How I Learned When Not To Tell a Lie in Kindergarten
Anthony held the distinction of being the person most likely to be banished to the time out zone which, in Miss Humphries’ afternoon kindergarten class, was just a corner in the darkest part of her otherwise lively and colorful space.
It seemed that he was perennially in this Kinder-Siberia, looking defiant, with gray Sen-Sen stains on the outside edges of his mouth. I never really knew what his crime was, but I think he usually worked alone. He may have broken a toy over someone’s head, or shot off a BB gun at recess. Or maybe he didn’t put the blocks away. Who knows? Miss Humphries had an extremely low threshold for tolerance, so it was always hard to take her time-out decisions very seriously.
I, too, knew the corner well, if only intermittently. My crime: talking. Apparently I was always talking, and for every offense, Miss Humphries wrote a note and pinned it to the collar of my dress with a common pin (probably hoping it would get stuck in my tongue before I got home). I never had the wherewithal to actually read the note — or rip it off and throw it away — before I had to watch my mom remove it from my dress, her facial expression falling exponentially with the reading of every word. Yet I really never knew what those notes said until some 40 years later, when I found them — the Humphries Chronicles — that my mother had preserved for decades of reading pleasure.
Certainly there was a common theme: I was bad. I was always talking. I already knew that. But what I didn’t know was that I didn’t go down alone. I took my kinder-friend, Lynn Perna, down with me.
“Make her stop,” Miss Humphries wrote to my parents. “I tell her to stop. She doesn’t stop. If she cannot control the chatter, I will have to move Lynn Perna into the morning session.”
It’s likely that Lynn Perna was moved into the morning kindergarten class, because I don’t remember Lynn Perna. Furthermore, I have no idea what kind of note Miss Humphries pinned to her dress as she headed home, but I assume it was a variation on the one I got. I really want to apologize to her. To Lynn. Not Miss Humphries.
Truth be told, I’m a little disappointed in my kindergarten teacher. What kind of adult makes one child serve a sentence for another child’s crime? I’m pretty sure it was my fault. This could have done some long term damage to Lynn. Gee, I wish I could remember her.
Anyway, Anthony and his sister Lucy, and me and my sister Carlene would had been walking the short trek home from Windmill Street School every day since I entered the public school system nearly three months earlier. Usually, these short walks were uneventful. But this one was different because on this one, Anthony off-handedly said to Lucy, “We don’t have school tomorrow. Teacher’s meeting.” It sort of took me by surprise.
The boy was creative.
“Just stop, Anthony. You are always lying,” Lucy said. Carlene and I just kept on walking. We didn’t interfere with confrontations between siblings. It was the rule of the street in our little Italian American neighborhood, where everyone had siblings and cousins on the floor above, or below, and uncles in their aging Ramblers who happened to appear on the street every now and then, and grandmothers who smoked and gossiped on warm summer nights through chain link fences and over low walls of boxwood hedges. Ultimately, we were all family. If you had the audacity to take a side in a family squabble, you were as good as dead.
Anthony insisted. “We don’t have school tomorrow. Teacher’s meeting. I’m not lying.” And then life handed me the moment: “Right, Doreen? We don’t have school tomorrow. Tell her.”
Here it was. My first test of character. In a flash I considered all of the possible answers and the ramifications of each. I was five, it didn’t take long. But I remember thinking: Anthony spoke to me. He’s never spoken to me. And he used my name. That was one flash. The second consideration: If I tell the truth, he’s going to be really angry with me. He’ll never be my friend. The third consideration: The law of siblings.
There is this unwritten Law of Siblings, particularly those who are born in batches. No matter how your heart and soul know better, how extreme and scary your catechism nun is when it comes to the Ten Commandments, the Law of Siblings supersedes all others. Even Moses’ tablet.
Hence: Your sibling tells a lie. And if you are old enough and wise enough, you swear that your sibling is telling the truth, without hesitation and without remorse. My parents, who had four of us, knew that calling any of us to the stand as a prosecutorial witness would be a futile exercise. Only the youngest, who had some sort of perennial plea deal with my parents, would willingly serve as star witness, that is, until he aged out of it and walked over to the dark side.
Littlest brother, age 21 months: “Nurnie.” (Translation: Your first born child is secretly meeting Ernie, the older boy that you’ve forbidden her to see, while she wheeled me around in a carriage. In your neighborhood. Making a fool of you.)
Littlest brother, sometime after fourth birthday: “Can I have cake?” (Translation: I haven’t acknowledged your question, and will not acknowledge it as I am pleading the Law of Siblings.)
That’s why it is the “only child” who is the first to snitch on a peer in grammar school. They just don’t know any better. No field experience. No opportunity to develop the skill.
Even though Anthony was with his real sister, and I was with mine, Anthony and I were bound by our station in life: we were the subordinates. We had to do everything everyone told us to do. We were kindergartners. Everyone else outranked us. It was exhausting.
I had no other thoughts. Despite all of those “Lassie” episodes, and the morals of all of the stories, fables and books we read at home, I made a dubious decision. My loyalty had to be handed to my kinder-compatriot. Anthony.
“He’s right. There’s a teacher’s meeting tomorrow.”
Lucy and Anthony splintered off toward their house, as they always did, and we continued on.
My sister waited a bit before she questioned me. I held firm to the lie. Anthony is right. Teacher’s meeting tomorrow.
My sister dutifully informed my parents that I did not have school the next day because there was a teacher’s meeting that only affected kindergarteners.
And they bought it.
I was so happy. I told Joey, next door: No school tomorrow. Teacher’s meeting. Anyone else out here? Hey! There’s a teacher’s meeting tomorrow!
The next day, the sun rose, and I was free. It was the best half day off ever. It was like being four again! No shushing. No worries. No time out.
And then time passed.
I never really knew what happened, but I think that there was a suspiciously high rate of absenteeism that November day. And my friend Joey? Well, he misinterpreted my message, and stayed out for multiple days. So when his sweet, hard working mom explained to the principal why Joey was out of school, Anthony and I were busted.
In the end, there was not enough time left on the school calendar for us to make full restitution in the Siberian corner.
As I remember it, though, the rest of my inaugural year in school went much more smoothly. And I think I know why. I just stopped talking.