Are Those Reeboks On Your Feet, Or Are You Just A Big Fat Liar?

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Several years ago, when I got my first job in the public school system, I found myself talking about music with, of all people, the school’s sign language interpreter.  “You know what I still think is a great album?” she said.  “Tapestry.  It’s been…what…thirty years or whatever…and I still listen to it.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Tapestry is classic.  Great, great album.”

“Oh?” she said, sounding surprised.  “Do you have Tapestry?”

“Absolutely,” I responded in a heartbeat.  “Love Tapestry.  That’s an essential album to have.”

As soon as the words left my mouth, I wondered why I had just said them.  The truth was, I really didn’t own Tapestry, nor had I ever actually heard it in its entirety.  How did it benefit me to lie about this particular thing?  What did I stand to gain by telling the sign language interpreter, of all people, that I had a Carole King record?

Soon after, we were at a teachers’ meeting, small talking with a group of real teachers, and she said, “I like Mr. Panara – he has good taste.  He’s a fan of Tapestry.”

Since the vast majority of the teachers were middle aged women, this made them beam with enthusiasm.  “Really!  Such a young man, and he likes Tapestry!  We’re so happy to have you at this school!  What’s your favorite song?”

“Um, It’s Too Late Baby Now It’s Too Late?” I mumbled, naming one of the two songs I was pretty sure appeared on Tapestry.   At that point, it became clear that my trivial lie was beginning to snowball.  I had no choice but to go to the CD Warehouse that weekend and begrudgingly ask the guy, “Hey, do you have a used copy of Tapestry?”  Luckily they did, and I was no longer a liar.

I was an authentic Carole King fan.

Sometimes I’ll do stupid things like this to myself.  I’ll lie about something completely meaningless.  Recently, it happened again.  I had just joined Orange Fitness.  It was the first time in my 33 years on Earth that I had ever signed up for a gym, and I was frantic to find excuses not to go.  When I opened my membership, the woman noticed my Converse sneakers and pointed down at them.  “No,” she said, trying her best to speak English, “gym shoes…gym shoes!”  So there it was.  I couldn’t go to the gym because I didn’t have a pair of trainers.  I told this to a female acquaintance I’ve been talking to.

“Yeah, I signed up for the gym,” I told her, “but I can’t go yet because I don’t have the right sneakers.  I’ll go to the mall soon and get a pair.”

This wasn’t a complete lie, seeing that I did in fact go to the mall and look for trainers.  But there were a million different sneakers, hundreds of brands it seemed, and I was too overwhelmed to buy anything.  Plus, I didn’t really want to go to the gym.  The overabundance of choices and my laziness combined to sink my shoe buying mission like that chick from Rabbit Run accidentally sunk her baby.

A solid three weeks passed before my female friend asked again.  “So,” she said during an online chat, “did you get those sneakers?”

Maybe I didn’t want to sound incompetent or something.  “Yeah, picked up a pair this weekend,” I told her.

“Great!  What kind?”

I froze.  Luckily my friend Derek was also online.  I explained to him the situation.  “Say you got a pair of cheap Reeboks,” he said, and that’s exactly what I told her.  I didn’t think much of it.  Why would she mention it again?

Of course, she did.

“Have you put those Reeboks to work?” she asked me in a text one day.  “Why are you neglecting those Reeboks?” she asked a day later.

On a Saturday, I told her I needed to buy new socks.  “Oh!  To go with the Reeboks?” she shot back.

I had clearly screwed myself.  This is a girl I barely knew, and I had started the relationship off with a lie.  And not just any lie, but a pointless, moronic lie about a frivolous thing that wouldn’t have made her like me any more or less if I just told the truth.  What if she came over to my apartment?  I could picture her face, the confusion in her eyes.  “Where are the Reeboks?” she’d surely ask.

“Listen,” I’d have to say.  “Sit down.  I think we need to talk…it’s about the Reeboks…”

Like so many years ago with Tapestry, I was off to the store, on a mission.  This time, though, I found the lie actually worked to my benefit.  Before I was blown away – I didn’t know where to start.  Now I had a specific target.  Reeboks.  I was incredibly focused.  By the time I left, I no longer had any excuse for avoiding the gym.

Lying, as with everything in life, must be done in moderation.  I’m lucky my stupid lies have now helped with my exercise routine and have allowed me to identify the song Lisa Simpson sings in the “Jazzman” episode (it’s on Tapestry), instead of getting me into trouble.  I suppose for better or for worse, where a lie leads, one must follow.

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Desk Full of Hate

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My Vice Principal has a very clean and lovely desk.  He keeps one framed photograph on it.  I’ve talked to him enough times to know that he has a wife and a daughter.  However, neither of them have found their way onto his desk.  Instead, the one framed photograph is of him and the Principal, standing in front of the school, smiling and looking highly professional.

There’s nothing wrong with that, although it might seem a little odd to a Westerner who’s used to pictures of babies or spouses being on someone’s work station.  In essence, the workplace picture serves two purposes: to show off and to motivate.  The first is obvious.  A person wants their co-workers to notice, to say “what a cute baby!” or “awww! you and your husband look so sweet together!”  The second is for the worker, so that in those head-rubbing moments when the thought “why the hell am I doing this to myself?” goes through the mind, there’s a readily available answer.  You can’t quit because you have a baby.  Look, there’s proof on your desk.  It exists.  Stop typing up that resignation letter.

In thinking about the workplace picture, I stumbled onto what I think is a bright idea.  Personally, I’m mostly motivated by bitterness and resentment, as opposed to silly notions like family or pride.  It might be a good idea, then, to fill my desk with pictures of those people that drive me to do better – the ex-girlfriends and the folks I just don’t like.  I could go through Facebook, print off pictures, buy frames, and stock my desk full of the hated. 

“Say,” a coworker might ask, “who are they?”

“Oh,” I would say, “that’s my ex and her new boyfriend.  They look happy, huh?  Those bastards!”

And then, theoretically, I’d become highly productive in order to show them the excellence I’m capable of.  Having to see, say, a picture of Glen Beck everyday would send me into a working frenzy.

“Hey, Bill,” someone might ask me, “I heard you wrote two novels last year?  Where’d the inspiration come from?”

“My desk full of hate,” I’d answer.  “Yeah, I was having trouble finishing the second one, so I framed a picture of Frank Wycheck from the Music City Miracle.  Then the novel just kind of wrote itself.” 

People keep pictures that make them happy.  There’s a tragedy in looking at a picture and wishing it was you in it and not someone else, or that your team (go Bills!) was the one celebrating in the end zone.  I’d never actually do my “desk full of hate” because of that “show off” factor.  It would be hard to admit, as I would often have to, that the picture doesn’t often turn out the way I’d hoped it would.

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Deviants in the Classroom

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“In a deviant society, why and how do people avoid deviance?” – Walter Reckless’ Containment Theory

Most of the kids in Miss Tee’s class had what were called “behavior problems.”  It’s one of those nice educational terms that exists so kids aren’t called bad, naughty, or, as I like to think of them, devil children. Another term used to describe Miss Tee’s class was “self-contained.” This is an odd phrase, one that makes it unclear as to whether the teacher works with children or with a contagious disease.  By definition, it just means that the students learn all subject areas in one classroom, but it sounds as though they have the bird flue or something.  I wonder if there was a big meeting somewhere, and the brightest people in the school system chose the term “self-contained classroom” narrowly over “sequestered zone” or “quarantined place of learning.”

In February of 2005, I got my first job in the field of education, becoming Miss Tee’s Teacher Assistant.  I chose to be a TA because I thought that the experience would show me the ropes.  As a TA, I could learn how to be a teacher from the inside.  Miss Tee had taught for ages, and I figured she would show me how to write lesson plans, how to differentiate instruction, and how to implement classroom management techniques that could turn a bunch of hooligans into a class of student-handbook abiding citizens.

For the first few days, this was what happened.  Miss Tee was a slightly older woman in her late forties or early fifties.  She was alternatively stern and kind as I thought a teacher should be.  Despite her name, Miss Tee had been married for years and had a daughter in high school.  I eventually learned that every woman in the South is referred to as “miss” regardless of her marital status.  In addition to Miss Tee, there was also a sign language interpreter in the classroom, an Italian woman around the same age as Miss Tee named Miss Pepperoni (hey, changing real people’s names is hard, cut me some slack on this one).  Of course, Miss Pepperoni was also married.  She and Miss Tee got along famously.  So well, it turned out, that on some days there would be very little interpreting and even less teaching.

As I got used to working in the classroom, I started to grasp the daily routine.  After I got the kids off the bus, the class ate breakfast in the empty cafeteria.  Next came the longest portion of the day, when the kids did a math worksheet independently while Miss Tee and Miss Pepperoni read the newspaper and talked about their lives.  Around mid-afternoon I took the kids to the gym for Adaptive PE.  Miss Tee and Miss Pepperoni stayed in the classroom.  Lunch followed, and then story time.  Finally came my most active duty of the school day: taking the kids to the soccer field to play while Miss Tee and Miss Pepperoni watched Oprah.

Since I considered myself her apprentice, I was a bit disappointed.  When I asked Miss Tee about lesson plans, she simply said, “I don’t do those.” There were no tests and I saw no evidence of any curriculum being followed.  Eventually, Miss Tee laid it out for me nice and clearly.

“We’re self-contained special ed,” she said.  “The school don’t care about us.  How many times does the Principal come in here?  Maybe once or twice to say ‘hi’ to the kids.  These kids don’t take state tests! They don’t do EOGs.  That’s what the school cares about.  We just stay in our room and make it look like everything is nice and happy.”

Way back in the 1950s, a criminologist named Walter Reckless created what he called his “Containment Theory.”  It concerns how individuals resist acting out in deviant ways.  One of the main “buffers” in his theory is the “outer society,” which basically provides rules and dictates what is generally acceptable behavior.  Thinking back on that classroom, with all those “behavior problem” students, it’s striking how the teacher, Miss Tee, might have been the most deviant of anybody.  It makes sense, though.  There was no outer society to keep Miss Tee in line.  She had broken away from it, presumably after years and years of her special education class getting nothing but neglect and indifference from the rest of the school.  Our class wasn’t really a part of the school society.  And as a result, everyone did what they wanted.  The kids played soccer. The teacher watched Oprah.

Remembering my time as her assistant, though, I can clearly recall those days when Miss Tee’s “inner buffer” took over and she did what she knew how to do: she taught.  And man could Miss Tee teach when she wanted to.  When she read the class a story, they sat there riveted.  When she talked, they listened. When they misbehaved, she ended it with just a look.  Being with Miss Tee, I saw glimpses of one heck of an amazing teacher.  And I also saw – maybe more importantly – what can happen to a great teacher stuck in self-containment, in a school system that never bothers to look or say thanks.

(In Self-Containment: Memories of a Teacher’s Assistant is my ongoing serial about the year I spent as a TA in a self-contained special ed middle school classroom.  The names of the students and teachers I talk about have been changed.  “Deviants in the Classroom” is Part Three.)

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