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Tell Me I’m Wrong

November 14, 2012

It was fifth grade. It’s that part of growing up where the children begin to coagulate into cliques and they become prototypes of their adult selves. I was quiet and shy. I preferred a book to a contemporary. Unlike many of the kids I went to school with, I had not yet begun to carve out my identity. There were girls at school I talked to and occasionally ate lunch with, but we were an informal group that stayed below the radar of the other children. I was not bullied. I was not noticed. That was perfectly okay with me. It left me more time to spend with Nancy Drew and R. L. Stine.

There was, however, a boy in my class called Gilbert. He was noticed by everyone and everyone stayed away. He had inquisitive eyes and a kind of angelic face. He didn’t say much either. He wasn’t shy, but no one wanted to talk to him. He was poor. He wore the same clothes nearly every day, a dingy striped polo shirt with blue corduroys that were worn down at the knee. An earthy smell followed behind him that was a favorite subject of ridicule among the popular and the vicious. It was rumored that his family was unusually large, with some reports claiming that there were over ten kids, aged between infant and early twenties. I only ever saw his younger sister Martha who was two grades below us. There were many unsubstantiated rumors about Gilbert and his family. His father was in prison (though some claimed it was his brother that had been locked up). His mother was a prostitute or a dancer, depending on who was telling the story. The family was said to live in the Happy Valley Trailer Park, though no child would fess up to having been there so there was no way to verify this information.

Gilbert wasn’t a bad kid. In fact he was probably more industrious and studious than most of the other students. If we were adults, people might have called him entrepreneurial. In the rap community, they might call it hustling. He did odd jobs for people around town, usually childless old people that weren’t privy to the voluminous rumors about him. He’d mow lawns, clear gutters and do the weeding. He had a paper route and delivered to half the town every morning before school. He never had any food at lunchtime and would wander around the cafeteria offering to eat leftovers. After a while, the kids started leaving their leftovers and food they didn’t want at the base of one of the pillars in the cafeteria so that they wouldn’t have to talk to him. He did his schoolwork. He did his paper route. He smiled and said nothing.

It was after Christmas when the scandal broke. It was our first week back from winter break. We came in from recess, childish cheeks red from the winter cold. The children settled at their desks and just as Mrs. Pritchard was about to begin the lesson, there was a sharp cry.

“My Tamagotchi is gone!” cried Tawny van Dyke, who was at the time the most popular girl in class. Many claimed she was the prettiest as well.

“Okay, okay,” said Mrs. Pritchard. “Calm down. When did you last have it?”

“I left it in my desk,” Tawny wailed. “It was sleeping.”

“And it’s not there?”

“No. It’s gone. Someone took my Tamagotchi.”

“Calm down. Let’s check your desk again.”

Mrs. Pritchard searched the desk while Tawny whined to Taylor, her best friend.

“I have to find it. It’s going to die if I don’t take care of it.”

Mrs. Pritchard’s search turned up nothing.

“Are you sure you brought it to school today?”

“Yes. I’m sure,” Tawny replied with the dramatic distress of a fifth grade girl. “It would die if I didn’t.”

“Well, it’s not here,” said Mrs. Pritchard matter-of-factly. She returned to the front of the class and glared at us. “Okay, I’m giving you this one opportunity. If you took Tawny’s Toymagotchi thing, return it now and we’ll forget the whole thing.”

We all looked at each other hoping the thief might be dumb enough to reveal his or herself. No one spoke up.

“This is your last chance. If I find out that you took it, whoever you are, there will be consequences.”

“I bet Gilbert took it,” piped one of the bullies from the back of the class. The students murmured in agreement.

“I didn’t take it,” Gilbert said.

No one believed him.

“Did you take it?” Mrs. Pritchard wanted to know, approaching his desk. “Empty your pockets.”

Gilbert stood up and emptied his pockets. It was the contents of a fifth grader’s pocket, a crumpled dollar, a bit of string, a tumble-polished agate and some lint. Mrs. Pritchard looked doubtful but she returned to the blackboard.

“Hopefully, it turns up by the end of the school day,” she said to Tawny who by this time was red with grief beneath the tears streaming down her cheeks.

At lunchtime, Gilbert was the subject of investigation by Tawny’s boyfriend and his friends. They circled around him and demanded he return the item. Tawny’s boyfriend, Steve Donnelly, was a head taller than Gilbert. He pushed Gilbert hard enough to throw Gilbert off balance.

“Give it back,” Steve said menacingly.

“I didn’t take it.”

“I said give it back.” He pushed Gilbert again.

Gilbert may have been smaller, poorer, and less popular than Steve, but he had more heart. He lashed out and punched Steve in the face. Steve looked startled and they started to grapple. The gathered children screamed with bloodlust while the two boys struggled in the cold. A whistle and an angry teacher broke up the fight. Popular opinion has much sway over the eyewitness abilities children and Gilbert was suspended for causing the kafuffle.

That was, of course, not the end of it. In the absence of an opposing narrative, it soon became generally accepted that Gilbert had stolen the Tamagotchi. He had the motive. He had the means. He had the opportunity. Why wouldn’t he take it? He was quickly vilified. Even Mrs. Pritchard let slip, while she was telling us about the new ban on Tamagotchis, that she too believed he had taken it. I believed it as well.

When his suspension was lifted and he returned to school, he was harassed at every opportunity. Not only was he blamed for the theft of Tawny’s Tamagotchi, he was also demonized for bringing the ban on Tamagotchis and Nano Pets. He spent his breaks out in the field, away from the other children. At lunch, not only would no one give him their leftovers or unwanted food, many kids made it a point to throw it away in front of him, with malice burning in their eyes. He left school quickly at the end of the day to avoid getting drawn into fights. He failed more than he succeeded and by the end of the fifth grade he had probably fought with every boy in my class. He lost more than he won and was nearly always blamed as the instigator. He was not welcomed by the children; he was not welcomed by the teachers; he was not welcomed by the faculty.

When we started middle school the following year, Gilbert was not among our number. No one knew what happened to him and no one cared. He was a dirty, stinking, no-good thief and we were glad to be rid of him. Of course, my classmates soon found a new object of scorn and Gilbert was all but forgotten.

The world is becoming increasingly polarized at every level of society. From the hateful vitriol of the American election, to the xenophobic prejudice proliferating in Greece, the world is quickly becoming a place where we define ourselves by defining others. While children starve, and slavery continues unabated, and economies collapse, we live in a world where responsibility has become a matter of consensus.

It is always someone else’s fault. It is someone who believes things that I don’t believe who is to blame. Hate increases as personal responsibility decreases.

It is not an entirely new phenomenon, this polarization. From the dawn of time, we have always found things to disagree about, from politics to technology to education to immigration. As a species we are hard-wired to debate, to disagree and to fight. These are qualities that will never be separated from humanity, no matter how much we try to legislate or motivate by trial in the court of public opinion. Disagreeing is what makes life interesting.

What is new, at least it seems to me, is that we have completely disposed of the product of disagreement, which is learning. An argument can produce three results. First, you convince your opponent. Second, your opponent convinces you. Or lastly, the opposition strengthens your views and whether you win or lose your resolve is hardened. Rarely do we have a debate anymore that results in anything other than the final option. The will to learn is rapidly disappearing.

It is a trap we have set for ourselves. It is a world where you can go through days, months, or even years without hearing an opposing viewpoint. You can bookmark pages on the Internet that reinforce your beliefs and never go anywhere else. You can ensure that whatever TV you see does not offend your beliefs. There is a newspaper, magazine, or blog for everyone. Once you have found these places and people you can isolate yourself in an echo chamber of your own design. You need never face the heart-pounding circumstance of opposition. You can ignore it while you harden into an inflexible, ignorant person.

No one likes to be wrong. No one likes to find out that they have made a mistake. No one wants to find themselves open to criticism. I’m sure I’m in the minority here, but I love being wrong. I don’t set out to be wrong, but when I find out I am, I don’t deny it. I embrace it. Rather than stagnation, I can have fresh knowledge and new comprehension. Rather than returning to tired ideas, I can reinvigorate my mind with understanding.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean I just roll over whenever a new idea is put in front of me. But I am still willing to consider them, which is more than I can say for politicians and pundits the world over. We cling to the safety of familiarity with such determination that we deny ourselves the exhilarating introduction to the unknown.

There is nothing wrong with being wrong. It’s entirely human, as much as we try to deny it. Sometimes, finding out that you’re wrong about something is just what you need. The correction realigns the world. The truth brings light to a darkened horizon.

In my junior year of high school, another scandal erupted. Tawny discovered that her best friend Taylor was having sex with Tawny’s boyfriend. As the two most popular girls in school the news spread quickly. A rift formed in the all-powerful Popular Clique. Lines were drawn; new cliques were formed. It all culminated in a bout of screaming, scratching and punching during lunch one day. Taylor, with an eye toward psychological destruction, revealed that it she had taken the Tamagotchi and thrown it away. She never said why. If I had to guess, I would say that it was probably jealousy.

I don’t know how everyone else felt about the revelation, but I was relieved. We had spent six years believing that Gilbert, a quiet, industrious kid making the most out of what he had, was a thief. It never sat right with me. When, at last, we learned the truth, it was like a bolt of lightning and a disordered world was a little easier to comprehend. I was glad to find out I had been wrong and there was a little more light on the horizon.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 15, 2012 9:52 am

    Absolutely Yummy Words.

  2. November 15, 2012 11:02 pm

    Poor Gilbert, innocent yet friendless and ostracized, unaware of his eventual vindication. So sad. I hope he went on to have a good life… imagine how much this must have hurt him. You’re right, there is so much meanness in the world. I think playing with our techy toys takes up time that used to be spent conversing, reading, playing outside and so on. Interaction and learning get squeezed from the schedule. Thank you for the thought-provoking post. ~ Lily

    • November 22, 2012 3:25 pm

      I agree. I have always felt bad about my passive role in the whole thing. I agree about the techy toys. They are marketed as bringing people together but they seem to pull us apart just as much. Thanks for reading and commenting. It means a lot.

  3. November 17, 2012 10:24 am

    Hello again! This is a great read! You talk about so many important things…I am especially struck by your point made in the paragraph that begins “It is a trap we have set for ourselves.” For all the wonderful diversity of thought that the internet enables us to expose ourselves to, it seems for so many to be used instead for intellectual isolation and entrenchment. Great job articulating something that I have been pondering but without such clear thoughts as you express. This is a concern that all people should share. But what can we do about it?

  4. November 17, 2012 10:26 am

    And I LOVE your title! You are a good writer. Keep it up.

    • November 22, 2012 3:28 pm

      Thank you so much. I don’t know what we can do about this self-imposed isolation. I guess all we really can do as humans is keep talking to each other, even if it is painful at times.

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