The Science Teacher's Lie

by Michael Rossman

        My wife came home late, the day an enraged former city official murdered San Francisco's Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, the nation's leading elected gay activist, because every one of her therapy clients had spent their hour or more talking about it. With this to top off the week's gruesome news about the suicide-murder of nine hundred believers in Jonestown, Guyana, the whole Bay Area went into a state of shock -- not only from the magnitude of the tragedies, but because San Francisco had been home base for the People's Temple, among a dozen other prominent follow-the-Leader operations -- and I too was plunged beyond grief into numbness.

        The Jonestown affair made sense to me, in a way, for I had just finished writing a book about how people give themselves over unthinkingly to leaders and systems of belief. The main surprise was that the tragic focus was Jim Jones and his People's Temple, rather than one of the more spiritual or therapeutic gurus on the road now -- for the Temple's media facade as a progressive community with broad social purposes was still almost unbroken, and indeed largely genuine. And this surprise was useful, for it posed the general problem more clearly. But the murder of Moscone and Milk -- or rather their assassination, for ex-cop White seemed indeed to be Law'n'Order's representative acting to avenge a political defeat -- was just too much. There was nothing to be learned from it, nothing, only more ugliness and despair; I just went blank and numb.

        The next morning, walking up to the small school where I teach science in trade for my son's tuition, I was trying to think about how to get the third-graders, nine to ten years old, to quit scattering the iron filings all over the lab, and rehearsing what to teach them about magnetic poles. But when I came into the classroom, Barbara drew me aside and said, "Look, will you discuss it with them? They all know, they've been buzzing about it all morning, they need to talk about it. Please."

        I'm not the science teacher, I'm the utility infielder. "I'd love to," I said, "thank you." And with no more ado or time to adjust than this, I called the circle of twenty-three together on the rug, and we began.

        First we got our facts straight; then we established that the cases were of two different natures; then we considered some other examples of each case closer to hand; and finally we drew some conclusions about how we might act (experiment) next. So it turned out, our impromptu science hour -- though if I led much of our discussion as if it were a scientific inquiry, this was not from conscious forethought but in blind reflex, grasping for something solid in the face of chaos. For what can one do for children brushed by the madness of our lives, but help them to acknowledge and sort it out?

        "Who can tell us what happened yesterday?" I begin. A babble of hands erupts. They watch TV, they can read, some of their parents discuss the headlines. The boy who collects military catalogues has all the surface action down pat. He tells us how Dan White got past the normal City Hall guard, packing his .38 caliber special, killed the mayor, re-loaded, and went clear across the building to blow Milk away in his office.

        "So why did he do it?"

        The more thoughtful ones piece the story together: He lost his job, no, he quit, and then he wanted it back, only the mayor wouldn't let him have it back. And Milk? Milk helped tell the mayor not to let him have it back. "And he didn't like gay people," someone says hesitantly. "Yeah," says another.

        I let that one sink in. It's been barely a month since the move to purge gay teachers from California's public schools lost at the polls. It went down seven to one here in Berkeley. Our school has gay staff; some of the children live collectively with gay and bisexual adults; the election was well-discussed. I leave them to draw the connection for themselves -- though vital, it is not the main issue today.

        "But why did he kill them?" I ask, leading their attention back from motive to method, more deeply this time. "Because he got angry," says Josh, and some others agree. It is the boys, almost always the boys talking about this event, the quick-draw ray-bolts of Star Wars sizzling in their avid voices. Making goo-goo eyes (already!) at John Travolta and rock stars gives the girls no fantasy purchase on this reality. It's already so male a territory that I have to ask, "Does everyone think that's an adequate answer?" for Melanie to burst out with the protest she's been holding in: "But he didn't have to kill them!"

        I still the sudden surge of debate. "What else could he have done?" They aren't sure. They know he tried to talk to Moscone; they don't know who else he tried to work it out with. Neither do I, and I'm just as glad that they're not yet sophisticated enough to talk about going to court as an option -- for that too, though instructive, is beside the point. The point we agree on in the end is the primitive core, simple enough for a two-year-old to grasp: When White couldn't get what he wanted finally he got terribly angry, wouldn't talk it over with anyone or wait to get something else, but instead turned to violence -- not even to get what be wanted, but in blind vengeful rage.

        To phrase it so is as much for my benefit as for theirs. I am less leading them than one of them, my bulky adult frame hiding the nine-year-old still stunned from yesterday's news, innocent of political nuance, just trying to grasp what has happened. But it is the adult me, conscious of the bonds of social order and driven as much by sheer terror as by high purpose to pull them back tight again, over the pit of the Kennedys, King, Malcolm X, Milk and Moscone, who leads them to connect this simple point we have derived with the data of our own lives.

        All it takes is a question, for they all know the local party line, taught explicitly and patiently in each classroom from pre-school on up: Don't turn to violence. Go off, cool down, talk it out or go to an authority to mediate as a last resort; but don't turn to violence. Most of them have been students here for years, for ours is a stable school; and the few who entered this year still accustomed to throwing the frustrated punch served well as object lessons until our routines of classroom socialization began to cool them out. Even so, Jack still kicks someone at least once a day, and enough of the eight-year-olds come to occasional blows in the yard to make the issue current.

        "Who can give an example of something from this class that's like what happened in San Francisco?" I ask them. It's a set-up. Six vengeful voices single out Jack for yesterday's incident, and his foot turns into a Luger pistol before I can cover my blunder and ask it differently. "Who can remember a time when they got so mad they wouldn't listen to anyone and just hit someone?" Three hands go up -- one of them Jack's, smiling in bashful pride; Jeff lunges at him. "C'mon now, quit the shoving. Close your eyes and think about it." This time about half of their hands go up; a few of the girls titter, and then raise theirs too. Enough; time for the sermon.

        "So how do we try to handle disagreements like that here, in our school?" I ask. This time it's my own son who answers, quoting the party line so quickly I'm surprised. Later Barbara tells me he's become quite the law'n'order man himself in class, if not yet in the yard; but I hear him here as spokesman in perhaps a deeper sense. For in him I see, more intimately than in any other child, the eager influx of all those high-tech images loaded with violent values that he gets from even the relatively little and benign TV he watches, not to mention other media. I see these light his play, his fantasy, his conceptions -- so what if it's blowing up the Death Star for liberty, instead of cop-program sadism? the message of righteous violent vengeance is the same -- at the same time he's absorbing a whole set of other myths and values, more complex and humane, from so many inputs, and trying to fit it all into some way of being a person in the world.

        I feel him throb with the tension of opposites as he speaks, feel the tension throb in every child there, throb in me, the Sunday football watcher. Samantha and Emily chime in righteously: "Yeah, try to talk it over. That's the rule." The spokesman speaks for us all, we all want in this moment to know that we have a way to deal with the terror, that something leads us forth from the primitive violence and fear of the playgroup, the past, the wild outside and within, leads us on to civilization, to security.  We want to know there is a law, to know our purpose is to learn it; we want to reaffirm it together, to make some promise to each other. Enough; we must move on.

        "What about Jonestown now, what happened there last week?" God, how can I stand to ask them this? I couldn't even bear to tell my son, I just hid the papers. Barbara catches her breath on the other side of the circle, and I catch mine; and the hesitant answers begin to come. This one is harder to sort out, even its facts. Did the nine hundred kill themselves, or did somebody kill them? We point to Guyana, perched on the shoulder of South America; at least there is something definite, familiar here, the school is big on maps. They went there to live, to make a new life as they believed; and most of what they believed was good. And mostly they killed themselves.

        But why did they do it? We piece together the story, after the Congressman's murder. They thought someone was coming to get them, not to kill them but to break up their community; and they killed themselves because Jim Jones told them to, because he trained them to do it and they agreed. "Boy, that's dumb!" says Seth in disbelief, and Yusef and Annie chorus, "I wouldn't've done it." "I'd kill him first! " chirps Paul, the class smart-ass, releasing a few titters from the circle's balloon of nervous tension. Then they get going on the Kool-Aid, and really joke it up, until they invent Pepsi-Cola-Barf. And then, as a brief silence settles again, someone finally says it.

        "And they gave the poisoned Kool-Aid to the children. The parents gave it to their children."

        "Is it true? Is it true?" they implore me.

        "Yes. Some parents gave poisoned Kool-Aid to their children." There. I have said it, in the same tone of voice in which I identified the poison as cyanide. At least no one asks how many children, was it four classrooms like ours or ten?

        "Did they know it would kill them?"

        "They knew it would kill them."

        "But why, why did they do it?"

        I choke, silently. Barbara rescues me, rescues us all, even the dead, as she keeps the momentum of question-and-answer going. "They really did think it was for their children's good," she says, in almost her everyday voice, as if discussing the unusual customs of the Egyptians. "They believed they all would live again in Heaven."

        Perhaps because her daddy is so recently divorced, Annette is the one moved first to say, "My mom would never do a thing like that."

        "I'm sure she wouldn't," confirms the science teacher, lying, for he is sure of nothing save what his friend who de-programs Moonies said, in her thirty seconds on network camera during Saturday night's wrap-up of the Guyana thrill -- that the impulse to give oneself over deeply, totally, rises when one is confused, distressed, depressed, adrift; and that few if any are immune to it in every circumstance, whether or not divorce is their personal Achilles heel.

        And leaping thus over the chasm, I hurry on to the rest of the orderly lesson. For there is no place in this bright, well-ordered classroom, nor in the rich, humane pedagogy that thrives within it, nor in my own grasp of the role I am clinging to so rigidly here, there is just no place for me, for us, to scream, to sob, to cry out with rage and grief and fear, that the parents gave poison to their own children. And the hour is fleeting, there is learning to be done, la-la, and I am half mad to imagine that we should have a way -- they and Barbara and I, in what they know here of their public world, and all of us grownups in our own world -- a way to share these feelings more deeply, fully to grieve and vow to each other never to let this happen again. But I'm afraid even to ask them what they're feeling, let alone to share more of my own feelings; for I know too much to reassure them. "I'm sure she wouldn't," I lie again; and move on.

        "So how were these two events different?" I ask. By now, our dry scrutiny has made the matter clear; we have singled out causal structures from the general blur of violence and fear. In one case, a man simply lost his mind, self-control, responsibility, to rage; whereas in the other case nine hundred people turned their minds, self-control and responsibility over to someone else to determine for them, thinking it right to do so.

        "The papers said Jim Jones hypnotized them," suggests Leona, who reads better than she understands.

        "Do you think that's what happened?" I ask, looking mostly at the boys who play freeze-tag with paralysis rays. They know how I work, but no one will take the bait, and several uh-uhs are audible. "So who did it?"

        "They did it to themselves," says Paul. "They just stopped thinking for themselves."

        "Thinking what?"

        "Thinking what to do. What was right and wrong."

        "That's right!" I exclaim, somewhat violently, no longer graced with patience, laying it on them. "So who can tell me what happens like that here?" They stare blankly at me. "C'mon, shut your eyes and think about it. What happens in this classroom?" They shut their eyes, they open them. No one has any idea what I'm looking for. There is simply nothing like parents poisoning their own children that happens in our classroom.

        "Okay," I say, blowing the inquiry process completely, tired of letting them think for themselves, and indeed no longer wanting them to (if I ever did), but instead determined to ram my conclusion home, brand the connection in their minds. "Okay. Who's the last person I caught messing up the lab with iron filings, who told me" -- I shift to a whining falsetto -- "'but everybody else was doing it.' C'mon now, who was it last week?" No one quite remembers, but it scarcely matters, as half of them were involved. "Who racked the microscope up too high, who locked Beverly out of the lab, 'because so-and-so told me to'?" Someone says, "Annie," accurately enough, and I say nastily, "I don't care who it was, when was the last time you said something like that?"

        And then there is silence, and for me a slip in time as well, for I'm standing in a corridor of the labyrinthian arts building up on campus, with two two-year-olds huddled miserably at my feet while the other three toddle cheerfully out of the ceramics room towards us. It's the first time ever that I've lost anyone on my day with the playgroup, they just scurried away while I fixed Donnie's diaper in a nook in the anthropology museum up the hill, and I've been dragging him and Erica around for an hour, growing steadily more frantic -- for though I love the behavioral maelstrom of Berkeley and pooh-pooh my wife's fantasies of psychotic abductors, in my heart I know there's a chance she's right, not to mention drowning in the creek. And at last I find them, and this instant of relief is release, all my fear turns to anger and I watch myself helplessly stride to my son, shake him, slap his hand, crying "Don't ever, ever do that again to me!" as his face goes into shock and diminishes, retreats from me. And then I kneel and hold them and try to explain how scared I was; but his face stays far, beneath the tears.

        And now it's six years later, they are all my children, I am slapping their hands in my fear, because we are together and a family in this moment: don't ever, ever do that to me again, I am telling them, begging them, don't wander off like that, think of the bodies in Kool-Aid Creek, a child myself, picking my way with my typewriter through the mind-rot swamps where my own friends got lost or gave up their own wills. And their faces grow distant under my blaming tone, before I can recover and say lamely -- unwilling to go further today into why I am so scared, why Jonestown was not an isolated anomaly, why we want to see it so -- "Well, everyone says something like that now and then. But part of growing up is learning not to, is learning to make your own minds up and take responsibility for what you do. You know what I mean?"

        They nod and say "uh-huh," vigorously enough for me to let it go at that; and we are done, all being relieved to end on an affirmative note, and in time for lunch. Our formal inquiry is complete, at least in its symmetry and appearances. But in truth, we've scarcely begun to deal with the curriculum at hand; and though they've had quite enough for today, some of it will come up again. We'll try to stay clear of religion; and I hope there'll be no teasing of the four children from the ashram (our school is popular with a local spiritual community) for how often they say "Baba says" about this and that, quoting their parents' guru by his family name. But we have come to the general, secular problem already last year, when we considered how good and bad bacteria grow, and how so many parents and doctors are endangering us by cheerfully laying on the antibiotic magic every chance they get.

        "Read the label," I told them, "Find out what you're taking and how it works. Even doctors make mistakes." Would your own mother give you poisoned Kool-Aid, thinking it was fine? Have they got the Red #2 out of the strawberry flavor yet? How will these children hear me, the next time we talk about health and I say, "You're old enough to start thinking for yourselves about this"? What can we offer them to replace their blind trust in their parents, in their priestly replacements, in the father-figure dressed in loincloth or labcoat, or in Berkeley casual as I am today? How can we help them prepare to take care not only of themselves, but of each other? "Listen to your body," says Suki, says Jane, as they teach them dance and yoga, "pay attention to what it tells you." That helps. But how can you learn to remember to go to a friend and ask him or her to question, to betray the advice you're depending on, plunging you again into confusion, when what you're getting from the authority you're following makes so much sense to you and leads you to doubt your friend's views?

        Walking home from school that day, after going through the same routine in the other classes -- the sevens-and-eights would rather have done microscope work, but the sixes-and-sevens were as engaged as the oldest class had been -- my body felt good, and I reckoned I had done good duty for the day, all things considered. I felt selfishly thankful for the chance. For I imagined there were few people in the Bay Area, apart from journalists and family mourners, who were lucky enough to be able to do something about these multiple tragedies, do something natural and socially useful, connected, that could leave each feeling not like an isolated atom of numb grief and fear, but like a full citizen of a living community, pulling the torn fabric back together around us all.

        And so I see the day still -- save that in this retelling I see more clearly how rich and how patterned with contradiction the fabric itself is. I see how much for my own benefit our discussion was, or rather how entwined my benefit was with theirs and ours all. I needed something to do to understand, to connect, to reaffirm; I needed to feel not helpless, able to give my child, our children, something to help them survive the violence that keeps rising around us, escape the terrifying slide toward totalitarianism that looms ahead. They needed something of the sort too-- or so I and the other teachers thought -- and I did what I did, half clear, half blind.

        Of such personal stuff is the social thread spun, the fabric of schooling, society, history, culture and the self: we re-weave it every day, in school and out, as we talk about the phenomena of our lives, dramatic and mundane; determine their structures and assign their meanings; and affirm what aspects of ourselves -- our feelings, our minds -- we will bring to bear in this. And always within the cloth appears the design of contradiction -- here figured more nakedly than usual in the emotions determining the rational process, in the command that the children think for themselves, in the science teacher's lie.


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