605: Kid Logic
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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 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 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 and 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. You know, 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. 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 going to pick me up? Have they called?
You did play it cool.
One interesting question in all of 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 dad 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 thing to the next, and then come to conclusions that are completely incorrect. Therapist [? Eileen ?] 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 aha quality to them, some connection that's made between things, a surprising connection, a wrong connection, actually. Well, we at This American Life love these stories. And so today, we bring you a full hour of them. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.
Today on our program, kid logic. Our show in four acts. Act 1, baby scientists with faulty data. Act 2, werewolves in their youth. That story from Michael Chabon. Act 3, the game ain't over till the fatso man sings. Act 4, when small thoughts meet big brains. Stay with us.
Act One: Baby Scientists with Faulty Data
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. And what science has 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. When 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.
Well, 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 in 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 grownups, 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?
I really think she just likes to collect teeth and make things out of them.
Like what kind of stuff?
Lots of stuff. Makes a tooth house, tooth trophy, and a tooth desk.
How many teeth do you think it takes to make a tooth house?
Why wouldn't she just make the house out of bricks like everyone else?
Because I don't-- 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, it 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. 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 ancestries.
Well, when I became mobile, when I got my first tricycle, I could go a little bit further. So I ventured down the street. And I looked and I saw this couple sitting there, these two people. But they were people that I had never seen before. I had 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 [COUGHING] And I thought, wow, that must be the way they talk.
It was like a scientific discovery. I discovered the first ghost people, and they talked to me. I communicated. I waved. They waved. I said hello, and they said hello in their language. [COUGHING]
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 wanted 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, you know?
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 this sort of "Yeah, oh, well, that's Jesus. And I forgot to tell you the ending. Yeah, well, 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, and 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'd 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 as life, was a huge drawing by a 10-year-old kid in 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?" And 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, "Well, he said that you should treat everybody the same no matter what they look like."
And she thought about that for a minute. And she said, "Well, that's what Jesus said." And I said, "Yeah, I guess it is. 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 up at me and said, "Did they kill him too?"
Act Two: Werewolves in Their Youth
Act 2, "Werewolves in their Youth." In this act, we have this example of kids thinking like kids. It's an excerpt of 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 Bease 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, unarticulated hope among his classmates, their parents, and all of the teachers at Copeland 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 a while 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've been cursed for 300 years," he declaimed. He was wearing a 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've 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 to 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 Bease 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 with her. I knew this, because the Stokeses lived next door to us and I was privy to all kinds of secrets about Timothy that 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. And 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 Covell, 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." 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 smello? Paul Covello. 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 arm chair. 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, is 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 nodded.
"I heard you talking to them before." "So?" "So are you Ant-Man?" "No, dummy." "Why not?" "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 of times," I said. He had micronauts and the fembots. "He has Stretch Armstrong too," said Timothy.
"I know." "Why did you go see him?" Timothy said. "Did your mother make you?" "Yeah," I said. "How come?" "I don't know. She said I was having problems with my anger. I don't know. I guess I was mad about my dad and things."
"He had to go to jail," Timothy said, "Your dad." "Just for one night." "How come?" "He had too much to drink," I said. "Did you visit him in jail?" Timothy said. "No, stupid. God, 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 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 "Foop, foop!" 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.
Michael Chabon, reading an excerpt from his short story "Werewolves in Their Youth." You can find it in the collection of short stories of the same name. His latest novel just came out. It's called "Moonglow." Coming up, kids talking kid talk, adults not understanding, but you will, as our special "Kids say the Darndest Things" edition of our program continues in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.
Act Three: The Game Ain't Over til the Fatso Man Sings
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. 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 wrongheaded. And we've arrived at Act 3 of our program. Act 3, "The Game Ain't Over till 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? Howie Chackowicz remembers how he thought about love in grade school. He wanted girls to like him, but they never seemed to. Here he is.
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 would peep on me. I'd roll into a fetal ball a kitten and scrunch my head into my pillow, hands under my head.
I imagined that all the popular girls, intent on cruelly pranking me, on 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 there 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 can see me reading aloud. This conclusion came out of my experience with nieces and nephews, who'd fawn all over me when I would 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," effecting 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 I 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 story, 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.
[? Betty's ?] really cute, eh?
And Jonathan [? is cute. ?]
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 with 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.
Yes, yes, yes.
Notice who she doesn't mention. Even though it was so far in the past, a 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 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.
I didn't even know that. 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.
This is the thing.
You know what? That's very good advice, I think.
It's very bad advice. I don't want to break your leg. Basically, what happened was, I was standing off to the sidelines. I wasn't often picked to play. This was a coed game, and it seemed very fun. And Keith said, "I'm going to throw Karen the ball." And he you know he couldn't pronounce his R's. He goes, "You tackle her, Howard. Tackle her. Tackle her hard, and you'll be popular. And then everyone will like you.
I'm like, "OK, I'm going to do it." And I remember you were running, the sun was shining off, and your hair's bouncing, and you caught the ball, and 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. And I tackled you really hard.
You're on the ground and you're holding your leg. Now, any kind of logic would have dictated that 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 lay 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 chorus line of "Fatso Man" to the tune of the Village People's "Macho Man."
"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 at the time the school photographer called her Daisy Duke and then turned around and called me Boss Hog, nor the fitness day that I 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."
Right. 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, and then there was a split second, but then you were in the arms of a grade seven.
Really? What was a grade seven doing in there?
They crashed our grade six graduation dance.
Who was it?
I don't know who he was. 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 six.
No, by adult standards, it was a peck. I'd say by grade six standards, you got laid.
It turns out that Karen remembered exactly one story about me.
Well, my most vivid memory of you is sitting in class, and the teacher asking us to pull out our homework, and you open up your desk and the paper overflowing out of that desk, and you 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 six 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 on the ways 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. He's the creator, writer, and artist behind Howie Action Comics.
Act Four: When Small Thoughts Meet Big Brains
Four, "When Small Thoughts Meet Big Brains." OK, so all this hour we've been talking about kid logic. And sometimes, the incorrect logic of childhood does not get corrected during childhood. It does not get corrected till much, much later, when childhood is long over. Alex Blumberg explains.
I can reconstruct the events that led me to one of the most embarrassing conversations of my adult life. The chain starts back when I was 11 or 12, when I first heard the term Nielsen family. I was probably listening to some adults talk. And from their conversation I gathered that networks consulted Nielsen families to find out how popular a television show was.
But that didn't make sense. Why would they only ask people named Nielsen which shows they liked? I started thinking. I knew that when they figured things like this out, they didn't ask everybody. They just asked a small percentage of people and then extrapolated. I think I figured they'd done some research and found that the name Nielsen, because it was a common name maybe, and it seemed to cut across class and economic lines, actually came pretty close to a representative sample.
I knew this wasn't the way they measured public opinion now, but it seemed like the Nielsen surveys had been around for a while, and I figured they were just a holdover from a more primitive, less statistically rigorous time. After that, I really didn't think about it again. Or if I did, it was only with a mild curiosity. "I wonder why TV still does it that way?"
Fast forward 20 years. I was talking with a friend of mine, who was telling me about her friend, who had been selected to be a Nielsen family. And I said to her, "Isn't it weird that they're all named Nielsen?" My friend looked at me for what seemed like a long time. Somewhere during her very long pause, because of the very long pause, in fact, I realized, "Of course they're not all named Nielsen. That makes no sense at all."
At the time of this conversation, I was 34 years old, and I couldn't believe I'd gotten this far without ever stopping to think it through. It made me wonder what else I'd missed, and if this has ever happen to anyone besides me.
When I was a kid, and I would see the school crossing signs, and there's a picture of the little kids walking, and then it would say "School Xing" And I thought that the "Xing" was a word. And I pronounced it "zing."
Turns out I'm not alone. I've been talking to people about this for weeks, and there's a lot of us out there, like me and this woman Jodi Mace, carting around our childhood beliefs well into adulthood. Jodi thought there were lots of xings, deer xings, railroad xings. It makes sense.
Well, I was in my 20s, and I was walking into work, and about 10 geese walked in front of me on the sidewalk. And so I just turned to my coworker and casually said, "It looks like they should have a xing sign there for the geese." There was a long, awkward silence. And I thought that he was thinking, "You know, that really is a good idea." But instead, he finally said, "You know, 'xing' isn't in a word."
In talking to people, I found out that a lot of these lingering misconceptions involve mispronunciation. And often the mispronunciation survives into adulthood because the mistake just sounds better. It makes more sense.
You know, it should be a word. And it should be xing. You don't want a kid to walk slowly across the crossing. If he's smart, he's going to xing.
Consider the word "misled." I talked to three people, including my own father, who used to pronounce it "my-zulled." All three believed it was the past tense of a nonexistent verb "misle," which means "to deceive" or "to mislead." There's another guy I spoke to who thought well in his early 20s that the word "quesadilla" was Spanish for "What's the deal?"
Most of the common childhood myths, like that babies come from storks, get corrected sooner or later. They're not obscure enough to sneak into adulthood unscrutinized. But occasionally even a very popular childhood myth can make it through, like unicorns.
In my head, a unicorn wasn't really any different than a zebra.
This is Christy Kruger.
I mean, in terms of believability, I think the unicorn's really ahead of the dinosaur.
What do you mean?
Well, I mean when you think about a dinosaur, like, from a kid's perspective, a dinosaur is one of these really large, monstrous animals roaming the earth. And then you have a unicorn, which is basically just a horse with a horn.
As Christy Kruger grew up, she says that if she ever thought about unicorns, they were on a grassy plain, somewhere in Africa, drinking from a watering hole with the wildebeest and the impala. And then one night, she found herself in a conversation at a party.
It was about a group of five to seven people, standing around the keg, just talking. And somehow, a discussion of endangered species came up, in which I posed the question "Is the unicorn endangered or extinct?" And basically, there was a big gap of silence.
As you might be gathering, at some point in all these stories, you come to a big gap of silence.
And then everybody laughed. And then that laughter was followed by more silence when they realized I wasn't laughing. And I was like, "Yeah. I-- oh god. Unicorns aren't real? Oh. Oh no!"
Sometimes, a ridiculous belief will survive into adulthood, and it's our parents who are to blame. Robin didn't think there was anything strange about the way she was raised. She lived together with her sister and her parents in a nice house in the suburbs. She went to school like the other kids, watched TV and did her homework. And she ate the exact same thing for dinner every night of her life-- baked chicken.
It was like Monday, chicken, Tuesday, chicken, Wednesday, chicken, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, chicken. Chicken, chicken, chicken, chicken every night of my life until I left for college.
At the end of the first week of college, when everyone's desperately trying to fit in and it's important that you act cool, and sophisticated, and whatever, everyone begins complaining about the food that we're being served. What was the hard stuff in the sloppy Joe? What was that mystery meat? What animal did it come from?
And I'm looking at these people like they are crazy. The variety we were getting here, every night, every night there's a different meal. I mean, one night it's mac and cheese, one night it's mystery meat, one night it's sloppy Joe. One night it's-- I was like, how can you critic-- I mean, it's a testament to what great chefs they must be that they can make a different meal every single night of the week.
And they just kind of-- they kind of stared, and they're like "What?" And I'm like, "What what?" What's running through my head is, wait a minute. These people are implying that they had variation in their meal plan for their entire life. It's mind-bending. I mean, I don't care what I learned throughout college. This is the revelation that has stuck with me. This is what I've learned. All of a sudden, like holy god!
When Robin came home for Thanksgiving that year, she confronted her mother with the startling fact that everyone else ate things besides chicken growing up. Her mother just shrugged her shoulders and said, "You liked chicken." Robin had to concede the point. Even when they went out to restaurants, Robin ordered chicken. They all had.
Here's one more. When Harriet Lerner was a girl, her family was going through some lean years. There were two kids. The house needed repairs. There wasn't much money for holiday gifts. Harriet was seven, and she wanted a bike. Her sister, Susan, was 12. She wanted a set of encyclopedias. But when they came downstairs on Christmas morning, there were only two small boxes waiting for them.
What was inside them-- and we both had exactly the same gift-- were these real ugly metal tissue holders painted black with these corny red and yellow roses. They were painted with these cheesy looking red and yellow roses. And I looked at my tissue box and I started to cry.
And I looked at my big sister, Susan, and I thought, of course, she was going to cry too. And she looked like maybe she was going to cry, but then she put on a big smile. And then she told me that the boxes were painted by trained monkeys.
The box became Harriet's prized possession. She kept it on display in her room through elementary school, through high school. Her friends asked her about it and she'd say, "Oh yeah. It was painted by trained monkeys." Nobody ever challenged her on it. Maybe because she believed it herself so completely. And then one day, she was home from college, back in the house where she grew up.
And I'm going through some papers, or maybe I was snooping through Susan's papers. And I found a composition, and it had her name on it. And she had written it in high school, and it was called the Tissue Box Story. So I sat down on the floor of Susan's bedroom to read this composition.
And Susan told the story just as I told it, except that she wrote how she felt when she saw me crying, and how she then looked at my parents and saw that my mother was about to cry too, and how she looked at the tissue boxes and then she remembered that my father had a friend who made them, and she knew how much my parents hated taking charity.
And suddenly, even though she was about to cry, she forced herself to smile, and she pretended those boxes were painted by trained monkeys. And then, of course, I didn't know any of this. But the funny thing she wrote in her composition is that she just rushed upstairs and started crying all over her pillow.
And she wasn't really sad about the gift, really, is what she said in the composition. She wasn't sure why she was crying except that it was like she had volunteered to be a grown up before she was even ready for it.
Up until that moment, I had never thought to question my sister's story. I had never subjected it to the scrutiny of a grown up mind. I mean, I was 20. I don't know. I had this tissue box that was painted by trained monkeys, and then it wasn't painted by trained monkeys, really.
Up until reading that story, Harriet thought that her sister's lies had been only to torment her, like the time Harriet swallowed an apple seed and her big sister convinced her that she had an apple tree growing inside her. She'd always been jealous of her sister, always wanted to be the big sister. But reading her sister's story that day made her realize how responsible her sister felt for her, and for their entire family, and how there were benefits to being the baby.
It was good to learn all that. But the vision of the lie, that we live in a world where monkeys can be trained to paint, is hard to give up.
And really, it's just that I can still picture this tissue box and how much I loved it, this tissue box painted by trained monkeys.
I know what she means. For me, there's something appealingly weird about a world where only people who happen to have been born with the name Nielsen get to decide what goes on television. And not long after the day that Jodi Mace's coworker set her straight about the word "xing," she found herself on the opposite side of the exact same situation.
She was having a conversation with another coworker, and he asked her if elves were real. "Elves? Like that live in the forest, with the pointy toes?" He nodded. She paused, and then she said, "Yeah, of course they are."
Alex Blumberg. In his day job, he makes podcasts, great podcasts, Reply All, Heavyweight, StartUp, lots of other ones, at gimletmedia.com.
[MUSIC - "WHEN I WAS A CHILD" BY PEGGY LEE]
Our program was produced today by Jonathan Goldstein and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Wendy Dorr and Starlee Kine. Senior producer for today's show is Julie Snyder. Our technical director is Matt Tierney. Production help from Emmanuel Dzotsi. Our staff includes Elise Bergerson, Emily Condon, Kimberly Henderson, and Seth Lind.
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 co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, who explains his behavior this way.
I've been cursed for 300 years.
Me too, bro. Me too. I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.