planet Money, the blog, the free podcast is at npr.org/money.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and Robyn Semien, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Brian Reid, and Alissa Shipp. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from [INAUDIBLE], Seth Lind is our operations director, Emily Condon's our production manager, Elise Bergerson's our administrative assistant. Music help from Damian Graef and Rob [INAUDIBLE]. Special thanks today to Jim Nayder, Michelle Harris, Bianca Giaever, and Brendan McDonald.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. Our film Sleepwalk With Me is still in many theaters, and is available in your home right now, tonight, by video on demand on most cable and satellite systems. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who lists his personal vices this way-- he has five vices. Five.

Domingo Martinez

Drugs, fruit, people, reptiles, and parrots.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week for more stories of This American Life.

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