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A Story About Childhood Writer's Envy

Stephanie and I were watching some of the TED Talks on Netflix about the deep sea, and they reminded me of one of the many times I acted like an idiot when I was a kid.  Naturally, I thought I'd share with the Internet, especially since this one was oddly prescient of the insecurities that plague me years later.

When I was in the third grade, my science teacher was doing an informal poll of the class on various random activities.  Like, "Who here has gone camping?" or "Who here has gone surfing?"  My hand remained firmly at my side most of the time - for one thing, I was only eight.  But more importantly, my family also never really had much money for activities outside of, "Exploring the woods directly behind our house."

Arbitrary photo to avoid having my profile pic show up on the Google Preview.  Photo copied shamelessly from / Adam Short, StockXchange.
But then she asked, "Who here has gone snorkeling?"  And for the first time, I could join in!  For whatever stories I might want to tell about childhood hardship, there was one undeniable luxury in my life: our swimming pool.  I had a lot of good memories of that pool, both with goggles and a snorkel and without.

Then the teacher did something else.  Instead of just moving on to the next random question, she turned to the kid on her right and said, "Tell me about what you saw."

Oh... so now we're suddenly telling stories?

I racked my brain for a good tale.  First of all, I had to consider my audience.  Why the hell was the teacher so interested in what we did on Summer Vacation, and why specifically did she care what we saw when we were swimming?  Next, I had to consider my experience.  What was the most fascinating thing that ever happened in my pool?  Did she want to hear about dead bugs?

I was still working out my narrative when the first kid described his experience.  "My dad and I were snorkeling off the coast of Key West and I saw a bunch of sharks!"

Oh, shit.  The teacher meant "snorkeling in the ocean" snorkeling, not just "swimming wherever there happened to be deep enough water while wearing $1,99 goggles from K-Mart" snorkeling.  Now I was really screwed for a story.  Not only could I not think of a really wild memory from my pool, but I was also competing against kids whose parents could afford to take them to exotic places like Florida.

(Incidentally, this is also one of the earliest memories I revisited upon reaching adulthood that drove home just how wide the income disparity was between me and a lot of my friends.  You never really notice socioeconomic imbalance when you're a kid.)

The only good news was that we were going counter-clockwise around the room, and I was at the far end.  It would be another four or five kids before I had to share.  I kept struggling while the other children shared their stories: "I saw a manta ray and I got to touch it!" and "There was a big school of fish and I swam right through them!"

And then some other turd had to go and say, "I saw the bottom of my pool!", which brought forth a great round of shrieks and giggles from the class.  Thanks a lot, asshole.  Now I can't even say something throwaway and self-deprecating.

As my turn got nearer, I realized I was left with one option: I had to lie.  I had to come up with the most outrageous, show-stopping lie imaginable.  And I had to come up with it quick.

I was speaking before I even had the narrative figured out.  "I was in the ocean... and, uh, I saw some... coral reef!"  Coral!  Yes, that's excellent! "And I saw a fish swimming by, and I... uh... I took some of the coral and threw it at the fish, and the fish ate it!"

Success!  None of you sonsabitches had a coral-eating fish in your stories, did ya?

And the teacher's face suddenly drained of color.  Her friendly smile vanished.  She suddenly became very pointed - all fiery angles and stark geometry - and pointed an accusing finger at me.  "Breaking off coral is illegal!" she shouted.

The room went silent.  No applause.  No laughter.  No chorus of oohs and aahs.  Instead, my story was greeted with that icy death-stare awkwardness that came up when somebody was sent away to the principal's office - or, even worse, started to cry.

The teacher continued to leave Finger Judge in the air, continued to frown at me in appalled shock.  Meanwhile, I was frozen in a state of terror and flop-sweat.  Not only was my story poorly received, but I was now possibly going to be arrested for defacing a coral reef.  What was the prison sentence going to be?  Would they believe me if I came clean and admitted that I was lying?

While I was sweating that out, the teacher eventually broke the cold silence and asked the kid to my right - the last kid - for his story.  And he just shrugged and said, "Oh, nothing.  I just went snorkeling in my pool.  I didn't know you guys were talking about the ocean."

You mean I was allowed to say that all along?

Picture copied shamelessly from
I don't have any memory of what we were actually studying in the class that day, but the rest of the morning my tiny eight year-old heart was trying to smash its way out of my chest.  I agonized over the consequences of having destroyed that coral reef (in my head) and thought again and again about how I could have gone back and turned it into a better story, one that people would repeat to their friends and maybe even their children for generations to come.

And I kept thinking about that first kid, that first smug little kid with his stupid story about stupid Key West and his stupid sharks.  How dare he?  My little baby wrath was boundless at the thought of not being able to compete.

I'd like to say that I've gotten better since then at accepting that I don't always have to have a better story - or even any story.  But the truth is, deep inside, I'm still that frustrated eight year-old.  When I'm with a group of friends and we all share tales, I'm driven to madness inside if I can't contribute. I'm perpetually tempted to lie and make something up to try to one-up the last story-teller.

One of the things that keeps me in check is thinking about that teacher's unimpressed, outraged face.  I picture everybody else having that same reaction.  It's not that I fear being caught as a liar - it's more that if I'm going to go to the effort of making something up, I don't want to have to deal with the bullshit of people being upset.

Don't you realize how difficult a lie is?  And this is the thanks I get?