Yesterday’s Thoughts

June 2, 2005

Rumors

These are ways of knowing, but only in the negative. In other words, don’t fall for them.

But first I have to tell you a story.

When I was 15, I went to Italy for spring break with my Latin class. If that sounds nerdy to you, congratulations, you’re right. I was a nerd. Nerdiness is the major theme of the story.

How do I describe my personal nerdiness in a way to minimize my own humiliation, and yet convey to you enough facts that you can understand the situation?

I was a pretty. Girls would have crushes on me, pass me notes, and otherwise engaging in conduct that was completely incomprehensible to me.

My mother bought my clothes. It was 1973 so I had the baggies. I had the stacked heels. There were bright colors. There were plaids. There were plaids in bright colors. There were plaids in bright colors with stacked heels. There was a pair of red, green and yellow plaid baggies.

I was not athletic. I loved sports, but I wasn’t fast, I wasn’t coordinated, I didn’t have much experience playing with others and needless to say, you didn’t want me on your team.

I was socially out of the loop. I was the oldest by five years, and for most of my life, we didn’t live in neighborhoods with other children. I had never gotten accustomed to the push and pull of dealing with other kids.

I was “a good boy.” Even as a small child I never caused any problems and I never got into trouble. Adult relatives outside my immediate family would comment on this. I thought at the time that these comments were approving, now I’m not so sure. Maybe that is just wishful thinking. In 1962 it was good to be good.

I was not a fighter. I think that comes directly out of all of the above, but it is worth repeating. I spent a large portion of 7th and 8th grade picking my books up off the floor.

Finally, I was a classic nerd. I was carrying those books that were flipped to the floor from class to class. The teachers said bring your books, so I brought my books. I was doing my homework. I always had my pencils.

You get the point, I hope. I was widely regarded as a nerd.

As a Latin-taking nerd, there was an opportunity to go to Italy. There were a handful of kids from my class, but most of the group was from the high school and one other school district. The trip was put together by a academic travel agency and there was probably an adult for every 2 or 3 kids. I remember that my Latin teacher and her husband went. I didn’t know most of the rest of the adults, I assume they were parents and teachers from the high-school. The particular adult that was responsible for me was a high school math and science teacher.

It was an incredible trip. I probably have more salient memories from that 10 day period than from any other period in my life. We saw Pompeii, Michaelangelo’s David, the Vatican, Saint Peter’s, the Uffizi, Botticelli’s Venus, Sienna, Capri, the Coliseum, the Catacombs, Hadrian’s Forum, the Blue Grotto, the Capitoline steps, the blue water for the Mediterranean, the hills of Tuscany, and on and on. I’d never travel like that now, I don’t have the pain threshold, but as a 14-year-old who had never been out of the country it opened my mind in 500 new directions.

There was also some extra-curricular learning. There was some wine, some making out, a night club, some late nights in the hotel, nothing too out of the ordinary really, and it strikes me as I write this that these experiences don’t compare in my memory to the art, architecture, landscape and culture that I was exposed to.

This is where the story changes. Some tales about the extra-curriculars got back to my parents. I’m not sure what it was they heard, but I can imagine how they heard it. They hadn’t had much experience of hearing rumors or gossip about me. They didn’t really know how to handle it and were pretty upset. Mostly I think, that I had embarrassed them, but also that I hadn’t told them these details in the same full manner their friend’s children had. They were pretty upset.

Thinking about it now, I still don’t fully understand their anger. I’m sad about that.

Anyway, the uproar simmered down after a week or so. I was back to being a good kid and a nerd. My parents were back to not bothering me, but I think they were still worried. It was 1973 and there were big dangers around every corner.

One school morning, a group of my friends and I were hanging around in front of the Student Council store. My best friend Chris worked there selling school supplies in the morning. Chris told a story about how my parents had received a call from this irate Italian gentleman. Apparently I had taken advantage of his daughter and now she was pregnant.

As you can imagine this story made quite an impression on the group. I don’t remember where the story came from or why Chris told it. We had had a discussion vaguely along these lines as an exaggeration of the other rumors going around, but I think that Chris’ telling of it to the group must have been his own idea. Maybe I underestimate my role, or Chris’ prompting of me, for the next part was genius.

I looked at Chris like he had just let the world’s largest cat out of the bag, paused for two beats, turned on my heels, and walked away without saying a word.

My non-denial spoke more loudly than any words. By lunch, most of the school had heard the rumor. I would guess that by dinner, most of the parents in the district had too. That included my mother, who, in a second act of genius, had heard from me first thing on my getting home from school.

She knew the rumor wasn’t true and she had heard about the rumor from me! Communication restored. Parent child harmony ensued.

As special bonus, this was a life changing event in the junior high social sphere. I was no longer perceived as a nerd. Stoners and jocks looked up at me in awe. My books remained in my hand. People gave me room when I walked down the hall. No longer was I a nerd. I was the one who had gotten that Italian girl pregnant. I had had sex. I was potent. Zero to hero, and I hadn’t done anything.

If this was purposeful, Chris must have been the genius. He played not only the social dynamics of my family and my school, he also played them with me, a more or less unaware actor. I’d like to see how he’d do up against Karl Rove.

What does this have to do with ways of knowing? Here are some principles, do you see any more?

Just because someone doesn’t deny something, doesn’t mean that it is true.

A non-denial will be interpreted in the way that generates the most excitement.

A compelling and interesting lie can travel farther and faster than the truth.

Being a nerd is a matter of perception, not of fact.

People care more about communication than content.

Thirty years later, there are still more lessons for me to learn from this sequence of events.

Thanks, Chris.

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