This I Believe

Sheila - Bloomington, Indiana
Entered on November 13, 2006

I believe in telling lies. That’s right; I am a mother of three and a high school English teacher, and I believe in creating illusions and engaging in trickery. Not the kind of deception that is foolhardy, self serving or exploitive; I mean the kind of fraud that makes people think, then think again. Why? Because, ironically, convincing students to believe in a lie enables them to feel and understand the truth.

I once made my students believe that based on the results of an in class survey mandated by the school administration, they were all under suspicion of vandalizing cars in the faculty parking lot. As a result, these suspicious teenagers would have to relocate their lockers to be closer to the main office and thus, closer to the watchful eyes of our security guards and assistant principals. My students were outraged, afraid, nervous and intimidated. Many voiced their frustrations of feeling powerless and victimized. When I revealed to them that this situation was all a sham that I had concocted, they believed in the events recounted in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Rather than simply characterizing the Salem witch trials as “crazy,” my students now understood a social milieu that could lead to false confessions, the execution of nineteen innocent people, and the hanging of two dogs in Salem in1692. Because I lied to them, I tricked my students into believing, and my hope is that they will never be the same again.

In film and drama, this technique is known as the suspension of disbelief. Peter Pan can fly, a dog can play soccer. When my two oldest children, one five years old, the other seven, view these incidents where reality is suspended, they often ask me, “Can that really happen? A dog really couldn’t play soccer like that, right, Mom? Children can’t really fly, can they?” They are seeking reassurance that the rules of order that they know are fixed and solid. In my mind, I am baffled by similar questions that also perplex my teenage students in my American literature classes. Surely, we didn’t separate slave babies from their mothers? Surely, we didn’t intern over 110,000 Japanese American men, women and children?

In order to get my students to understand the reality of such extreme human behavior, I have to trick them; otherwise, none of them, myself included, would ever be able to even begin to understand how some things so unbelievable really did happen. This fabrication is what 1993 Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison author of many acclaimed novels including Beloved (that I just finished reading with my high school seniors) calls the moral imagination. However, while one might dress up the idea; it really is all about lying.

I believe in lying because it takes my students out of the classroom and strangely makes them believe that what we are doing here everyday within these four walls is as important as I believe it is; to let them believe anything else is the greatest lie.