I usually do not understand the punch line of jokes. I’m often confused by subtleties. I hear in black and white.
Friends often call me “Julie-I-cannot-tell-a-lie-Connor.” I listen so hard to hear the truth that I sometimes miss what people are saying (which may or may not be the words they are actually speaking). I value the truth more than I like metaphors. Honesty was a quality that was shaped in childhood and saved me from tripping over my own tongue on more than one occasion.
For example, I loved the sounds of buzzing conversations and students engaged in active learning when I was a seventh grade communication arts teacher, but I also valued structure and organization. I understood, as an urban middle school teacher, that order in my classroom was the only place where many of my students experienced a sense of structure and security.
I built time into the schedule to scoot desks into place and restore order in the room at the end of every class period. On one particular afternoon, I was tired. I was cranky. And I had a headache. My grouchiness increased as I weaved between small groups of students while repetitively picking up carelessly-tossed wads of paper on the floor,
“Please use the trash can,” I thoughtlessly shouted. “I am tired of picking your &#$* off of the floor.”
The students leaned towards me. Words on a black-and-white poster above my desk stared at me: Honesty is Always the Best Policy. I had choices. I could lie and say I actually used a different slang term and accuse them of inciting an argument. Or I could act like nothing happened. I had five seconds to make a decision.
I tried lying when I was in third grade. It didn’t work out very well. But I remembered the lesson.
When I was in third grade, the athletic club at my parochial elementary school sponsored an annual fundraiser. Students sold paper stickers with the words “Proud Sponsor of the Corpus Christi Athletic Club” for one dollar. The boy and girl who sold the most stickers received ten dollars. I wanted to be the top-selling award-winning girl in the school.
I asked my teacher for ten stickers. The following day, I asked for ten more stickers.
“Did you sell the ten stickers I gave you yesterday?” she inquired.
Well, I’m going to sell them, so …
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied. “I sold the stickers.”
Two weeks later, I had a collection of 80 stickers hidden under my socks in a drawer.
On the last day of the fundraising drive, I cried and refused to go to school. I told my mom what happened. I thought I could sell them, but I couldn’t. She pulled her checkbook out of her purse and began to write a check for ten dollars.
“What are you doing?” my father asked.
“I’m writing a check,” answered my mother, explaining what I’d done.
I tried to look pitiful and small.
“Absolutely not,” he insisted.
“But, why not?” my mom asked.
And then he spoke the words that changed my perspective about truth and truth-telling for the rest of my life.
“She got herself into this,” he replied. “She can get herself out of it.”
I wanted to die. Well, not die. I wanted to live in another country. On another planet. And I didn’t know how to explain the truth to my teacher. I was late for my first class because I trudged very slowly to school. I didn’t want my teacher to know that I lied.
I crept into the classroom and quietly returned the stickers to my teacher. All 80 of them.
“But didn’t you say you sold all of the stickers?” asked my teacher.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied. “I lied.”
She said nothing. I was grateful.
My classmates, however, were not as kind as my teacher.
“What happened?” they chanted. “I thought you said you sold all of the stickers?”
“I lied” was a miserable mantra that I repeated throughout the rest of the day. At the end of the painfully-long afternoon, I resolved I would never lie again. Ever. Well, as close to never as I could get.
Forty years later, I could not run away from the uncomfortable situation I created with my students. Their eyes glistened. I could tell by their trust-filled expressions that they expected a response from me.
“Something just happened, didn’t it?” I asked.
“Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeessss!” they gleefully answered.
“I’m sure this wasn’t the case,” I continued, trying not to laugh. “But there’s a chance I might have said an inappropriate word. Is that true?”
“I am so sorry,” I apologized. “ I’ve never used profanity at school in my life.”
I don’t think I have, anyway.
“Oh, don’t worry about it, Miss Connor,” Jordan laughed. “We talk a lot worse than that!”
That was true.
“You could have lied,” said Toya.
“Yes, I could have lied,” I agreed. “But we both would have known the truth.”
They nodded. Our honesty with one another led us into a deeper relationship that was grounded in mutual trust and class continued. Order had been restored.
Later that afternoon, my mom called and advised me to be careful while I was driving home after school.
“It’s raining cats and dogs out there!” she warned.
Now, I know better than to believe that. Cats and dogs are not falling out of the sky. But, did I just hear thunder – or was it barking?
Schools are often blessed with unsung heroes who volunteer their time to encourage students. Read the story about one special Guardian Angel in the Classroom.
Discover powerful stories by urban junior high students in Voices in the City School.
Teens desperately want to connect with adults. Use these tools to Talk to Teens About Social Issues and start a conversation.
Students are discussing all of the things they shouldn’t be talking about. Join the discussion with tips from Politics, God, Race, Sex, and Other Controversial Topics Kids Talk About at School.
If you want to involve more teens in your organization, check out these tips from What You Must Do to Invite & Involve Youth (So They Want to Stay).