Neutral Ground

One day three or four weeks ago, I walked into the office where I was assigned to work and discovered a paper bag from Whole Foods had been left on the receptionist’s chair. Inside the bag was a couple pet food dishes, several clean but old towels and a blanket, also clean but old.  I asked my “go to” person if the receptionist volunteered for an animal shelter or if she had just gotten a puppy or kitten.  To my surprise, the person said no and then advised me to call security because this bag left inappropriately and might be a bomb.
My friends know that I have, in fact, been present during more than one bomb threat (a neighborhood restaurant and the subway come to mind) and lived on the other side of town when terrorists target the Boston Marathon.  I don’t take bomb threats lightly.  On the other hand, the bag clearly contained items someone donated to an animal shelter or something similar.

My co-workers response was exactly according to protocol. I, on the other hand, laughed out loud at the idea.

I think of this situation now as I look at the devolution of the Boy with the Clock story. Social Media took Ahmed from being a victim and hero to being a fraud and a criminal at the blink of an eye.  It seems as if everything has to be completely one way or completely the opposite way.  What happened to the middle ground?

Vignette on How Aunt Betty Was Always So Much Fun


Long ago, during the time when mothers were held as vessels containing all essential knowledge of the universe and youngest daughters expected to grasp more than had ever been said to them, it was determined that I would not be a writer. All notebooks and loose-leaf paper disappeared from the house and I ordered to play outside like an appropriate child: learn to catch softballs, experience climbing trees, and do all-around normal things, the way ten-year-olds do, as my older brothers did. I pled. I begged. I found myself shut out of the house more than once. It was a long summer. Poetry realized on brown paper grocery sacks. New fiction crept around the margins of stories already created. With Labor Day came school and the win: students require paper. The scars from those three months, however, visibly endure. Half a century later, visitors to my home remark on the excess reams of paper and legal pads and pens and pencils and creative tools I keep never farther than arm’s reach away.

The tenacity of truth in a small town

Okay, here goes.

This is a story that I have not told to any living soul. My mother and I spoke of it when it happened. My Aunt Vera spent countless hours discussing the event and the situations surrounding it as a means of helping me cope and put my life back together afterwards. Both of them are now gone and I have not thought about this in over forty years.

It comes to mind now because, as some of you may have guessed based on some of the things I have been writing or posting, I have been doing a lot of thinking about celebrities and how instantly, anonymously and ubiquitously the internet allows objectification to supersede human dignity and encourages the reduction of people into commodities. Once a collection of, say butt gifs, goes out into the ether it bounces around the cloud forever, reaching potentially 3 billion users. What happens is what always happens with false statements and unkind words: you can never take them back.

This story, then, is about a lie, said about me, said in a small town that encompassed my entire universe at the time.

When I reached high school more people knew me then whom I knew in return. I had always been creative, always writing, always putting together with some new thing or another — a play (about cross-dressing, put into production during 7th or 8th grade but cancelled when the principal realized the content); a multitude of short stories; a walk-out on Earth Day (10th grade, sanctioned, everyone got an A); an assembly about avoiding the draft (junior year, high school, Vietnam); and on and on. I had won an international award and been interviewed for the local papers several times. When I walked down the hallway at school, people knew who I was. On the few occasions when I walked down the sidewalk in town, people I had never met, people I had never seen before in my life, would recognize me and stop me to talk.

My parents were not well educated. My mother in particular carried a lifelong disdain for formal education and she repeatedly tried to stop me from writing. Mentors for me came in the form of teachers, and then only sparingly: one in fourth grade, another in high school.

The high school mentor was a young man whom I first met when he was a student teacher. He was successful enough that the school hired him to be on staff the following year. (As far as I know, this gentleman is still out there in the world, so no, I will not tell you his name.) He quickly garnered a small entourage of students who liked his modern, freethinking methods. He took an interest in my writing and often provided advice and encouragement.

That small entourage of students, however, proved to be his undoing as an educator. The school asked him to leave mid-year. That fact that he had mentored me brought additional suspicion on him — but while the principal questioned whether he and I were having an affair, the accusations went no farther than that interrogation.

The inexplicable rise to fame on the foundation of a lifetime of criticism and belittling, the sudden loss of my mentor, combined with the natural angst and anxiety associated with being a teen-ager, plunged me into a depression. I became suicidal. Desperately needing a way to hold on, I decided to leave school — no argument from my parents on that because they didn’t care much for schools anyway.

Therefore, as I junior, only a year from graduation, I walked out the door of my high school, never to go back. That action almost completely severed my contact with friends, classmates and the only life with which I was familiar. I did not live in town, but rather quite far out in the country. I did not own a car. It was not close enough to walk anywhere. Only one friend even bothered to phone me after I left.

That’s how I found out. That friend called to let me know that people were saying that the teacher who mentored me had gotten me pregnant. The rumor was that I had quit school to have his child.

He and I had never been alone together, or seen each other outside of the school except for a farewell dinner where we were in the presence of several students and my grandparents. I was a virgin, and in fact, I remained so for a number of years afterwards.

It was totally not true.

Moreover, it was indefensible. I was no longer in school. There was no way for me to combat the rumors, outlive the lie, or do anything else to clear my name or his.

At this point, my Aunt Vera convinced her employer to give me a job as a receptionist. She would pick me up and we would drive together to and from work. It was on those rides that she eventually got me to start talking about things. Slowly, bit by bit, I started to put the lie, the rumors, the distress, even the thoughts of suicide behind me. I took up photography. I started buying cool clothes. I even started going to the club on weekends (it was legal drink at 18.) Eventually I received my high school diploma and then an associate’s degree.

Fifteen or so years later while I visiting my parents, I walked into a restaurant in that same little town. Someone called my name and I turned to see Fran sitting at one of the tables. Fran was in the same circle of friends I was; we attended the same sleepovers; she was there when a mutual friend, Karen, pushed me off a dock and I nearly drowned; Fran knew me. I walked over, happy to see her. She smiled her best smile and asked, “How are you, Vera? How’s your daughter? She must be in high school. How many children do you have now?”

“Ah, none.”

“But I thought . . .”

“No.”

That lie lived all those years. That lie is probably still alive in that little town. I can imagine the old farts nodding with certainty as they caution their granddaughters: be careful now, that happened to a girl I knew when I was your age.

Except that it didn’t.

Today, what is particularly troubling to me is that technology has raised the bar on rumors. The internet would not only increase the quantity of people hearing the story well beyond the original few thousand; it would increase the quality of it also: someone would take the time to create photos of the daughter I do not actually have, there eventually would also be photos of that daughter’s children, and 3 billion users would keep forwarding the lie.