How to Lose Friends and Ignore People: A Dealer’s Fable

It was 1975, the year Squeaky Fromme attempted to assassinate President Ford. It was a volatile year. Charlie Chaplin got knighted and the Watergate gang was convicted. In local news, a crime wave was hitting the grocery store a block from where I lived. A thief was lurking among Safeway’s aisles – dressed like a seven-year old girl. Sometimes in a Girl Scout uniform.

I prowled the aisles, shifty-eyed and indiscriminate in my larcenous hunger. Some days it was the candy near the checkout lanes, but other days, I’d be emboldened by the surplus gum packs down the aisles. I was a second grade shoplifter.

canstockphoto9650094I didn’t take it for myself. I took it for my friends of the future. Friends who would gather about my locker clamoring “I want one, too!” I gained a reputation. I could hook you up. Sometimes it was Tic-Tacs, other days I got a line on some Bits O’ Honey. Kids talked to me, shot me secret smiles in the hallway. I had what they wanted and they provided what I wanted – the illusion of being liked.

The nobility of poverty is bullshit. As one of the shyest, poorest kids in my grade, my character was in need of self-esteem and cash. I didn’t get the whole “being enough on one’s own”.  I was not a likable child. I was quiet, horribly self-conscious and somber. And then there was The Incident, which triggered my life/week in crime.

canstockphoto0952980Spelling test day. October 1975. Substitute teacher – the mean one. The order was always to push our desks apart for tests. Second graders are well-known for their propensity towards plagiarism and skulduggery. We were scattered about the room and given strict instructions to not speak unless spoken to. If we wanted to be spoken to, we must raise our hands. Up to this point, I followed rules. The letter of the law had no spirit.

I’m a bit of a freaky speller, so I smugly finished the test within minutes. I would have savored my success, tapping my eraser on the desk to let the other students know what canstockphoto2706524dunces they were, had it not been for the milk at lunch. I’d held out through recess. I’d held out through reading time. It was time. I raised my hand to go to the bathroom. The teacher wasn’t looking. I raised my hand a little higher, starting to shift in my seat. She kept her back to me. The rule was not to speak. I did not speak. I did, however, pee. And still, I remained silent.

We pushed our desks back together. At seven, child development experts say that children have reached the Age of Reason, when intellectual capacities are more developed, as is the ability to lie. I reasoned that since I was no longer in the same locale, my secret would remain undiscovered, but I had not yet honed my lying skills.

“Who did this?” The teacher shot red angry beams from her eyes. Sparks snapped and crackled off her fingertips. Her hair stood on end and the vein in her neck throbbed. Well, I was seven. She looked scary. She pointed to the large yellow puddle in the middle of the floor.

I raised my hand slowly and her fiery glare zeroed in on me.

Oh – NOW you see my hand, lady?!

canstockphoto12906996I was marched down to the nurse’s office where I was changed into clown clothes or whatever was in the lost and found that day. Do not ask about the underwear. I try not to think about it.

That was the day I turned towards the darkness. A day of singular humiliation. Until a week later, when Martin peed his pants and got sent to the nurse’s office, after which he wore what looked like girl’s bell bottoms all day long. But it was too late by then. I had ground to regain. I had gum to steal.

There should be a moral to this story. I didn’t get caught. I didn’t find a true friend who was uninterested in a sugar high. The store owner didn’t befriend my little bedraggled self. I got tired of being afraid. I wasn’t getting an adrenaline high from the steal, I was getting a rumbling, burbling stomach. Likely the Bit O’ Honey didn’t help (always test your own goods).

Getting tired of being afraid. It’s sometimes as simple and selfish as that. I got tired over the years of dealing with friends who I didn’t really trust. I got tired of worrying about whether or not people thought I was good or smart or kind or friendly enough. I got tired of living life as if it weren’t my own. It’s an amoral fable of the unrealized criminal. The payoff isn’t good enough to justify the anxiety.

Forty years later, I realize that I learned three very important life lessons in 1975.

  • Real friends don’t need to be bribed at the cost of your personal integrity.
  • Speak up on your own behalf. Some rules are just stupid.
  • Go to the restroom whenever you get the chance.

65 Comments on “How to Lose Friends and Ignore People: A Dealer’s Fable

  1. Odd that for a teacher concerned about cheating, they weren’t keeping a closer eye on the classroom.
    My floodgate moment was on a bus to a Cub Scout day camp. Wonder if peeing in public is a rite of passage?

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    • I wonder, too, if in my recollection, the time between raising my hand and having an accident wasn’t much, much shorter! I used to think of it as a shameful experience. Isn’t it amazing how a little time changes one’s perspective completely?

      Liked by 1 person

    • My floodgate moment was after a Girl Scouts meeting in the back of a station wagon (with the seats down so everyone was baptized in my pee). It was humiliating beyond belief, so I feel your pain. Rite of passage? If so, I passed into the next phase with flying colors. :-/

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Why in the world would you want to right about that. everyone needs each other in life and if you do ignore people they will think your not normal

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    • And I certainly would want to right the wrong of that substitute teacher. But writing about ignoring people only proves how supra-normal our Green Study friend is.

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      • I got a little goofy in my title wordplay, so I did find the comment funny. I worked a little too hard to do a takeoff on Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, but then again “Be Normal” has never made it onto my bucket list.

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  3. Beautifully told story, Michelle. Thanks for sharing. I totally agree with your three life lessons. Didn’t get the third one until I reached “a certain age.” Now I know it’s always wise to know where the nearest bathroom is!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. LOL, those darn surprise sneezes — one has time only to try to cross one’s legs while standing, which is so unnatural, it’s a dead giveaway. And yes, we seem to romanticize socio-economic conditions — always form a happy ending through them — and yet those of us who were poor and scared would never go back to that by choice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And really, what can you do but laugh about it? And get home as quickly as possible!

      I read a post on Freshly Pressed that really made me think about situational morality. So often the people who make judgments about other people are not living in adverse conditions, where maintaining a line in the sand is much more difficult.

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      • When one is poor, one is at the mercy of everyone. Not everyone is merciful, and if one is a poverty-hider, it really sucks to sell your furniture for an oil delivery — sell it to your cheapskate landlord who knows way too much about your situation. I have quartered, cooked and covered in US surplus peanut butter a cheapo can of biscuits for two meals for three people. I shudder to know there are people who might think a shady shyster landlord is a luxury. Hot biscuits, too. I try not to judge. The hardest part is trying to remember the poor are out there– everywhere.

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        • Oops — that was more a response to the situational morality post you linked to above.. sorry!

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        • It’s funny, too, that poverty in the U.S. often looks different than elsewhere. We lined up for government cheese and butter, but we were still housed, fed and clothed. I do know that we moved at least once due to a landlord that was looking for more than rent money.

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  5. You have reminded me of the time I peed in kindergarten. I was too shy to put my hand up. I waited and waited and waited until someone else did it first. But by then it was too late and I didn’t even get as far as the door. “He who hesitates …” Love your story and the 3 lessons.

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  6. Well told, Michelle.

    I was having a “my nun was meaner than your nun” talk with my sister who is teacher when she laid this little gem on me. “Greg,” she said, “how many kids were in your class?” Then she paused, “I mean your classroom, not your class.”

    “56,” I said.

    “Think on that,” she said.

    Ah, to be born in the 1950’s.

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    • Wow, that’s a big class. I don’t think any of my classes were ever that big. Watching my daughter’s teachers manage 25-30 kids is mind-boggling – like having only one adult (the driver) on a school bus.

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  7. That teacher should not have been angry. Accidents happen and there may have been a medical reason! We had a red light, green light system in kindergarten. One kid forgot to change it to green after returning and I pooped my pants! I remember when lining up for lunch I kept my back toward the wall, nervously shifting my eyes around to see if anyone noticed my odd behavior. I don’t remember being humiliated by a teacher though and I think they gave me gray sweat pants and no clown clothes unfortunately. It seems we all have this embarrassing stories but at the time they happen to you, you feel like the only one!

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    • Well, I think when you’re seven, all adults looks scary. The teacher may have been perfectly benign, but my embarrassment was the lens through which I saw everything. But you’re right, those experiences seem like you’re the only one on the planet to ever have them.

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  8. I ‘like’ so much of this post! Your comment “I got tired of worrying about whether or not people thought I was good or smart or kind or friendly enough.” I think this is a lesson bloggers could think about too. I’ve seen a number of bloggers quit because they worried about how others would judge their writing, or because they didn’t become the ‘popular’ blogger they had hoped they would be. Some were Freshly Pressed, then worried they wouldn’t meet the expectations of their newly won following.

    I think this applies to Facebook too. Personally, I had higher expectations of my acceptance as ‘part of the group’ when my kids insisted I join. Sadly – no, but the knowledge that the only ‘friend’ who regularly reads my Facebook postings is my husband, (and he ‘likes’ everything), gives me incredible freedom to say all the things that swirl around inside my head! As you said, “Speak up on your own behalf!”

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    • There is some joy to writing into the void. I gave up on Facebook. There just isn’t enough time in the day. I get a little freedom due to the fact that few people I know in person actually read the blog, least of all my husband. It works for me!

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  9. Ah, you write so beautifully.

    “Don’t make me laugh. No, really. You’re going to make me wet myself. Stop it! Stop making me laugh, It’s not funny!…” and so on…

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  10. I see myself in this story, only I didn’t pee my pants, I scratched graffiti on a wooden desk top – who knows what or why. I remember teachers humiliating me just because they could. But like you, stuff like that inspired me to grow.
    Alison

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  11. Nice I guess we’ve all experienced some negative experiences during school. I attended Catholic school and from time to time didn’t enjoy the discipline given by the nuns.

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    • Those nuns seem to be a legend unto themselves! The nice thing is that when my daughter had a similar experience in elementary school, the teacher and nurse were very kind to her. I’d like to believe that how children are treated has improved overall (although we still hear about a lot of awful things).

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    • Thanks. I was thinking about that very idea recently. I suppose that using one’s own experiences to draw universal conclusions can also be somewhat dangerous. We see a lot of people doing that with an inability to see that what may be true for one person, reads completely differently for another. More to ponder, I suppose!

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      • The philosopher Montaigne said he could only talk about himself as that was all he could be sure of, but his conclusions have a universal resonance for that reason. We have more in common than we’re sometimes led to believe by those who wish to divide and rule …

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        • This is true, but the problem comes when people draw from personal anecdotal evidence and insist that their belief is right and should be followed by others.
          Thanks for reminding me of Montaigne – “Essays” has been on my reading list for a long time and there’s a long winter ahead!

          Liked by 1 person

  12. That experience sucked. But you got a lot more out of it than a good story – you have some clear direction in raising a daughter who might have a chance at being strong & independent.

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  13. “It’s no comfort to say, ‘This is of no consequence in the scheme of the universe.’ A person’s universe is himself.” A Garden to Keep by Jamie Langston Turner.
    I remember being in the first grade and hating it. It seemed a cruel world. Ironically, we started every morning by singing “Good morning to you. Good morning to you. We’re all in our places with sunshiny faces. Oh, this is the way to start a new day.” It made me feel worse, but I sang because I thought I had to.

    I love the life lessons you listed.

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    • Very nice quote. We started our class morning with a little nationalist militancy, standing ramrod straight while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I always find memorized recitations to be a little creepy, especially from children.
      I just remember school being an excruciating chain linking one embarrassing incident to the next. The only respite was the library. I could hide, unnoticed, in the stacks and read to my heart’s content.

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  14. You have just started my morning off so well! Thank you for those life lessons that I will now apply *pees in hotel room chair*

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Funny with those childhood humiliations: one look back and your right there again, mortified and pissy. Lovely, engaging post. Peace, John

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  16. Important lessons! Certainly up there with a knighthood or a failed assassination. Your story makes me want to add another important lesson — something about “true meaning of adulthood” and “never having to ask for permission to piss” — but I am having trouble finding as pithy a groove.

    Maybe the trick lies in having lifted Bit O’ Honeys in grade school, and not lengths of pink and green grosgrain ribbon…

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    • When you’ve discovered the true meaning of adulthood, let me know. I’m still swimming in the shallow end. Although, after the Army, there is a definite freedom in being able to hit the can when needed, without having to announce it to everyone around you.
      I am not a fan of Bit O’Honeys – so easy to give away. Now Mike and Ike’s – that’s a different story.

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  17. You told this story so well, Michelle, you took me right there. In your seven years old world. Life can be cruel and we will devise mechanisms to cope. And we learn lessons. My shoplifting career ended right when it was starting, my mom made me return the wrapped candy I had taken when we were shopping groceries. I was four. And I learned there were things I needed to keep for myself.

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    • That’s a very good lesson as well. I think this was one of the most humiliating experiences as a kid, but every time I think that, one more pops into my head! I can tell myself it’s rich material for writing. A little time and distance is a good thing, I think.

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      • I believe the time and distance will make it somewhat easier to get in touch with what you were thinking, and feeling, at the time.

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  18. Your “incident” is a typical “moment of solitude” situation. And life is often littered with those. I love your conclusions, though. Thanks for sharing them !

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  19. Awesome opening paragraph. Followed by your usual polished prose. A favorite pithy quote within was:
    “The nobility of poverty is bullshit.”

    Thank you, Michelle.

    –O. Babe

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