Rebecca remembers exactly when she learned the astonishing truth. She was in second grade and ran into her best friend Rachel at school one day.
And she pulled me aside and said, you know, last night I lost a tooth. And I woke up while the tooth fairy was putting the money under my pillow. And guess who the tooth fairy was? I said, oh my god, who was it? I have to know. And she said, my dad. My dad is the tooth fairy.
And I remember running home after school and telling my mom, Mom, I know who the tooth fairy is, and declaring it as if I had grown up-- that I knew who the tooth fairy was. And she said, oh, well, who is the tooth fairy? And I turned to her and I said, Rachel's dad is the tooth fairy. Ronnie Loberfeld is the tooth fairy.
And she said, I can't believe you know. It's totally secret. You can't let anyone else know, but you're right. Ronnie is the tooth fairy and he works really hard, and, you know, it's a secret. So you can't let anyone else know. He is the tooth fairy, but you can't let anyone else know.
And from that day on, Ronnie Loberfeld was the tooth fairy. And all of my notes under my pillow were signed, "Love, Ronnie Loberfeld."
Now, um, in his day job, what did Ronnie Loberfeld do?
I think he did something in finance. He was either an accountant or a stockbroker. He worked next to a Stop & Shop in Massachusetts, in Newton. Had dark hair, wore a suit. And I definitely had images of his driving his Volvo around the Boston area and delivering the tooth fairy treats.
I remember wondering what it was like for Rachel to know that her dad was the tooth fairy and definitely being a little envious that her dad had this special job and this special power and that he had this whole other interesting life, where my dad just came home from work and that was it.
So when you would actually run into Ronnie Loberfeld, what was it like for you? How would you act?
I tried to act cool. I didn't want to-- it's like if you're starstruck but you don't want them to know that you're starstruck.
Just like meeting a celebrity.
Exactly. You downplay it. You try not to mention it, but you definitely check them out twice and look at them when they walk away. You're like, oh my god, you're the tooth fairy.
But you knew enough to play it cool.
I knew enough to play it cool. I said hey, how you doing? What's for dinner? How am I getting home tonight? Are my parents gonna pick me up? Have they called?
You did play it cool.
One interesting question in all this, why did both girls come to what seems like the least likely conclusion from the evidence in front of them-- of a parent swapping money for a tooth under a pillow? Well, Alison Gopnik studies how children think, and she says, of course it's logical for a seven-year-old to conclude that her own father might be the tooth fairy.
Children understand that their parents, for instance, are powerful in all sorts of ways that make them very different from children.
Now, from a child's point of view, knowing where those powers begin and end is pretty tricky. I mean, think about all the things that your parents can do that you can't do. And think about the fact that there isn't any obvious explanation about why your father can use a Visa card, for instance, which is something that you can't do. The power to be a tooth fairy isn't all that much more impressive.
There's a certain kind of story that kids tell, like the Ronnie Loberfeld story, where they look at something going on around them, observe it carefully, think about it logically-- how one thing connects to the next-- and then come to conclusions that are completely incorrect.
Therapist Aileen Goldman in Texas tells this story about a little girl on an airplane.
And she was about four years old, and her very first flight. And as the plane was airborne, she turned to the woman next to her and said, when do we get smaller? That had been her experience at airports watching airplanes take off. They do get smaller.
These stories are like jokes and they're also like poems, I think, because there's this a-ha quality to them. Some connection is made between things-- a surprising connection; a wrong connection, actually-- and part of what makes these so satisfying as stories is that the logic in them is perfectly reasonable and, at the same time, completely and utterly wrong.
We at This American Life love these stories. And so today we bring you a full hour of them. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.
Today on our show, Kid Logic. Our show in four acts-- Act One, Baby Scientists with Faulty Data. Act Two, The Game Ain't Over Til the Fatso Man Sings. In that act we hear one boy's explanation of how love works. Act Three, "Werewolves in Their Youth," that story on the gap between adult and kid logic from Michael Chabon. Act Four, One Brain Shrinks, One Brain Grows, the story of a dad who's sick, his four-year-old boy, and the perhaps not-very-helpful lessons of The Lion King. Stay with us.
Act One: Baby Scientists With Faulty Data
Act One, Baby Scientists with Faulty Data.
30 years ago, psychologists and scientists believed that babies could not think at all-- that they were irrational and illogical, self-centered little balls of need and want. What scientists learned in the last 30 years is that this is not true-- that children are observing the world and thinking about it and coming to logical conclusions from the day they're born.
Alison Gopnik and two of her colleagues decided to summarize a lot of this research in a book. They called it The Scientist in the Crib, meaning that babies are like little scientists. They argue that when a small baby sits in a high chair and drops a spoon onto the floor over and over and over for mom or dad to pick up, what the baby is doing, essentially, is running a little baby-sized experiment.
Because it turns out that babies are very interested in gravity and how gravity works. The fact that things fall down and not up is not obvious to babies. And it turns out another thing they're very interested in is human beings and how they work. We are actually the lab rats. They're actually doing experiments on us to see how we tick.
So when you play drop the spoon, you get two for the price of one. You get an experiment about gravity. You get a little physics tutorial. And you get a psychology tutorial. You can see about how that person will do something over and over again.
While kids think with the same logic that adults use and apply that logic just as rigorously, there are certain things that they simply do not know and take a while to figure out. Up to six or seven-years-old, for instance, it's not exactly clear to anyone what is imaginary and what is not, or if wishing for something can make it come true.
There's a wonderful experiment about this, actually, that Paul Harris is England did, where he got children to imagine that something was in a box. So he would say, OK, now here's this box. We're going to open it up. We're going to close it. Now let's imagine that there's a puppy in this box, or else let's imagine that there's a monster in the box. And he asked the children, is there really a monster in the box? Is there really a puppy in the box? They said no. They were just imagining it.
Then the researcher would walk out of the room, leaving the box behind with the child, and then something funny would happen. The kids who were told to imagine a puppy in the box would go over and peek inside the box just to check. And the kids who were told that there was a monster in the box? They would edge away from the box.
So they weren't going to take any chances, just in case wishing actually could make monsters happen. They didn't want to take any chances about what was going on in that box. But by the time the children are six or seven, like grown-ups, they've understood that just wishing for things isn't going to actually make them happen.
When they're still small and inexperienced about what happens in the real world, children have to make logical inferences all the time based on the data that they do have. Here is how children responded when our producer Jonathan Goldstein asked them about the tooth fairy.
What do you think she does with all of these teeth that she's collecting?
Maybe she gives it to the people without teeth.
What do you think she does with all these teeth that she ends up taking?
I know! In a faraway land way up in the clouds, there's a town that she makes castles and stuff.
She makes things out of the teeth?
I really think she just likes to collect teeth and make things out of them.
Like what kind of stuff?
Lots of stuff. Makes tooth house, tooth trophy, and a tooth desk.
How many teeth do you think it takes to make a tooth house?
Yeah, well, like 100. 100. No, 100. 80.
Why wouldn't she just make the house out of bricks like everyone else?
Because no one doesn't have brick teeth.
These stories, where kids take a perfectly logical premise and go through a series of perfectly logical deductions that lead to perfectly incorrect conclusions-- turns out that science does not have a name for these stories, which is surprising, given how common they are and how they are recognized around the world for their sheer entertainment value. Here, we've collected a few more.
We lived in a duplex. The duplexes directly to the left and the right of us were aunts and uncles-- were owned by aunts and uncles. The block directly to the east was all aunts and uncles. Across the street from us, all aunts and uncles. So there was no such thing as walking out and seeing a stranger. I just thought we all looked alike. We all had common ancestry. So what was the problem?
Well, when I became mobile when I got my first tricycle, I could go a little bit further. So I ventured down the street, tootling around, being cool little neighborhood kid, waving to everybody, saying hi, getting my little daily kisses. And I looked and I saw this couple sitting there, these two people. But they were people that I had never seen before. I'd never seen anything like that because they were white people. And because I had never seen white people, I assumed that they were ghosts.
So I waved. Like, I wonder if I wave-- what kind of people are they? What do they do? Do they talk? So I waved, and I remember hearing the man going-- I remember this distinctly because it kind of scared me because I didn't really know what was going on. I heard [HACKING COUGH] and I thought, wow, that must be the way they talk.
And being a child of Nova and The Body in Question and those kind of television shows-- not really cartoony things-- it was more like a scientific discovery, like I discovered the first ghost people and they talked to me. I communicated. I waved. They waved. I said hello and they coughed-- you know, they say hello in their language. [COUGHING]
When I was a kid my father used to give me these history lessons and he would tell me about what North America was like before the white man came. And he would describe all these horrible things that the white man had done to the land, and how the white man and come and killed all of the natives who were living in America, and how the white man came and brought all kinds of diseases and pestilence and brought firearms and all kinds of things.
And the image that I would paint in my brain was of this huge white man-- this one guy. This big white man with a white hat and a white coat and a big, bushy white mustache, and he was completely white-skinned, like really bleached. And at the time I remember just thinking that this white man was one really miserable SOB.
Well, it all began at Christmas two years ago when my daughter was four-years-old. And it was the first time that she had ever asked about what did this holiday mean. And so I explained to her that this was celebrating the birth of Jesus. And she want to know more about that, and we went out and bought a kid's Bible and had these readings at night. She loved them-- wanted to know everything about Jesus.
So we read a lot about his birth and about his teaching. And she would ask constantly what that phrase was. And I would explain to her that it was, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And we would talk about those old words and what that all meant.
And then one day we were driving past a big church, and out front was an enormous crucifix. She said, who is that? And I guess I'd never really told that part of the story, so I had to sort of, yeah, well, that's Jesus, and I forgot to tell you the ending. Yeah. Well, you know, he ran afoul of the Roman government. This message that he had was so radical and unnerving to the prevailing authorities of the time that they had to kill him. They came to the conclusion that he would have to die. That message was too troublesome.
It was about a month later after that Christmas. We'd gone through the whole story of what Christmas meant. It was mid-January, and her preschool celebrates the same holidays as the local schools, so Martin Luther King Day was off. So I knocked off work that day and I decided we'd play, and I take her out to lunch. And we were sitting in there and right on the table where we happened to plop down was the art section of the local newspaper.
And there, big his life, was a huge drawing by like a 10-year-old kid from the local schools of Martin Luther King. And she said, who's that? And I said, well, as it happens, that's Martin Luther King, and he's why you're not in school today. So we're celebrating his birthday. This is the day we celebrate his life. And she said, so who was he? I said, well, he was a preacher. And she looks up at me and goes, for Jesus? And I said yeah. Yeah, actually he was, but there was another thing that he was really famous for, which is that he had a message.
And you're trying to say this to a four-year-old. This is the first time they ever hear anything so you're just very careful about how you phrase everything. So I said, well, yeah, he was a preacher and he had a message. She said, what was his message? And I said, he said that you should treat everybody the same no matter what they look like. She thought about that for a minute, and she said, well, that's what Jesus said.
And I said, yeah, I guess it is. You know, I never thought of it that way, but yeah. And that is sort of like do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And she thought for a minute and looked at me and said, did they kill him, too?
Act Two: The Game Ain't Over Til The Fatso Man Sings
Act Two, The Game Ain't Over Til the Fatso Man Sings.
When little kids talk about a crush or love, are they talking about more or less the same thing that adults mean by those words? Well, Howie Chackowicz remembers how he thought about love in grade school. He wanted girls to like him, but they never seemed to.
Looking back on it, I think part of the problem was how I thought about love as a kid. I had a few ideas about how you get someone to love you that, in retrospect, weren't particularly helpful to me.
First, I thought that if they could see me sleeping, they would immediately fall for me. When I went to sleep each night, I would consciously try to sleep in a cute way just in case the girls I like would peep on me. I'd roll into a fetal ball like a kitten and scrunch my head into my pillow, hand under my head. I imagined that all the popular girls, intent on cruelly pranking me, had a ladder and climbed up to my bedroom window, but instead of painting fatso, or whatever, on my window, as planned, their collective hearts would melt as they saw me sleeping like a babe, an angel, buried snugly under my blankets. I guess it was some crossover of a kid's knowledge of what was endearing to adults applied to romance.
My second theory was that they'd fall in love with me if they could see me reading aloud. This conclusion came out of my experience with nieces and nephews who'd fawn all over me when I'd read to them. By age 6, I was already an uncle, and I felt this lent me a certain maturity.
Often, at recess time, I'd go to the back of the classroom and read from a selection of kids' books. All the kids would gather around in a circle, and I'd pore through books like Percy the Rose-eating Donkey, affecting the voices of the different characters and speaking with a preacher's sweaty charisma. I'm not sure why, but everyone in my class seemed to love the way hammed it up.
The only problem with this was the girls in class ended up treating me like their uncle. They'd call me Uncle Howie and talk to me in baby talk. Wead me a stowy, Uncle Howie, and so on. Don't get me wrong. I loved the attention, but I wanted love, not wuv.
So I had all these ideas about love. And of all the girls I knew, my theories were most intensely targeted at one girl-- the most popular girl in school, Karen. She became my most serious crush. I carried a torch for Karen from grade 1 to grade 6. Though Karen didn't seem to like me much, one thing I'd learned about love on TV was that if one was sincere, love can break all boundaries. I believed that there would come a moment where I'd speak the words "I love you" to Karen with such tenderness and tears that it would break her heart and she would cry, too, and confess her love. I would allow one brave tear to travel down my cheek.
But Barry's really cute, eh?
And Jonathan. Look how cute Jonathan is.
Jonathan is very, very adorable.
Now, years later, I'm friends with Karen, actual friends with both her and her husband, Alan. I even worked for him for a while. Karen and I have talked before about our elementary school days, usually steering the conversation towards how mean she was to me. But I've never really spoken to her about puppy love. I wanted to know what she remembered, whether she knew I even had a crush on her at all.
Who were your interests? We'll go year by year.
Keith, definitely, love interest. Barry Seller, the big one, the big one.
Notice who she doesn't mention. Even though it was so far in the past, the crush is still such an awkward thing to talk about. When I finally did tell her about how I felt about her when we were kids, I sort of mumbled my way through it, backpedaling all over the place. I even forgot to actually point the mic at her.
When I was in elementary school, you were a big crush. You see?
I didn't even know that, you know. I thought I was just responsible for tormenting you. I didn't realize that there was a crush involved. Maybe at the time I knew? But I had no clue, actually, that you liked me, when I think back on it now.
One time in the field, Keith told me to tackle you. He said, if you tackle her, she'll like you, and then you'll be popular.
That is so funny. You know what? That's very good advice, I think.
It's very bad advice. I almost broke your leg.
Basically what happened was I was understanding off to the sidelines. I wasn't often picked to play, but this was like a co-ed game and seemed very fun. And Keith said, I'm gonna throw Karen the ball. You know, he couldn't pronounce his Rs. He goes, you tackle hew, Howie. Tackle hew! Tackle hew hawd and you'll be populaw and then everyone will like you. I was like, OK. I'm going to do it.
And I remember you were kind of running and the sun is shining off and your hair is bouncing, and you caught the ball. And I remember I just-- I don't know what came over me. I just remember thinking that's what I had to do was I had to tackle you. I tackled you really hard. You're on the ground. You're holding your leg. Any kind of logic would have dictated that's not the way to get the girl you like.
Yeah, but a lot of times the way young kids react or show affection is through physical-- like I was telling you before that I wrestled with Barry because you just want to be close.
This is not how she felt about it at the time, because I felt the harder I tackled her, the more popular I'd be. I took her down like it was prison football. The game came to an immediate end, everyone circling Karen's writhing body, the football near her leg totally still. She was holding her leg, looking up at me, saying, you tub of lard! You broke my leg!
Karen doesn't remember any of this. She doesn't remember how she then jumped up, got four or five of her girlfriends in a huddle, and miraculously choreographed an impromptu kicking chorus line of Fatso Man to the tune of the Village People's Macho Man. (SINGING) Fatso, fatso man. I would not like to be a fatso man. Fatso, fatso man. I would not like to be a fatso. And at that point they all threw their hands up in the air in unison.
I remember it so perfectly. But then, after all, it was my crush. She had no recollection of the time the school photographer called her Daisy Duke and then turn around and called me Boss Hogg, or the fitness day that I'd beat her in a Chariots of Fire-style race. She didn't even remember the biggest story of them all-- our sixth grade graduation dance.
Now, the last dance was Stairway to Heaven. Now, I went to the dance to dance with you. But I couldn't because, as I was walking, a line of people walked by and blocked me. It was like a split second, but then you were in the arms of a grade 7.
What was a grade 7 doing at our graduation?
They crashed our grade 6 graduation dance.
Who was it? Don't you remember?
I don't know. He was tall and thin. He had longish hair. And he came through the back door of the gym. You don't remember the last dance?
You kissed this gentleman.
Did I? Like a peck or a make-out kiss? I don't think I was making out in grade 6.
No. By adult standards, it was a peck. I'd say by grade 6 standards, you got laid.
It turns out that Karen remembered exactly one story about me.
My most vivid memory of you is sitting in class and the teacher asking us to pull out our homework and you opening up your desk and the paper kind of overflowing out of that desk. And you're rummaging frantically through the desk, trying to find what homework we were asked to take out and not being able to find it, and our teacher walking up to your desk, and everyone knowing what was coming because it probably happened two days before, and the teacher just lacing into you and dumping the contents of your desk on the floor.
Now, I mean, when that happened, did I seem cool like a bad boy?
No. Everyone felt very, very sad for you.
More than anything I wanted Karen to notice me, but not in that way. I think the problem with my theories was that I expected her to fall for me the same way I fell for her-- that she would see me from afar reading to our classmates, sleeping like a little prince. I thought that's what it took for someone to fall in love. I wanted her to think that this was the real me. I wanted to think it was the real me. And the truth of it was that the real real me was getting screamed at and having his desk spilled out on the ground each day.
There's a way you can love a girl in grade 6 that you'll never have again. There's something about kids, or at least the way I was as a kid, that is purely romantic in the truest love-sonneteering sense of the word.
Only a year or two later, my theories in the ways of love had changed drastically. By seventh grade, I had some spin the bottle sessions under my belt, and I had concluded that, instead of dreaming about a true love I couldn't have, I should get a little bit more pragmatic about the whole thing.
One night, after deciding I wanted to have a real girlfriend, I called up identical twin sisters I liked, Darlene and Elizabeth. Darlene answered. I told her that I liked her and I asked her if she'd like to officially go out with me. She kindly told me that she only liked me as a friend, but she was flattered. No problem, I said. Is Elizabeth home? She passed me over to her twin, who I made the same offer to, and Elizabeth said sure. And that was it. They're identical twins. What's the difference, I figured. We went out for two whole months. It was great.
Howie Chackowicz is the creator, writer, and artist behind Howie Action Comics.
Coming up, kids talking kid talk, adults not understanding. But you will, as our special Kids Say the Darndest Things edition of our show continues in a minute from Public Radio International, when our program continues.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some topic, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that topic. Today's program, Kid Logic. We wanted an hour filled with stories in which kids employ kid thinking, especially the kid thinking that is perfectly logical but completely wrong-headed. And we have arrived at Act Three of our show.
Act Three: Werewolves In Their Youth
Act Three, "Werewolves in Their Youth." We have this excerpt in this act from a short story by Michael Chabon.
I had known him as a bulldozer, as a samurai, as an android programmed to kill, as Plastic Man and Titanium Man and Matter-Eater Lad, as a Buick Electra, as a Peterbilt truck, and even, for a week, as the Mackinaw Bridge, but it was as a werewolf that Timothy Stokes finally went too far.
I wasn't there when it happened. I was down in the ravine at the edge of the schoolyard, founding a capital for an empire of ants. I had just begun to describe, to myself and to the ants, the complicated rites sacred to the god whose worship I was imposing on them when I heard the first screams from the playground.
The girls screamed at Timothy the same way every time he came after them-- in unison and with a trill that sounded almost like delight, as if they were watching the family cat trot past with something bloody in its jaws. I scrambled up the side of the ravine and emerged as Timothy, shoulders hunched, arms outstretched, growled realistically and declared that he was hungry for the throats of puny humans. Timothy said this or something like it every time he turned into a werewolf, and I would not have been too concerned if, in the course of his last transformation, he hadn't actually gone and bitten Virginia Pease on the neck.
It was common knowledge around school that Virginia's parents had since written a letter to the principal, and that the next time Timothy Stokes hurt somebody, he was going to be expelled. Timothy was, in our teacher Mrs. Gladfelter's words, one strike away from an out, and there was a widespread if unarticulated hope among his classmates, their parents, and all of the teachers at Copland Fork Elementary that one day soon he would provide the authorities with the excuse they needed to pack him off to special school.
I stood there awhile, above my little city, watching Timothy pursue a snarling, lupine course along the hopscotch crosses. I knew that someone ought to do something to calm him down, but I was the only one in our school who could have any reason to want to save Timothy Stokes from expulsion, and I hated him with all my heart.
"I have been cursed for 300 years!" he declaimed. He was wearing his standard uniform of white dungarees and a plain white undershirt, even though it was a chilly afternoon in October and all the rest of us had long since been bundled up for autumn in corduroy and down. "I have been cursed to stalk the night through all eternity," he went on. "I have been searching for prey as lovely as you!"
He lunged toward the nearest wall of the cage of girls around him. The girls peeled away from him as though sprayed with a hose, bumped shoulders, clung shrieking into each other's sleeves. Some of them were singing the song we sang about Timothy Stokes.
Timothy Stokes, Timothy Stokes, you're going to the home for crazy folks.
And the one singing the loudest was Virginia Pease herself, in her furry black coat and her bright red tights. Virginia had blond hair, and she was the only girl in the fifth grade with pierced ears and painted fingernails, and Timothy Stokes was in love her. I knew this because the Stokeses lived next door to us and I was privy to all kinds of secrets about Timothy that I had absolutely no desire to know. I forbade myself, with an almost religious severity, to show Timothy any kindness or regard. I would never let him sit beside me, at lunch or in class, and if he tried to talk to me on the playground I ignored him. It was bad enough that I had to live next door to him.
It was toward Virginia that Timothy now advanced, a rattling growl in his throat. She drew back behind her girlfriends, and their screaming now grew less melodious, less purely formal. Timothy crouched down on all fours. He rolled his wild white eyes and took a last look around him. That was when he saw me, halfway across the yellow distance of the soccer field. He was looking at me, I thought, as though he hoped I might have something I wanted to tell him.
Instantly I dropped flat on my belly, my heart pounding the way it did when I was spotted trying to spy on a baseball game or a birthday party. I slid down into the ravine backward. At first I could hear the girls shouting for Mrs. Gladfelter, and then I heard Mrs. Gladfelter herself, sounding very angry. Then the bell sounded the end of recess, and everything got very quiet, but I just stayed there in the ravine.
I told myself that I didn't feel sorry at all for stupid old Timothy Stokes, but then I would remember the confused look in his eyes as I had abandoned him to his fate, to all the unimaginable things that would be done to him in the fabulous corridors of the Special School. I kept recalling something that I had heard Timothy's mother say to mine just a couple of days earlier.
"You know," Althea Stokes had told my mother, in that big, sad donkey voice of hers, "your little Paul is Timothy's only friend."
I decided to spend the afternoon in the ravine. The sun started down behind the embankment, and the moon, rising early, emerged from the rooftops of the houses somebody was putting up in front of the school. The moon, I noticed, was not quite full. I didn't hear the scrape of footsteps until they were just above my head.
"Paul?" said Mrs. Gladfelter, leaning over the lip of the ravine, hands against her thighs. "Paul Kovel, what on earth are you doing out here?"
"Nothing," I said. "I didn't hear the bell."
"Paul," she said. "Now, listen to me. Paul, I need your help."
"With what?" I didn't think she looked angry, but her face was upside down and it was hard to tell.
"With Timothy, Paul. I guess he's just very wound up right now. He's pretending he's a werewolf today, and even though that's fine, and we all know how Timothy is sometimes, we have serious things to discuss with him, and we'd like him to stop pretending for just a little while."
"What if he isn't pretending?" I said. "What if he really is a werewolf?"
"Maybe he is, Paul, but if you would just come inside and talk to him for a little bit, I think we might be able to persuade him to change back into Timothy. You're his friend, Paul. I asked him if he'd like to talk to you, and he said yes."
"I'm not his friend, Mrs. Gladfelter. I swear to God. I can't do anything."
"Paul, Timothy is in trouble. He needs your help, and I need your help, too. Now if you come right this minute, and get up out of that dirt, then I'll forget that you didn't come in from recess. If you don't come back inside, I'll have to speak to your mother." She held out her hand. "Now, come on, Paul. Please."
And so I took her hand, and let her pull me out of the ravine and across the deserted playground, aware that in doing so I was merely proving the unspoken corollary that my mother had left hanging, the other morning, in the air between her and Mrs. Stokes.
There was a song about me, too, I'm afraid-- a popular little number that went-- What's that smell-o? Paul Kovel-o. He's a big fat hippo Jell-o. He's a snoop. He smells like poop. He smells like tomato beef alphabet soup.
Timothy Stokes, I knew, as I followed Mrs. Gladfelter down the long, silent hallway to the office, hating him more and more with each step, was my only friend.
Timothy was sitting in a corner of the office, trapped in an orange vinyl armchair. There was a roman numeral three scratched into his left cheek and his brilliant white shirt and trousers were patterned with a camouflage of grass and dirt and asphalt.
"Well, now, Timothy." Mrs. Gladfelter took me by the shoulders and maneuvered me around her. "Look who I found."
"Hey, Timothy," I said.
Timothy didn't look up. Mrs. Gladfelter gave me a gentle push toward him, in the small of my back.
"Why don't you sit down, Paul?"
"No!" I didn't want to be left alone with Timothy, not because I was afraid of him but because I was afraid that somebody would come into the office and see us sitting there, two matching rejects in matching orange chairs.
"That's enough now, Paul," said Mr. Buterbaugh, the principal, his friendly smile looking more false than usual. "Sit down."
"It's all right," said Mrs. Gladfelter. "You see what you can do about helping Timothy turn back into Timothy. We're just going to give you a little privacy." She followed Mr. Buterbaugh into his office and then poked her head back around the door. "I'm going to leave this door open, in case you need us, all right?"
There were three chairs next to Timothy's. I took the farthest, and showed him my back, so that anyone passing by the windows of the office would not be able to conclude that he and I were engaged in any sort of conversation at all.
"Are you expelled?" I said. There was no reply. "Are you, Timothy?" Again, he said nothing, and I couldn't stop myself from turning around to look at him. "Timothy, are you expelled?"
"I'm not Timothy, Professor," said Timothy, gravely but not without a certain air of satisfaction. "I'm afraid your precious antidote didn't work."
"Come on, Timothy," I said. "Cut it out. The moon's not even full today."
Now he turned toward me. "Where were you?" he said. "I was looking for you."
"I was in the ditch."
"With the ants?"
"I heard you talking to them before."
"So, are you Ant-Man?"
"Because I'm not anybody. You're not anybody, either."
We fell silent for a while and just sat there, not looking at each other, kicking at the legs of our chairs. I could hear Mrs. Gladfelter and Mr. Buterbaugh talking softly in his office; Mr. Buterbaugh called her Elizabeth. The telephone rang. A light flashed twice on the secretary's phone, then held steady.
"Thanks for calling back, Dr. Schachter," I heard Mr. Buterbaugh say. "Yes, I'm afraid so."
"I went to see Dr. Schachter a couple times," I said. "He had Micronauts and the Fembots."
"He has Stretch Armstrong, too," said Timothy.
"Why did you go see him?" Timothy said. "Did your mother make you?"
"Yeah," I said.
"I don't know. She said I was having problems. With my anger, or I don't know. I guess I was mad about my dad and things."
"He had to go to jail," Timothy said. "You dad."
"Just for one night."
"He had too much to drink," I said.
"Did you visit him in jail?" Timothy said.
"No, stupid. God! You're such a retard! You belong in Special School, Timothy. I hope they make you eat special food and wear a special helmet or something." I heard the distant slam of the school's front door, and then a pair of hard shoes knocking along the hall. "Here comes your retard mother," I said.
"What kind of special helmet?" said Timothy. "Ant-Man wears a helmet."
Mrs. Stokes entered the office. She was a tall, thin woman, much older than my mother, with long gray hair and red, veiny hands. Every morning she made Timothy pancakes for his breakfast, which sounded OK, until you found out that she put things in them like carrots and leftover pieces of corn.
"Oh, hello, Paul," she said, in her Eeyore voice.
"Mrs. Stokes," said Mrs. Gladfelter, coming out of the principal's office. "It's been kind of a long afternoon for Timothy, I'm afraid."
"How is Virginia?" said Mrs. Stokes. She still hadn't looked at Timothy.
"Oh, she'll be fine," Mr. Buterbaugh said. "Just a little shaken up. We sent her home early. Of course," he added, "her parents are going to want to speak to you."
"Of course," said Mrs. Stokes. "I'm ready to do whatever you think would be best for Timothy."
"I'm not Timothy," said Timothy.
"Oh, please, Timmy, stop this nonsense for once."
"I'm cursed." He leaned over and brought his face very close to mine. "Tell them about the curse, Professor."
I looked at Timothy, and for the first time saw that a thin, dark down of wolfish hair had grown upon his cheek. Then I looked at Mr. Buterbaugh, and found that he was watching me with an air of earnest expectancy, as though he honestly thought there might be an eternal black-magical curse on Timothy and was more than willing to listen to anything I might have to say on the subject. I shrugged.
"Are you going to make him go to Special School?" I said.
"All right, Paul, thank you," said Mrs. Gladfelter. "You may go back to class now."
"See you later, Timothy," I said. He didn't answer me. He had started to growl again. As I followed the secretary out of the office, I looked back and saw Mr. Buterbaugh and Mrs. Gladfelter and poor old Mrs. Stokes standing in a hopeless circle around Timothy. I thought for a second, and then I turned back toward them and raised an imaginary rifle to my shoulder.
"This is a dart gun," I announced. Everyone looked at me, but I was talking to Timothy now. I was almost but not quite embarrassed. "It's filled with darts of my special antidote, and I made it stronger than it used to be, and it's going to work this time. And also, there's a tranquilizer mixed in."
Timothy looked up, and bared his teeth at me, and I took aim right between his eyes. I jerked my hands twice, and went fwup! Fwup! Timothy's head snapped back, and his eyelids fluttered. He shook himself all over. He swallowed, once. Then he held his hands out before him, as if wondering at their hairless pallor.
"It seems to have worked," he said, his voice cool and reasonable and fine. Anyone could see he was still playing his endless game, but all the grown-ups, Mr. Buterbaugh in particular, looked very pleased with both of us.
"Thank you very much, Paul," he said.
"I'm not Paul," I said. Everybody laughed but Timothy Stokes.
An excerpt from Michael Chabon's short story, "Werewolves in Their Youth" in the collection of short stories of the same name. Michael Chabon's latest novel is Telegraph Avenue.
Act Four: One Brain Shrinks, Another Brain Grows
Act Four, "One Brain Shrinks, One Brain Grows."
Back in 1999, Julie Hill's husband was diagnosed with a rare brain disease. And two years later, when her son, Nick, was just six years old, he began trying to make sense of what was happening to his dad. Julie gave us this dispatch back then on how her son was thinking about the whole thing at the time.
My son is mad at God and hates babies, and I blame The Lion King. I found out about Nick's feelings for babies about a year ago. We'd go to the park and he'd see a baby in a carriage, and he'd say, ew, a baby.
His school has mixed age classes, so there are kids aged 3, 4, 5, and 6. This fall, our friend's three-year-old little boy named Chance joined Nick's class. We love Chance and his family. We spend holidays with them. But having Chance in the same class annoyed Nick. Nick taunted him, teasing Chance to tears, telling him, go back home. You're too little for school. Nick usually isn't mean like that. We couldn't figure it out.
Then one night at bedtime Nick asked me, Mom, is Chance a baby? I explained that Chance is much younger, but technically he wasn't a baby. Nick was quiet a while, and then he asked me if babies replace dying people. Finally I got it.
You see, in The Lion King, the hero's father dies, and the big lesson of the film is that it's one big cycle. Some might die, but others are born. Some get to eat, and others are eaten. It's all part of the great, great circle of life. So if you're a kid, you think, if you could stop babies from being born, you'd stop people from dying. You'd stop the circle. Nick thought if there were no babies, then maybe his dad wouldn't die. So to Nick, Chance was a threat to his dad's very existence.
If you ask my husband's college friends about him, they'll tell you Doug was a comedian-- not that he really ever made money at it. Doug was an advertising copywriter, actually, but dabbled in improv and stand-up and recorded humor. Back in the '80s, when answering machines were new, we sold tapes of wacky outgoing messages.
Hi, sorry I can't come to the phone right now. I'm in the bathtub listening to my radio. So, uh, if you want to just leave your message and your name at the tone.
Oop! Oh, there's somebody's at the door! Ha-- wha-- whup--
[BUZZING AND SPLASHING]
OK. So that's not that funny. Still, I miss him so much. He was my best friend. And I'd take that stupid silliness any day. This is a recent voice mail from Doug.
Voice Mail Robot
Eric Clapton, Max somebody, Columbus, gir-- Columbus, girls up-- or whatever. OK. OK, bye.
His brain's shrinking. My husband's brain is shrinking. The results of Doug's PET scan showed that he had frontal lobe dementia, a rare degenerative, and ultimately fatal, disease that slowly atrophies the brain. Its progression is similar to that of a baby's development, only backward. The doctor said Doug, my 38-year-old husband, who ran marathons and insisted on organic vegetables, had two to 10 years to live. During this time, he'd slowly, slowly lose his ability to work, drive, reason, feel emotions, count, go to the bathroom, walk, talk, swallow, and breathe.
Since then, Nick has tried to make logical sense of this mostly illogical disease. And he does this by looking for patterns to help sort it all out. These come up all the time. For instance, before he got sick, Doug drove most of the time. But as he got sicker, he could only sit in the passenger seat. About six months after we took the car keys away from Doug, my friend Tim came in from San Francisco. Tim hopped into the passenger seat. Nick sat in the back in his booster. He stared at Tim, sitting just in front of him, and then asked, Tim? Do you have a brain disease?
I'm not sure when it stopped making sense for Doug to live at home. Maybe it was the day he took a cab downtown and was missing until late that night. Maybe it was the day he went outside with nothing on but shaving cream. Or maybe it was the day he let a homeless person into our house. But at some point, it was just too much, especially too much for Nick to see. Doug moved into long-term care in late March.
After Doug moved, though, Nick's stress changed. Two weeks later, Nick came out of his bedroom crying. He missed his dad. He just wanted him to get better and to come home. I had what I thought was a great idea-- to call Doug up. I wanted to prove his dad was alive-- that contact was possible. We went through the rigmarole to get Doug on the phone.
I love you, Daddy, Nick said. I love you, Doug repeated. I miss you, Daddy. I miss you, Doug said. Nick started to tell Doug about his day, how he played outside, and how he skinned his knee. Then I heard the recording of the operator. If you'd like to place a call, please hang up. Doug had hung up on Nick.
The way Nick makes sense of all this can catch me off guard. His conclusions are perfectly logical, and sometimes the only way to address his fears is to use the same logic he does with the same assumptions. For example, last Mother's Day weekend, Nick and I had a session with Cory, his therapist.
Mostly in these sessions I talk and Cory helps me figure out appropriate responses to some of Nick's really big questions, but this time Nick interrupted. He wanted to know what would happen to him if I died. We gave the answer that, clinically, was supposed to satisfy him-- that I'm healthy, that I eat right, that I exercise, not to worry-- and for a preschooler, that was supposed to do. But he called us on the carpet. Daddy did all those things, too.
Nick wasn't supposed to make that leap. The books say so. And then he said, Mommy, if you died, I'd be in the house all by myself. Who'd make dinner for me? How would I get to school? We explained that my parents would take care of him, and then he jumped to yet another level. But it takes a long time to get to Chicago from Ohio where Grandma and Grandpa live. Who would take care of me until they got here?
Nick is a planner. Having a plan seems to help him. So in a moment of inspiration, Cory took out a picture of Nick from my wallet. On it, she wrote specific instructions that, in an emergency, call his babysitter, Amber, to take care of Nick while his grandparents drove from Ohio. Just having that little card in my wallet-- that little plan-- allowed him to let that fear go.
We don't know what caused Doug to get sick. It could be a toxin. It could be a long-forgotten head injury. It could be genetics. I try to pack that information away next to the Christmas ornaments, but one look at Nick and I get scared. Since no celebrity has this disease, there's very little money devoted for research. So I'm doing this story for Nick, not only so that people will understand this little life now, but maybe someone will take notice and start working on preventing this terrible disease before my kindergartner turns 30.
You might think it's all dark and dreary at our house. It's not. Actually, we're doing OK. This month, Nick graduated from kindergarten and he got his first bike without training wheels. And he's over his circle of life theory.
At night, I stay in Nick's bed until he falls asleep. It's a bad habit his father formed right after he was diagnosed, like he was trying to squeeze one last cuddle out of the day. Since I've taken over, it's become the time to talk about Doug, about everything. So for the past two weeks I had brought a tape recorder into Nick's bed.
Tell me about Daddy when Daddy had to move. What do you think about that?
What makes you sad about that?
I don't have a dad to read the comics to me.
Sometimes think, wish Daddy could come home?
But he's not going to be able to, is he?
But what if he died?
How would you feel?
The saddest person in the whole wide world.
One night, Nick asked me if I cried when his namesake, my grandpa, had died. I said yes, I did. Do you still cry about him? I told him that I didn't-- that right after someone dies, we tend to cry a lot, but after a while, we stop crying and just feel lucky that we got to know and love that person so, so much. Nick thought about that for a while, taking it all in. And then he said, I know why you stopped crying. You decided that if you ever had a boy that you loved so, so much, that you'd name him Nick so you'd remember your grandpa. And that's why you stopped crying.
I think he's looking to me now for how to grieve, for what the next step is going to be, that it's OK to be sad and cry, and that it's OK when you finally stop crying, too.
I'm tired. Let's get off the phone. Now, good night, everybody in America. I'm sleepy. Let's go to bed. Let's turn that off.
Julie Hill and her son in Chicago.
In the year since we first broadcast this story, Julie Hill's husband, Doug, has passed away. He was 45 years old.
Our program was produced today by Jonathan Goldstein and myself with Alex Blumberg, Wendy Dorr, and Starlee Kine. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help and Todd Bachmann and Paul McCarthy, Seth Lind, and Tommy Andres.
Our website, where you can get our free, absolutely free, podcast or listen to old episodes of our show, or see video from our new TV show, www.thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. This American Life is brought to you by Volkswagen. Safe happens. And by Showtime, presenting the television premiere of This American Life Thursday, March 22. Replays all weekend on demand, any time. 1-800 Showtime or SHO.com.
WBEZ management oversight for our show provided by Mr. Torey Malatia, who explains his behavior this way.
I've been cursed for 300 years.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.
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