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552: Need To Know Basis

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Prologue

Ira Glass

Josh likes to go birdwatching at this park in Chicago right by the lake. And generally, he's the youngest person there-- like, by far. He's in his 20s.

Josh

Usually, it's older couples. One of the first times that I went there, I spent the majority of the morning with a couple of old ladies trying to find a warbler.

Ira Glass

That afternoon, he walked around with two old men. And when Josh knelt down to get a better look at a bird, one of the men remarked, I remember when I could do that. You know, kneel down?

Ira Glass

So that's your scene. Those are your people.

Josh

Absolutely.

Ira Glass

So it was a refreshing change one day last fall when Josh got to the park and a college kid came up to him-- like 18, 19 years old. And they started talking about birds, what Josh had seen that day.

Josh

And he starts saying things that he had seen, which were really impressive. Basically his whole list was new to me, at that park, at least. He had seen a northern shrike earlier, some longspurs that were flying over, snow buntings, which I hadn't seen ever, actually.

Ira Glass

And this kid is also super knowledgeable, not in a show-offy way. He just knew tons about birds. So it was fun to talk to him. And they decided to walk around the park together. And they head down this path into the trees. So it's like dense, with trees around them on both sides. And the path itself is really narrow, just like two or three feet wide.

Josh

At a certain point, he spots a sparrow. And we get our binoculars on it. And he says, oh, a fox sparrow. And I said, I don't know if that's a fox sparrow. It looks-- the coloration looks right. It's really deep red. But it looks a little too small for me. It looks more like a song sparrow in size.

And he said, I think I have those.

Ira Glass

I think I have those?

Josh

He said, I think I have those.

Ira Glass

And then the kid sets down his backpack on the ground. And he opens the front flap. And Josh assumes he's going to take out some photos or something to compare to this bird. But the kid pulls out two little white bags-- or maybe they're envelopes-- reaches inside them--

Josh

And just delicately shuffles out two birds on the ground. And sure enough, it's a song sparrow and a fox sparrow.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait, wait. He opens two bags. And there are two of the exact birds you're talking about in the two bags?

Josh

Right. That's correct.

Ira Glass

Like just dead birds?

Josh

Just dead birds. Just the dead birds that we were talking about.

Ira Glass

The kid apologizes for the smell. Says he found them dead on the ground the day before. They weren't taxidermied or anything, and they were starting to deteriorate. And after placing them on the ground, the college kid looks at the sizes of the two birds and says to Josh, oh, you're right. Like a fox sparrow is bigger than a song sparrow.

And then he carefully puts the two birds back into their white envelopes and into the knapsack. And Josh acts like this is the most normal thing in the world when, in fact, he told me this is totally weird. This is not something birders ever do. He has found out since it is actually illegal to have any migratory birds, dead or alive.

And then they spend four or five hours together that day. And Josh says nothing about it-- asks nothing, never brings it up.

Josh

I couldn't envision a scenario in which saying something would lead to a good conclusion.

Ira Glass

For instance, maybe the kid would think it was intrusive or rude for him to ask. Or maybe the kid was doing something shady.

Josh

Might have been not the best thing to ask, isolated behind this hedge. You know?

Ira Glass

Oh, right. You're, like, alone in some thicket.

Josh

Yes.

Ira Glass

Did you get the feeling like anything could happen? Like, do you feel like if you had asked the wrong question, he would have reached into the bag and pulled out, like, a human ear?

[JOSH LAUGHS]

Josh

That was what prevented me from asking, yeah.

Ira Glass

I did talk to the college student. He told me at the time, he didn't know that keeping birds was illegal. But now that he does, he's gotten rid of all of his dead birds. And he asked me not to use his name here on the radio.

He says in all, he picked up maybe 15 or 20 birds. At some point he realized he could just find them near certain buildings with big windows. They would fly into the windows and die. And he didn't see the harm. He had no idea that Josh still wonders about this today.

College Kid

Yeah, he should have asked me more about it if he wanted to know.

Ira Glass

Well, he was a little scared to ask you about it.

College Kid

Mhm.

Ira Glass

He was scared of what the answer might be.

[COLLEGE KID LAUGHS]

College Kid

Yeah, I guess that really freaked him out. I guess it is kind of gross to be carrying dead birds around in your backpack.

Ira Glass

And if he'd asked, like, well, what are you going to do with them? What would you have said?

College Kid

Nothing, really. I just kind of keep them around.

Ira Glass

See, that's creepy.

[COLLEGE KID LAUGHS]

College Kid

It's interesting to have them to look at closely so you can see things you wouldn't see on birds that are out in the wild.

Ira Glass

So all pretty innocent. But Josh didn't know that. In fact, Josh still thinks that he did the right thing not to bring it up with him.

Josh

Like, if-- let's say he had his entire bag full of birds and his car full of birds, and I started asking questions, and he knew what he was doing was illegal. Then it probably wouldn't have been the best idea for me to do that.

Ira Glass

You mean like he's got a gun in that bag, too?

Josh

I don't know.

Ira Glass

And then the next person he sees on the trail, he reaches into the bag, and he pulls out, like, your head.

Josh

My ear? Yeah.

[LAUGHING]

Ira Glass

This is what happens to people who ask questions.

Josh

And maybe sometimes too many questions is one. You know?

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. A little information can change everything, make something that seems totally menacing totally benign. And the problem is it is not always clear when to disclose that information. In fact, it might not even occur to you to disclose it.

If you're in the other side, you might not feel like it's your right to ask-- like Josh with this kid. He felt like he didn't know him well enough to pry. Well, today we have stories where people's lives change in amazing, dramatic ways because they decided to disclose or not to disclose certain facts about themselves. Stay with us.

Act One: Full Disclosure

Ira Glass

Act One, Full Disclosure. You know, most of us, we basically just keep stuff to ourselves. Right? We withhold information. We do not say everything. You run into an acquaintance on the street, and they ask you, how are you? You generally do not tell them how you are, really. Adult life means we provide information on a need-to-know basis.

Your mom asks you on the phone about something you think that the two of you are just going to fight about. Sometimes you dodge, right? You do not talk about things that you don't want to talk about.

But what would it be like to not live like that? Well, Michael Leviton knows.

Michael Leviton

I just have a very unusual family. They valued honesty to an extreme extent.

Ira Glass

Michael's in his 30s, and he was raised by parents who encouraged him and his siblings to tell everything, the whole truth, all the time, believing that it hurts relationships when we avoid awkward truths, that we all should just man up and talk things through. We should work things out.

And being honest also means being true to who you are, right? Which, obviously, anybody wants for their kids. But hearing how far his family went with this, it makes you really understand how incredibly strange your daily life would be if you were to never withhold the truth. Like, for a long time, Michael believed that if somebody asked him a question-- I mean, like, any question at all-- he had to answer it honestly.

Michael Leviton

This is funny because in job interviews, people would ask me what my biggest flaw was. And I would go into a long rant about all my flaws and all the negative things anyone's ever said about me. And people would look at me-- I got used to this expression of horror. And sometimes it was kind of comic. People would laugh. Like, wow, you thought you had to actually answer that? You're clearly supposed--

Ira Glass

That's amazing. That's really amazing. Yeah, you are the only person in the history of job interviews to have ever done that.

Michael Leviton

Not the only person.

Ira Glass

That's true. His brother Josh does the same thing. More on that later. Let's stay with Michael for now.

Michael Leviton

OK. One time, I went on a date when I was in college. And I went on this date. And I spent the whole date explaining why she should want to be with me-- you know, what was great about me-- and also why other people didn't want to be with me. I'm saying all the bad things that ever happened to me, why I was rejected by the world.

Now, that was just being honest. I was just telling her all the information necessary, in my mind, to decide whether to be with me. I thought it was my responsibility as a person on a date to explain everything they were dealing with from the first moment of the date so that they could make an informed decision about how to move forward.

Ira Glass

That's what I love about this story, is that you thought you were doing a good job. You thought you were acing the date.

Michael Leviton

Oh, yes.

Ira Glass

For a long time, if Michael decided that he didn't want to hang out with somebody anymore, he would just, you know, come out and say it-- let's not be friends. When he would go and hear musician buddies of his perform, they would ask him afterwards, how'd you like the show? He would do the thing that nobody ever does. He would actually tell them, you know, the arrangements could have been better. You shouldn't play with this band. That first number should be in double time.

If somebody told Michael about a TV show that they liked, or really if they expressed any opinion at all on any subject-- like they told him they loved chocolate-- he could not help himself from offering his own opinion, forcefully. He hates chocolate.

Michael Leviton

And they would see it as, why would this person say this thing? Why would this person trash something I love so immediately? They must just be doing it as an act of aggression.

But really, it was more a gut instinct from my childhood, that conversation was expressing whatever was going on.

Ira Glass

In other words, you expressed your honest feelings about chocolate. Now it's my turn to express my honest feelings about chocolate.

Michael Leviton

Yeah.

Ira Glass

But would you do things, like, you would perceive, in a conversation with somebody you just met, oh, this person's kind of bossy. And then would you say, like, you know, I think you're very bossy?

Michael Leviton

A lot of the time, things like that would happen. Yeah. A lot of time, I would feel like it was my job to observe things and to tell people how they were and go like, oh, it's funny. You know, you do this thing.

And I wouldn't notice that it was triggering to people to say something like that, to go, oh, you notice you're very controlling? Have you noticed that? Like, why are you like that? And I would ask these questions that would lead in horrible directions all the time.

Ira Glass

See, I think all of us have met people who will say, well, I just tell it how it is. And people don't like to hear the truth. And I think most of us just feel like, well, that person is just an asshole or just has something wrong with them, that they don't give a damn about other people's feelings.

And what you're saying is somehow you learned this as a kind of, like, strategy for dealing with the world from the start.

Michael Leviton

Yeah. And to me, it was kind of like an exciting conversational thing to do, to be like, let's talk about ourselves. Everyone's having these small-talk conversations. They're so pointless and boring. Really, we should get to the real stuff immediately.

This is so interesting. I'm learning about you. And it'll be much more real and interesting.

Ira Glass

You know, which in a way is so idealistic. Think about for a second all the people pleasers who will say anything in a conversation just to kind of get by, all the folks who spend years in therapy getting the courage to tell people what they really think.

Speaking for myself, I feel like I don't even know what I think half the time or what I believe. And I have lots of conversations where I know what I believe, and I don't say it because I don't want to have conflict. I want to avoid conflict. And I think that lots of us are like that.

Not Michael. His parents taught him, be stronger than that.

Mark

I don't know what Michael talked to you about.

Ira Glass

This is Michael's dad, Mark. Everybody says that he was brutally honest when his kids were growing up. He made his living in the music business. And all of his life he has also worked, appropriately enough, as a professional critic. Michael's mom is a therapist who will tell you straight out--

Michael's Mom

I just can't lie.

Ira Glass

But Michael's dad told me he looks back on his kids' childhoods with a lot of regret for just how harshly he would tell everybody the truth all the time, as he saw it, and especially for how frank he was about things with his own kids.

Mark

From my point of view, some of my part was not very age appropriate, let's say. We kind of revealed to the children information about our marriage that most parents, I don't think, would reveal. And more or less left the kids to deal with it.

Ira Glass

Michael had told me about this. There were a few stories of parental over-sharing. But the one that I think captured just how disturbingly far this could go sometimes happened while his parents were splitting up. His parents divorced when he and his siblings were teenagers.

And every year back then, the family would go to a place I was really surprised to hear exists at all-- family therapy camp, where counseling sessions were done in public throughout the day in front of other people. And so they're at this camp, and their parents are having troubles. And in front of other families and therapists and also in front of their own children-- aged 13, 16, and 19-- Michael's parents hashed out their issues.

Michael Leviton

So, for instance, I remember one therapy session that my mother did that was all about how she felt being married to my dad. About feeling invisible, about these kinds of-- talking about very intense, personal-- like her despair and the things that she dealt with in that marriage.

And also, I got to see the man my mother was leaving my father for. They would all be there and talk about their feelings towards each other, talk about what had happened, talk about the grievances they had with each other, fights. They would yell at each other and accuse each other of things and kind of air dirt about what the other had done. And it was all in front of us.

Ira Glass

But did the parents understand like, oh, that was a problem?

Michael Leviton

I don't think so. I think that they, at the time, were very much like, we are speaking our truth. The kids should know what happened. And these are our feelings. And they can just imagine it, but it'd be better if they actually knew what was going on and they knew how we felt.

Ira Glass

Just to be clear, at the time, Michael agreed with this.

Michael Leviton

I was like, oh, this is great. This is how it should be. This is the honest way to deal with it. Everyone else would just hide their divorces, the cowards. They would deal with their divorce in private. And it would be very safe for everyone. But it was actually a lie. The kids wouldn't really know what was going on with their parents.

Ira Glass

So you felt, actually, superior to others.

Michael Leviton

That was a big part of it, I think, that other people are cowards. And they're very weak. And they can't handle the truth. And they're afraid to express who they really are. They're inauthentic out of fear. And we are actually bravely being authentic, expressing how we really feel and not hiding things.

Ira Glass

So these three children grow up like this. And they head out into the world as adults. And they had to confront the fact that these are not the rules that the rest of us are playing under. And the dad says that he knows that he trained them to live in a world that does not exist, a world where people are way more frank with each other than we really are.

Mark

Look, how do you create the world that should exist except by acting as if? Acting the way you want to to make the world through your own actions?

Ira Glass

Three siblings are now in their 20s and 30s. And being honest has meant different things to each of them. For Michael's sister Miriam, it's been the easiest. She said she knows that she is not somebody that anybody would ever tell a secret to. And there are times she can't help herself from saying the truth.

Miriam

Sometimes, like, in work meetings, I'll disagree with something. And then I think, why did I say that?

Ira Glass

But it's manageable, she says. No bad consequences. Michael's brother Josh is also still a believer, which is remarkable considering the one big life-changing way that this level of honesty has affected him. He trained for seven years to work in law enforcement, to be one of those experts who analyzes crime scenes and figures out what kind of gun was used and the bullet trajectories and all that stuff. He has a master's degree in forensic ballistics.

But he doesn't have a job doing this because when he's asked about his drug use in job interviews, he always admits that in 1997, when he was 14 years old, he tried mushrooms one time.

Josh

People always just ask me, well, why did you tell them about that? Is there a record of it? And no, there's not a record of anything. But I feel like I have to tell the truth. I just never thought about lying, even. I didn't even consider it.

And it seems like everybody's saying that it is OK to lie in certain circumstances because everybody else does. I kind of look at it like in sports. It's kind of saying, these athletes that take steroids, they have to do it because everybody takes steroids in order to compete. And I kind of want to succeed without taking steroids, even in a world that takes steroids, if that makes sense.

Ira Glass

Michael, meanwhile, seems to have had a much harder time than either of his siblings when it comes to honesty. By the time he was in his late 20s, Michael had noticed that acting exactly the way that he thought a principled person should be acting, he was constantly getting in all these awful clashes with people-- like, all the time. And it was confusing. And he didn't like it.

And the part of his life where it was especially vexing was dating. Over and over, he would meet somebody he really liked, go out on a date, and then they'd never want to see him again. And he had no idea what he did.

Michael Leviton

Well, that's the hard thing about dating. It's hard to learn when you're dating because people don't tell you what you did wrong. You don't know why you were rejected. You have to figure it out yourself.

And that's why a lot of dating is a very hard thing to improve. It's really hard to improve your dating because-- like, this is the thing that's famous. If you're a bad kisser, does anyone say, by the way, you're a bad kisser. Here's how to kiss better?

Ira Glass

They just never kiss you again.

Michael Leviton

It's not their responsibility. They never kiss you again.

Ira Glass

Right.

Michael Leviton

And you don't know why you were rejected. It could've been anything. You just have to have your paranoid fantasy of all the millions of things that you think you did wrong. But it could've been anything. Dating's chaos in that way.

Ira Glass

Even when he had dates that for a while seemed to be going OK, he would blurt out something honest, out of habit, and ruin them.

Michael Leviton

If anything beautiful or cool happens, I would stop everything and go, wasn't that an amazing moment? Let's just stop and, like, talk about how amazing that was. That barely ever happens.

And a lot of the time, the moment would be ruined by my commenting on it.

Ira Glass

Like what kind of moment are you talking about?

Michael Leviton

Well, OK. For instance, one time I was walking with this woman. And I was having this date that was going well. And she put a cigarette in her mouth to smoke it. And I grabbed the cigarette out of her mouth and kissed her. And it was great.

And then she stepped away. And we finished this kiss. And I said, wow. That's not something I usually do. That was really amazing. I was actually very inspired there. Usually, I'm just so awkward. And actually, that was much-- and I just ruined the whole thing. There was no reason for me to comment on how cool I had just been.

Ira Glass

Well, I think the key word there was "usually." I think "usually" kind of kills that moment.

Michael Leviton

Oh, yeah. Well, that's actually another thing here. It was my tendency to talk about my general dating experience and to talk about those things just because they were on my mind. When I was on a date, I was naturally thinking about other dates and other things that had happened. So I would say, oh yeah. I've done a couple other amazing things on dates like that. I would just start saying these things, and it would ruin everything.

Ira Glass

I feel like when you tell some of these stories, you're like somebody from another planet or something who got dropped into our world.

Michael Leviton

That's what it felt like. I was in the wrong world. And I didn't understand the concept of politeness. When I read-- I actually, at one point around the same time, read a politeness book. I actually read an etiquette book trying to figure it out. And it was just one advice-- every time, it was just lie, lie, lie.

It was just, oh, here's a situation-- you don't know someone's name? Lie. Here's a situation-- someone's gone through something horrible? Just lie. Here's another situation. It was just--

Ira Glass

Right. It didn't say on the page "lie."

Michael Leviton

No, it didn't say to lie. But every piece of advice looked like--

Ira Glass

That's what it came down to.

Michael Leviton

And it was all about other people's feelings.

Ira Glass

And at some point it occurred to Michael that honesty was coming in the way of noticing other people's feelings. And maybe he needed to change that. And so finally, at 29-- that's five years ago-- he decided he'd had enough, and he started experimenting on his dates with how he acted. Now, these were not complicated experiments by any means. He'd simply have something honest that would occur to him that he wanted to say, and he would not say it.

Michael Leviton

I saw in a very visceral way how I could change my behavior and it would go over better. And I could actually have a great time if I just shut up about certain things. I actually made a list of things not to talk about.

Ira Glass

You made a list of things not to talk about?

Michael Leviton

An actual written list of things not to talk about.

Ira Glass

Do you still have that list?

Michael Leviton

I actually do. Yeah. I add to it sometimes still because it's hard for me to remember. I have to concentrate very hard to not follow my gut instinct to tell the whole truth about things.

Ira Glass

On that list-- you don't have to give an opinion. You don't have to say things out loud. Just because they're true is not helpful. You can choose not to answer a question. Don't fully explain. Make it quick. Say you'll tell them later. End the conversation first. Don't try to impress.

Michael Leviton

One actually really good one was to stop explicitly describing myself in any way, positive or negative. That I didn't have to say, oh, I'm this kind of person. I do this.

Ira Glass

Why would that come up at all in a conversation? It would be like, I'm the sort of person who-- why would you be saying that?

Michael Leviton

Because I believed that's what conversation was. And they couldn't see those things. I didn't understand that they could see those things in your behavior, that they would read behind what you said and learn things. You had to say it explicitly. Otherwise, you were misleading them.

Ira Glass

OK. Next one?

Michael Leviton

At one point, I resolved that if I didn't recognize someone or I didn't remember their name to just pretend I did, which is something-- I used to always go, oh, I don't recognize you. Or, oh, we've met before? I don't remember. Or, I don't remember your name. I realized that I could pretend to know someone's name while I figured out what their name was. And that changed so much.

Ira Glass

One year his New Year's resolutions, typed out, were, quote, "tell no one about my problems. Listen to how others feel instead of telling them how I feel. Pretend more and people please. Remember to make others feel like I find them smart and cool. Act like I agree."

On the same page-- quote, "my list of things that I am not allowed to talk about-- ideological commentary, unnecessary brutal truths, triggering questions and unwanted inquiries. Avoid asking people what they mean when they use certain words." Or there's this one--

Michael Leviton

OK. So I wrote here, "Take nothing at face value. Don't investigate things people say. Remember their minds are chaos."

Ira Glass

Wait, what do you mean by that?

Michael Leviton

I know. It's a strange, strange thing to say. What I meant was that people-- I was of the mindset that other people were saying what they meant. And I would sometimes get into ideological battles with people who hadn't even really been thinking very hard about what they'd said. Because I would say, well, do you really mean that? I mean, what do you mean when you say that? And I would investigate it further. And it would become this attack, when really they didn't mean--

Ira Glass

They didn't mean anything.

Michael Leviton

They didn't mean anything by it. They were just saying things they thought were socially acceptable kind of conversations that I would agree with. But then it would devolve into this horrible discussion. And a lot of time, I would get kind of angry. And sometimes, they would say, you know, it's like I don't really mean anything by it. Like they would start to backtrack because they hadn't ever meant it in the first place.

Ira Glass

"Remember their minds are chaos"?

Michael Leviton

Yeah, meaning that there's lots of stuff going on that leads to why people say what they say and that I can't know what those things are. That their minds are chaos of feelings, that they're human beings.

Ira Glass

What was kind of inspiring talking to Michael is that although he seemed like somebody who'd dropped into our world without a clue about how the rest of us behave, he then made a study of why he was failing. And he came to conclusions on his own. And he made up this to-do list. And then, like a scientist in a science fiction film who brews up a miracle elixir in the lab and then decides that he should be one to try it first, Michael has put his theories into action.

And it's working. He's had girlfriends. Last November, he married one of those girlfriends. And so these days, when he's being, like, super-honest in some inappropriate situation, his wife will say to him, wow. That was an interesting way to handle that. Or wow, we're doing that now?

He says he still has a way to go with all this stuff. But what he's concluded after this lifelong experiment in honesty is that honesty is not enough. You have to read people for signs that they do not need or do not want to hear the entire truth. And in fact, the whole idea of a world where everybody is honest all the time?

Michael Leviton

It was almost a world where people didn't have feelings. The idea that someone would be upset-- that they weren't supposed to get upset. They were supposed to just hear what I said and go, oh, wow. OK. That's cool. You were honest. I value that.

Ira Glass

In the real world, Michael says, people have all kinds of feelings swirling around in their heads and insecurities and struggles. What they say may or may not be what they believe. And he says, that's great. That's normal. It's chaos.

Coming up-- lying your way through college. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: Total Eclipse of the Son

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 stories on that theme. Today's program-- "Need to Know Basis," stories of people withholding information in a way that has life-changing consequences. We have arrived at act two of our program.

Act Two, Total Eclipse of the Son. That's son, S-O-N. Stay with me. That's going to make sense later. So the United States has a surprisingly high college dropout rate, particularly at community colleges, where only a third of all first-time students have their two-year degree by the end of three years.

Community colleges, by the way, are a huge number of students. Almost half of all American college students are in community college. We've done a bunch of stories about college dropouts on our show, most recently a couple weeks ago. Apparently, the first year is the key make-or-break time for whether or not somebody's going to drop out.

Zoe Chace spent last fall on the campus of a community college in the South Bronx, Hostos Community College, reporting on what kids need to not drop out.

Zoe Chace

I was looking for that one student in the one and three, the kid who succeeds. As soon as I saw Demetrius at the freshman orientation, I thought, oh, there he is-- the success. Front row, always raising his hand, volunteering for the skits. And when I talked to him, he assured me. I had found the right person.

Demetrius Wilson

If there is it valedictorian spot available, that is what I am trying to get.

Zoe Chace

That's your spot.

Demetrius Wilson

Yeah. And if someone somehow beats me out and becomes valedictorian, then I should at least be salutatorian. If someone somehow pulls that off, hats off to them. Truly, they're moving on to do great things.

Zoe Chace

I thought if I spent time with him, I could see what he's doing right. He looks like the one in three. Because Demetrius has two things that are really hard to come by-- extremely high expectations for himself and complete confidence that he will meet or surpass those expectations.

Demetrius Wilson

Throughout my whole life, I try at something, not only do I get it, I usually, like, sweep it. Like I'm vastly superior to most if I try at something. I feel like I could have been a great wrestler. I'm-- damn, I could have been one of the best wrestlers anybody's ever seen.

Zoe Chace

Doesn't matter what it is. Demetrius is always about to be a star. From the back, Demetrius is a grown man-- tall and broad-shouldered in a leather coat. From the front, he's still a teenager-- round, freckly baby face, 18 years old. His plan is to get his associates, transfer to a four-year school, major in video game design, and then become one of the best video game designers the world has ever seen.

Demetrius tells me he has not always done the work to match his high expectations. In high school, he says he did not always do his work. But this year, he's serious.

Demetrius Wilson

I haven't let, like, more than three hours pass yet of me getting an assignment and finishing it. If it's possible for me to finish the assignment within the three hours of me receiving that assignment, then I'm going to finish it. I simply can't allow myself to get behind. I got to be active. I got to make sure I get this done. And truth be told, I fully expect that I'm going to have one of the highest GPAs in this school.

Zoe Chace

So I started following Demetrius around, talking with him. I went to his classes, the computer lab, met his girlfriend. He's in love. One day, after months of this, at the end of the semester, we went to a meeting at the school with someone called a success coach.

Ray Cartagena

All right. So let's just go over each class and just--

Zoe Chace

Regardless of your GPA, every incoming freshman at Hostos is assigned a success coach, someone to keep them on target. It's different from an adviser in that the success coach is more of a full-time catcher in the rye, someone who tracks their progress through the school year and, if they're falling behind to figure out why and try to fix it; someone to help them pick their classes each semester so they graduate on time, which is why we are here right now.

Demetrius Wilson

I'm here to see if my advisor can help me get into an honors English class because I've gotten all A's all semester. So--

Zoe Chace

Straight A's all semester, as promised. So we sit down with Ray Cartagena, Demetrius's coach. He's in Navy Reserves, huge arms, tattoos. He makes Demetrius look little. How you doing? Straight A's. What do I need to fulfill my requirements? They lean over the computer together and look at his schedule.

Demetrius Wilson

Oh, no. That doesn't work.

Ray Cartagena

That doesn't work? 12:30?

Zoe Chace

Then something happens I totally didn't expect. In the middle of registering Demetrius for his college courses, we call his dad.

Ray Cartagena

Hello, sir?

Demetrius Wilson

Yep.

Ray Cartagena

How are you? My name is Ray Cartagena. I'm Demetrius's success coach here. And we're trying to build his schedule for him now. We wanted to reach out to you and get your approval on it. So--

Demetrius Wilson

Some of the classes--

Zoe Chace

Demetrius's dad seems to take an usual amount of interest in the minutiae of his son's schedule. No three classes on one day, one class on another day because then you have too much time on your hands.

Demetrius Wilson

I mean, I have a history with him. And too much time--

Zoe Chace

I have a history with him. And too much time on your hands, he says, can lead to issues.

Demetrius Wilson

--on your hands could lead to issues. So I'm like--

Zoe Chace

This is weird. Demetrius is acing his classes. His professors really like him. He spends a lot of time in the computer lab. And he wants to join student government. Why is his dad all over him? He's in college. If they can't find a better schedule for him, his dad promises, this semester around, I will find a way to occupy his time.

Demetrius Wilson

This semester around, I will figure out a way to occupy his time.

Zoe Chace

Demetrius seems a little embarrassed when we walk out. His bravado has kind of drained away. So I ask about his dad. What's the deal? We sit on a park bench. Demetrius stares straight ahead.

Demetrius Wilson

He doesn't trust me. So my dad is just stuck in oh, but he messed up once. He messed up once. It was one time in the history, once that he messed up. Therefore, he will mess up every other time he attempts something for the rest of his life because once he messed up. Once. Once.

And it was big. It was very big. It was very bad, spectacularly messed up. It was just really bad, what I did. And then it's good. It's spectacularly good what I'm doing now. It's really good, what I'm doing.

Zoe Chace

The story about the once is about to spill out. And this story, it tells you a lot about why the graduation rate at community colleges is one in three, how even someone as confident as Demetrius could become a dropout instead of the one who makes it.

The once is theatrical. It's an elaborate mistake. And it's not a story about this year. It's a story about last year. Because when I met Demetrius, I did not know this is actually his second freshman year, his second time around as a freshman in college.

The first time he went to college, it wasn't the South Bronx. In fact, it couldn't feel more different at Finger Lakes Community College. Woods, wineries, lakes, five hours north of New York City. His mom dropped him off.

Demetrius Wilson

And when she dropped me off and went back to New York, I was sitting in my room. I was like, I'm alone. This is it. I'm here on my own now. It was somber, but at the same time it was exciting. Like, I'm alone. And then it was like, I'm alone!

My roommate hadn't gotten there yet. I was like, this is pretty awesome. I stepped outside as if to test it. Like, open the door, looked around. And I was like, I can just go, just go anywhere. Like, this is good. Then school started. And I was like, OK. School's the main focus. I'm going to make sure I do it.

And at first, I was. But then, I started going to parties when I should be studying or doing homework, started hanging out late. Xbox One and PS4 came out during that stretch.

Zoe Chace

Demetrius also noticed it's way easier to get girlfriends in college than in high school. But the big difference between college and high school-- nobody is there to make you go to class. Nobody is collecting your homework. Nobody's making sure you're keeping up with the reading.

Demetrius Wilson

On occasion, I would just cut class and not go.

Zoe Chace

He says nobody seemed to notice. He got letters from the school. He ignored them. His grades were dropping. And then late into the semester, a relative died that he was close to, and he had to go back to the city for the funeral. He came back to campus but never went back to class. He felt terrible, totally depressed.

Demetrius Wilson

There would be times where I would just be in my room. I would just sit in there and cry. And at the same time, it made me feel worse because I knew I was failing. I knew I screwed up in my first semester.

Zoe Chace

Demetrius let everything slide. The checks he was getting from the government to cover his housing, he spent those. He only paid the rent once. He says he was confused about when he was supposed to pay what. By the end of the semester, there was nothing left. He owed a couple thousand dollars.

He saw his family for Christmas break. He could've confessed everything. He could have gotten help. But he didn't do any of that.

Demetrius Wilson

Obviously, I lied and said I did well in school and never brought up the debt.

Zoe Chace

And after Christmas vacation, that's when he got into some real magical thinking. He kicked up his deception to a whole new level. He was like, the circumstances of my life are on a need to know basis, and nobody needs to know. He thought he could turn things around all by himself and secretly handled this entire episode.

Here was his plan-- get a full-time job at the Taco Bell, earn enough money to pay back the money he owed for his housing, never tell anyone what happened, and quietly re-enroll next semester.

Demetrius Wilson

Honestly, I never even registered for classes. I basically started living on the run. I was hiding out in my best friend's room immediately next door. I felt like this is my mistake. It was my problem. I messed up, so I need to handle it on my own.

Zoe Chace

So thousands of dollars in debt, college dropout, 300 miles away from his family-- this was Demetrius's life. He copied a friend's transcript into Microsoft Word, changed the name to his, and texted it to his dad like, see how great I'm doing in school?

Three months passed like this. And it might have continued for longer. Except then, that April, deep into Demetrius's would-be second semester, his dad decided to surprise him at school.

Demetrius Wilson

So I'm talking to him. And he's saying to me, well, Dad, the weekend would be better because I'm not as busy with school work and work. So the weekend would be great. We could do anything. I said, sure. No problem. I'm on my way. He has no idea I'm on my way.

Zoe Chace

Please meet the man from the speakerphone, the father of Demetrius Wilson, Demetrius Wilson, Sr. He is a big guy, a sanitation worker for New York City. He is incredibly friendly, loves to talk. So back in April, Demetrius the dad shows up at the school with his younger son, Elijah. It was Elijah's spring break. Their plan was to have a little vacation, drive around the wineries after saying hi to Demetrius, Jr.

Demetrius Wilson

He said, I'm in room 220 or 222 or something. So I see these two girls in front of his door that he said he was in. Oh, he's living the life. This is a good dude. I'm so proud of him. These two pretty girls are standing there. And I was like, are they gonna-- you're looking for Demetrius?

I thought they were going to say that. They didn't say that. I go up to the room. The girls take off. They had nothing to do with him. I go to the room, open the door. So they're just sitting there. Hi, hi. I see the video game on the big screen.

Zoe Chace

Demetrius stuck to the policy-- admit nothing.

Demetrius Wilson

I mean, I was still acting like everything's great. Like, oh, hey, Dad. Hey, great to see you.

Zoe Chace

And he says, oh, I would be in class except it was canceled. His dad looks at him.

Demetrius Wilson

So no class today? Teacher wasn't sick yesterday? You just found out on short notice? All right. I'm gonna let that ride.

Zoe Chace

What are you thinking, though? Are you thinking anything?

Demetrius Wilson

Oh, yeah. Right then, we got a thing called jokes. When someone's running jokes, you can see it.

Zoe Chace

Running jokes, it's slang-- like running a con game.

Demetrius Wilson

Hey, people do it all the time. Like, they say something to you, and you're like, that don't match up with what they just said. So you just keep it in your pocket until another thing come up.

Zoe Chace

So now, they're watching each other, saying nothing, waiting it out. Next day, Demetrius's dad makes a move. Hey, I want to go to one of your classes. Let's go to one of your classes together.

Demetrius Wilson

We walk around, all the way around. Finally, we get to another part of the campus. He goes into an empty trailer. I'm on it now.

Zoe Chace

Yeah.

Demetrius Wilson

Now we're in an empty-- no one's in the class. Class is cut off, lights off. Now, I'm in there like this, sitting there. Elijah still don't know, says, where's everybody? So he says, just one minute, and walks out the door.

All right, homeboy, take me to the office. Huh? Huh? Take me to the office. Oh, it's closed. Well, then it should be a short trip. Take me to the office. If it's closed, it'll be a short trip. Right?

Zoe Chace

I can't stand it. Like, I'm so nervous.

Demetrius Wilson

So now I'm like this. We get in there. Hi, how you doing? My name is Demetrius Wilson. Where is he supposed to be? His name is Demetrius Wilson.

Zoe Chace

The receptionist looks up Demetrius's name on the computer and goes quiet.

Demetrius Wilson

She looks at me. She looks at him. Looks at me, looks at him, looks at the board. Don't know what to say. Sir, he's not registered this year.

Zoe Chace

Demetrius marches his son out to the car, shuts him inside, and takes a walk. And his thoughts are going 100 miles an hour. He kind of wants to knock his son out and drive away. But of course, that's not what he's going to do.

Demetrius Wilson

I just walk. I walk, and I walk. And I'm like, oh, man. You failed him. You should have been there, man. No, you can't hurt him now. What do you do, man? Do you hurt him? No, don't hurt him. If you hurt him, man, then what do you prove, man?

He can't be up here. Can he go back to school? This is me walking around the campus.

Zoe Chace

This is what he was thinking about-- first of all, Demetrius's dad wasn't around for lots of little Demetrius's childhood. The parents broke up, and he'd see little Demetrius maybe every few weeks or so, sometimes less.

So when his son slacked off in high school, he blamed himself partly for not being there. Now his son's slacking off in college. What do you expect? Also, Demetrius's dad has a college degree. But his first time around, he dropped out, when he tried state college in Norfolk, Virginia. He says he had this problem when he was young where he would come right up to the edge of being successful and then pull back. He knows how his kid must be feeling right now, how hard it can be to push yourself through your doubts.

Demetrius Wilson

I mean, for me, it definitely was like I could have done a lot more if I was pushed. I think what happens with a lot of people is that whatever makes them go over that edge, it's more than just a talent and intelligence. It's something else.

It could very well be to follow somebody, follow a family member. They did it. I'm going to do it. The thing that's stopping them could be, there's no one else that's done this. Who am I to think that I could do it?

Zoe Chace

So Demetrius, Sr., comes up with a plan for his son Demetrius. Nothing's going to happen in his life that I don't know about. I need to know everything. He decides to bring little Demetrius back to New York City, enroll him in college in the Bronx, 10 minutes away from his dad's apartment.

Again, Demetrius's dad works for New York Sanitation. And his garage is directly across the street from where Demetrius goes to school.

Demetrius Wilson

I'm on it in his school. I'm on it at his job. I'm on it at home. There's no you make the decision. No. I make the decision, or we discuss it. But you don't make the decision and come back to me because who are you to make the decision? You haven't even had that much experience.

Zoe Chace

Demetrius is on his dad's couch every night, at school across the street from him every day, on weekends at a job that his dad approves of-- working as a cashier at the FAO Schwarz in midtown. They check in every day, a few times a day.

Demetrius Wilson

The difference between Demetrius and myself, quite honestly, is that I didn't have me. The moment you say, you can't do it. Oh, I don't have to do it. There should be something to push you. And sometimes it has to be external. I don't think I had it externally.

And I think internally, I knew I could. But if someone-- nah, don't turn this way. There ain't no back. You got to go. If he for some reason or another wants to stop, he's going to have to work really hard at it. And he can't do it in my house.

Zoe Chace

There's a popular idea right now among people studying why kids drop out of college. There's this whole set of skills that students lack-- non-academic skills like organizing their time, knowing who to ask for what. And that lacking those skills is one of the biggest reasons kids fail. And that's something schools are trying to address so they can keep their students.

The way that lots of schools see it is that they have to develop their own Demetrius's dad. They call it an intrusive adviser or an enhanced adviser. Demetrius's new school, Hostos, they're trying this thing. That's what their success coach program is. When Navy Reserve guy Ray calls Demetrius's dad on the phone to figure out his one class on one day issue, that's intrusive advising, which in this case doesn't look so different from parenting.

Of course, parenting can be a thankless job and seems to be when it comes to Demetrius. He doesn't credit his turnaround from dropout to straight A student to his dad holding him accountable. Demetrius mostly gives the credit to himself, to a change in his own frame of mind.

Demetrius Wilson

I learned from my mistakes. I got rid of my mental whatevers that caused me to make them in the first place.

Zoe Chace

His dad doesn't care that Demetrius thinks he did it on its own. In fact, he's happy about that. He prefers that. He wants him to feel empowered and not overthink it. He wants his son to move on and not spend time reflecting on why he got stuck a year ago. That could stagnate his son, whose only focus is supposed to be doing well in school.

I want him to just keep flying, he told me the other day, not so close to the sun that he melts his wings but just keep moving forward. Don't pull back. Stay in motion.

Ira Glass

Zoe Chace is one of the producers of our show.

Act Three: The Favorite

Ira Glass

Act Three, The Favorite. So we close our show today with this example of information provided on a need-to-know basis from one of our producers, Stephanie Foo.

Stephanie Foo

When I was in the seventh grade, I got an assignment to write a one-page essay about my favorite place in the world. I wrote 10 pages, single spaced, about Malaysia.

I moved to America from Malaysia when I was three years old, but the rest of my family still lives there. We went back a lot when I was little. And so I remember crawling under ferns and hibiscus in the yard, catching moths the size of my head, playing hide and seek during monsoon storms.

But in that essay, I didn't write about the main reason why I loved Malaysia. I loved Malaysia most because Malaysia loved me. I was the favorite child, and not even the extra serving of cake kind of favorite-- the kind of favorite where everyone would straight up say at family gatherings, oh, Stephanie's the best. My aunts would tell their children, why can't you be more like her? Then they'd buy me all the toys I wanted. And the person leading this campaign was the matriarch of our family, my dad's aunt. We all called her Auntie.

Every time I walked into a room, Auntie would reach for me and coo, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]. She's so well behaved. She's so nice. She saved me all the best pieces of the chicken, taught me mahjong, asked only me to sit on her lap on the big papasan as she taught me songs in Chinese.

The other adults fell in line to say something nice about my eyes, my dimples. I remember I had this cousin who wanted to be an artist when she grew up. She filled up an entire bookshelf with her sketches. I showed up and started doodling, and everyone flocked around me, telling me I had natural talent. My cousin stormed off and didn't talk to me for days.

I was proud to be Auntie's favorite because even though she was under five feet tall with Coke-bottle glasses, she was also a total badass. Auntie grew up destitute with three sisters and a single mother in Japanese-occupied Malaysia. The girls shaved their heads to avoid being harassed by the Japanese soldiers, and they opened a gambling den where they hustled patrons out of money and sold opium.

She had an impassioned opinion about everything. When she hated something, she screwed up her face in disgust and would actually bang her fist on the table, declaring [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]. Don't like Nicki Minaj. Why she got blonde, white people hair when she's a black woman?

Not that Auntie had ever met a black woman. She didn't like traveling. She didn't like cheese. Her decisiveness sometimes didn't quite make sense. Like one time when I offered her an apple, she shook her head and said, apple taste just like potato. And I'd rather have potato.

The things she loved seemed just as impassioned and just as arbitrary-- the lottery, which she won over 40 times in her life, this one ditzy girl on the Korean soap operas, and me. I once asked my mom why I got the special treatment I did. She said it was simple. I was the favorite because my dad was the eldest son in the family and I was his firstborn child. This sounded enough like something out of an Amy Tan novel for me to believe it. I left it at that.

But things all started to change when I was 13. Everyone in the family heard about that one day in August when my mom told my dad and me that she was leaving us. They heard about the lawyers, the money, the house. And they heard about what a brat I was after, which I was.

I argued with my teachers, flunked out of a lot of classes. When my dad started dating, he wasn't around much, didn't even come home lots of nights. And I started fighting with him all the time. I set his copy of Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager on fire and almost burned the apartment down in the process.

Two years after my mother left, my dad moved out completely, went to his girlfriend's place. I found a roast chicken on the kitchen counter once a week. But basically, he left me in the house on my own. I was 16 and furious.

I knew my family in Malaysia got an earful about my bad behavior. I got a couple of emails from aunts telling me I needed to get it together. And that cousin who loved to draw, she wrote me to say I ought to feel bad for breaking up my parents' marriage. So I stopped emailing my family.

I got up the nerve to visit Malaysia again after I graduated from high school-- not with my dad, though. I brought my boyfriend instead. And things started off normal enough. Auntie cracked jokes about my boyfriend's surprising ability to eat spicy food. She'd call him "the white devil" and cackle.

But everyone seemed a little reserved. I wasn't the golden child anymore. I had a filthy mouth and blue hair. I picked fights about their opinions and their politics. Finally, someone asked me how my dad was. I said I didn't know. I said he was an asshole.

They got defensive. Auntie and the rest of my family asked me why I couldn't be a better daughter. They asked me if the stories they'd heard were true-- the one about the burning books, the one about me chucking my dad's car keys into some bushes.

OK, yes. It was true. I had done all of those things. But then I realized they didn't know that my dad had moved out. They didn't know that most days, it was all I could do to microwave a Hot Pocket for dinner. When I told them, they didn't believe it.

Before they took me to the airport, Auntie grabbed hold of me and hugged me tight to her. And then she whispered in my ear, you are not a good person, OK? You need to become a better person. Then she let go and walked away.

I didn't go back to Malaysia after that. Instead, I grew up. I learned how to land a job, make a paella, buy a car. I learned a few deep breathing exercises. I didn't set anything else on fire.

Finally, a couple years ago, my father called me and told me that Auntie was sick. She was stable, but I should make a point to visit. So I went back with my dad. It felt weird traveling with him because for years, we'd never spent more than a couple hours together.

But when Auntie saw me, she was so excited she almost fell over. She grabbed the edge of the table next to her just in time and cried out, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] You're so pretty. I relaxed.

All was forgiven. Auntie loved me again. She brought me food. She held my hand as we watched TV. I stayed with her a little over a week. I started recording some of my conversations with her. I wanted to remember this.

Auntie told me stories from the gambling den, told me about my grandma flirting with boys for free sodas. And then she started talking about when I was a little kid. And she said this thing that, when she said it, felt like she took a box full of everything I thought I knew about my relationship with her, about my relationship with Malaysia, and dumped it out on the floor.

I'll play you some of this. Take note-- Auntie's English wasn't very good. She could only talk in the present tense, even when she was referring to the past. And she didn't have her dentures in at this point. But she started banging her fist on the table, and she said that the reason everyone had been kind to me when I was a kid was because they all knew that I'd suffered a lot. Here's the tape.

Auntie

Everybody is kind to you because everyone knows that you suffer a lot. That's why they're so kind to you.

Stephanie Foo

Wow.

Auntie

Because they realize that when you're young, you suffer a lot. Yeah.

Stephanie Foo

And when she said that, something clicked. I knew what she was talking about. She was talking about my mom. When I was a kid, if I lost something or said something wrong or didn't clean a dish properly, my mother would scream, hit me. Sometimes she'd threaten to kill herself. I was never not scared growing up.

That's how I remember it, anyway. My mother remembers it differently. Before I go on, this is from the email she sent to our fact checker.

Quote, "My daughter's stories about me that she has related to you are figments of her imagination or, at best, highly prejudiced memories. If released publicly, I would consider these fabrications and distortions about me as personally very damaging." End quote.

But what my Auntie told me on tape was that basically, everyone was so nice to me not because I was the oldest child of the first-born son and not because my cheeks were chubby but because they saw what my mother was doing to me.

Stephanie Foo

Did you see her beat me?

Auntie

Yeah. Everybody also seen her.

Stephanie Foo

I'm asking Auntie if she saw my mom beat me. And she says everyone saw.

You know that scene in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where he's in Barnes & Noble and slowly, all off the lights turn off, one by one, leaving him in darkness? As Auntie was talking into my tape recorder, it felt like the opposite, like all the lights were turning on.

I saw my family, saw Auntie popping back up in those memories in a way I'd never imagined before-- with them listening through walls, peering around corners. Suddenly, I remembered this one time in my uncle's house in Malaysia. I wasn't allowed to eat dinner. Instead, my mom told me I had to cross my arms, pull on my earlobes, and do squats in front of my family, who ate their meal in silence.

And then there was a time during a visit when I was six, and I disagreed with my mom about what my homework assignment was. She started beating me with a ruler. I think it was a ruler. It went on for a long time.

At some point, I tried to hide under a table. As she pulled me out by the legs, I started to scream for mercy. I knew that the house was full of family. I wondered why nobody was coming to help me. I thought, they must not be able to hear me. I felt totally alone.

I was not alone. Here's me and Auntie again. I'm speaking in Manglish, Malaysian pidgin English. I never thought this would be on the radio.

Stephanie Foo

How come you never say anything when she beat me?

Auntie

You say anything, who suffer? Your father.

Stephanie Foo

She's saying if they said anything, who would suffer? Your father would.

Stephanie Foo

So what about me suffer?

Auntie

Huh?

Stephanie Foo

What about me suffer?

Auntie

You, you suffer? If we say, don't do that, she would done more.

Stephanie Foo

You suffer. If you say don't do that, she'll do more.

Auntie

She'll beat more.

Stephanie Foo

She'll beat more.

Auntie

Not to say it stop. You thinking like that?

Stephanie Foo

Not to say it'll stop. You think it's like that? Meaning, your mom didn't stop when we said something. You think it's that simple?

Then Auntie told me this story about how once when I was little I woke up scared in the middle of the night and walked into her room. She woke up and whispered reassurances and ushered me back into bed as quickly and quietly as she could. She was terrified the entire time.

She said she believed if my mom found out that I got up in the middle of the night, she'd hurt me. So Auntie did not dare wake her up or tell her what happened.

Auntie

It's unfair. Life is like that.

Stephanie Foo

Yeah, I know. Life is not fair, huh?

All that fawning, those compliments-- Auntie told me they were only in part for me. My family indulged me with that immense display of kindness to show my mom how I deserved to be loved. It didn't work, but I'm still grateful.

Because sure, it was a lie. I wasn't the favorite. But the truth was better than the lie. For years, I thought nobody got it, that nobody was on my side. But they were. Auntie was.

Ira Glass

Stephanie Foo is one of the producers of our program.

[MUSIC - "KEPT IN THE DARK" BY ZACHARY THOMAS DIEDRICH]

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Jonathan Menjivar with Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Miki Meek, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Editing help from Joel Lovell, production help from Simon Adler.

Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our office manager. Elna Baker scouts stories for our show. Research help today from Michelle Harris and Christopher Swetala. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This is our last program with Adrianne Mathiowetz. For eight years, Adrianne has been the one who has been running our website, which means a lot of things, including emailing with thousands and thousands of you. When you right to us, you are usually first emailing with her. And if you have done that over the years, you know that she is lovely and level-headed and smart and just great.

We will miss her. She has always been a part-time photographer and now she's becoming a full-time one. She is available for your freelance gigs, by the way. We wish her the best.

Our website-- thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always, to our program's cofounder, Mr. Torey Matatia. On vacation this year, he tried to go to Disney World but ended up at Sea World.

Michael Leviton

I was in the wrong world. That's what it felt like.

Ira Glass

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