|Art by Gary Tharler|
Just before my seventh birthday, I falsely accused the family housekeeper of pinching me. To back up my claim, I showed my mother a bruised and swollen area on my arm. Enraged, she fired the woman on the spot, realizing only later that the swelling was a reaction to the immunization I had received at the doctor’s office the day before. But it was too late. The housekeeper, a single mother of seven, had already left in tears. I still have a hard time understanding why I lied. I didn’t dislike the housekeeper; I just liked telling a story.
The next week, at my birthday party, I pulled out another lie, this one less harmful, but even wilder than the first. I told my assembled friends and cousins that the chimp my mother hired to entertain us had confessed to me that she wanted to be my friend and come live with me because her mother spanked her too much. And I told them that the dancing poodle with the tutu had said that she was happy where she was because she was able to go to a lot of birthday parties and eat cake. We began plotting to hide the chimp in the cellar in order to free it from its master. We would tell our parents that it had gotten away. We’d take turns feeding it. We’d keep it a secret. I had become so accustomed to my stories that I had begun to believe them myself.
I don’t know where it would have ended had my grandmother not overheard the chimp story. It caused her to pull me aside and say, “You are blessed with a fantastic imagination and the stories you tell are wonderful, but when you trick someone into believing them, they become lies, and lies are very harmful. You are allowed to tell all the stories you can imagine, as long as everyone knows that’s what they are: stories.”
Thus, in second grade, I became a writer of fiction. Armed with the new knowledge that lies hurt and stories entertain, and with a clear understanding that the only difference between the two was the writer’s intention, I dedicated myself to filling the pages of my school notebooks with stories, comic strips illustrated with stick people, even poems, finally giving my imagination a constructive outlet.
I flunked second grade.
But I believe everything happens for a reason. The following year, as the oldest in class, I discovered an entirely new group of readers among my younger classmates. My already loyal third-grade readers still waited in line to read my next story. I had doubled my readership. I welcomed the challenge and continued to write after promising my parents I would pay more attention to my schoolwork. The fact that I was sent to sit in the first row of the class, in front of the teacher, must have helped ease the temptation to write on school time. I’ve considered myself a writer ever since, venturing into fiction and nonfiction, and becoming an advocate for the truth along the way.
A few years ago, my then 5-year-old son was on a field trip to Griffith Park at the time several pieces of a fragmented comet hit Jupiter. A six o’clock news crew was interviewing visitors and thought it would be fun to get a kid’s comments on the subject. Without hesitation, my son responded, “I heard the meteors go ‘boom!’ One fell on Earth, right in Mexico City and made 48 cars explode.” The camp counselor told us about the interview and that evening the entire family sat in front of the TV set to watch my son tell a lie on-camera.
Although it was cute and I’m sure none of the thousands of viewers was harmed by his story, I immediately imagined a hypothetical future where my son could be one of those politicians who deceive millions of people all at once. Scared of the thought, I decided to pass along to my son the valuable lesson my grandmother taught me.
My hope is that by helping my children understand the subtle difference between a lie and a story, they will become better human beings and, perhaps, good storytellers as well, capable of guiltlessly telling whatever is in their minds.
María Amparo Escandón is the author of Esperanza’s Box of Saints.