I know this strains credulity, but it’s true—I told my last lie in 8th grade.
Not that I was (or am, for that matter) any saint. My parents maintained that the lie was a separate, punishable action from the original offense, a rule I ran afoul of multiple times (especially since age seven—not sure why that age in particular).
Mr. Lane, my 8th grade Social Studies teacher, was one of three junior high school teachers who showed us that learning was important, that the subjects were relevant, interesting, even fascinating once we started to understand them. This trio also taught us to think for ourselves, frequently giving us structured tasks or group activities, getting out of our way, letting us make our mistakes, but then coming back and addressing our shortcomings. They pushed us, worked us, gave us lower grades then we were used to earning, redirected us, sent us back to thinking and working—and we loved it. They were my favorite teachers.
So when I didn’t hand in my Social Studies report (I don’t remember how many pages were required), it wasn’t any judgment against the class or the teacher—I just was a kid who got busy doing some other kid things and didn’t get to the assigned report in time. I sat cringing as the class passed in their work, knowing I was in serious trouble. Fortunately, Mr. Lane didn’t notice I hadn’t turned in a report, so I was reprieved for the moment, but I knew it would eventually catch up with me.
And that day arrived. While the rest of the class worked on an in-class assignment, Mr. Lane came over to talk with me. My stomach churned—I knew I was in deep trouble.
“I didn’t see your report,” he started. I hung my head. “Did you turn one in?” Nervous, I nodded. “OK—I’ll look through everything here and at home and see if I can find it.” I knew he wouldn’t, of course, but at least I’d bought another reprieve.
I worried all through class each day—my brief reprieve had become a week. It couldn’t last.
Finally, almost as a relief, the Day of Reckoning arrived. Mr. Lane called me over to his desk at the end of class. Here it comes. As my classmates filed out the door, I shuffled slowly to my doom.
“I’ve looked everywhere for your paper,” began Mr. Lane. I looked at the floor. “I tore apart everything, every pile, and it’s just not there.” My shoulders slumped. Fear grew by the second, anticipating my fate. “So,” Mr. Lane continued, “I’m just going to have to assume it was an “A” paper.”
My heart jumped into my throat. I looked at him, stunned. “OK,” I answered, lamely, and followed my classmates to our next class.
I should have felt relieved, elated, joyful. I didn’t. I felt two inches tall. I didn’t even feel some cliché emotion, like “I let my favorite teacher down,” for example. Instead, I knew I’d just had an interaction with a man who was a far better person than I, and I’d failed miserably. I didn’t like it. I still don’t, years later. Mistakes are one thing, but this was another. It was the last lie I told.
Today, I know at least some of my college students wouldn’t hesitate to lie about their work, judging from the number of blatant plagiarism cases I’ve busted. In my own way, I’ve offered them a small if unpalatable way out: “May I talk to you for a minute before class, outside? Do you realize that the deadline for dropping a course is this Friday? Are you aware that students aren’t allowed to drop courses to escape plagiarism charges? Now, if someone plagiarized one of these papers I’m about to hand back, my comments about that would constitute a plagiarism charge, subject to the formal policies laid out in detail in the College Handbook. However, if such a student dropped before I was able to return the paper and make the charge, I’m not sure I could do much about it.”
I don’t know what impact this has on students long term. I don’t even know if it’s the right thing to do. I wonder if Mr. Lane simply knew I was lying.
Our culture currently seems not to even blink at dishonesty. People have so long stolen copied music that they don’t even consider the ramifications. One folk artist even did a song about it (these lyrics are to the best of my memory):
So I copied it
Gave it to all my friends
A lot them gave it to their friends too
Cause I love ya man
I’m your biggest fan…
…and so forth, with the speaker in the song ironically wondering why the band isn’t more successful, even wondering if maybe they just don’t try hard enough.
One of my colleagues, a self-styled (and continually unpublished) novelist maintains, “I wouldn’t mind if someone made copies of my novel, so why should I worry about copying music?” I think the law and at least many of the musicians might view the case differently.
My younger brother, Mr. Values, downloads copied DVDs. “Hey, they’re on the Internet,” he says. “I don’t know if they’re stolen or not!” I mentioned we could say the same about TVs sold from the back of a truck in a parking lot. Uncharacteristically, he had no retort.
Seemingly, if you can get away with it, it’s moral.
And how do you argue against that, when the Bush administration claims lying as executive privilege? The ridiculous spin on Iraq, the mind-numbing audacity of Alberto Gonzalez—these are just the obvious points with bipartisan agreement, let alone the host of other nonsense.
As a society, we’re like alcoholics—we arguably COULD stop, COULD get help—but we want to lie.
And the lack of truth shall continue to render us less and less free.