Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Chocolate Milk and Burning Garages

"No legacy is so rich as honesty." - William Shakespeare 

           Dale, one of my students in Minneapolis, appeared to be the freckle-faced red-haired boy that my mother always said she wanted when she had a son. That didn't happen; she got me, a blonde, blue-eyed girl. I told her about Dale once, and she confirmed for me that she was glad she didn't give birth to him. Together, we prayed for Dale's mother.
           Reflecting on this young man, I have recently decided that the school year I spent working with Dale was the equivalent of an extra year of a college education. He helped me prepare for so many of the students who followed him into my classroom in the future. Lots of people who are not in education assume that all intellectually challenged students are pretty much the same. They assume that these kids are not as smart as other kids, so even though they may be "more work" in the classroom, they probably are not as complicated as your average teenager. FALSE!
          Dale was one of the most complicated students I have ever had. He appeared to be an average sixteen year old. He wore braces, walked fast, talked fast, and ate like a pig. He wasn't overweight, but still had a thin layer of "cush" on his body and face. His round impish face was often red and flushed, like he just ran a mile, or was terribly embarrassed. He dressed quite neatly, usually in jeans and the plaid shirts that were so popular in the mid-1970s.
          Where do I start? He fidgeted with his hands incessantly. They were always moving, as were his eyes. Dale looked like he thought he was being watched every minute, and he wanted to see who was watching him. He behaved as though he was afraid of being accused of something....and he looked guilty all the time. When something suspicious would happen in my room, I often wondered if it could be Dale, but I never was able to pin anything on him. He always denied it and usually had a good story to back up his pleas of innocence.
         The first time I actually caught him doing something is a moment I will never forget. I can picture it in my mind like it happened yesterday, not thirty years ago.
          Our school cooks kept all the cartons of milk for the students in a large cooler, in a small room off the kitchen. This room had a door going into the kitchen, and another door going into the school gymnasium/cafeteria. The cooks were in the kitchen all day, from the time school started until about an hour before the students went home. They had been noticing some of the cartons of chocolate milk were missing, and figured out that the only time someone could be stealing the milk was in the hour between the time they left and the time the school buses came to pick up the students. We lined up all the students in the gym to wait for their buses every afternoon, and somehow one (or more) of them was sneaking into that room and getting into the cooler to take the milk. That should not have been hard to stop. But it was. Dale was clever.
          Dale would line up for his bus with other kids from his side of Minneapolis. He would slip out of line by asking to use the restroom. The restroom door was just around the corner from the cafeteria, so he would be allowed to go on his own. Apparently, he never actually went to the restroom. He would go out the door to the hallway, run down the hall and come back in the door at the other end of the cafeteria. He would pinch or hit one of the non-verbal students, lined up waiting for their bus, at that end of the cafeteria, and they would begin to yell. Dale would then duck out into the hall again, race down to the kitchen door, and cut through there into the room with the milk cooler in it. He would gulp down a couple of cartons of chocolate milk, and then come out to line up for his bus again. With the staff distracted by the pinched student at the other end of the cafeteria, Dale could get back in his bus line without being seen. Quite a devious plan.
           I only figured this out because I had stepped out the back door of the cafeteria to look for the buses one day, so I missed the commotion Dale created at the far end of the cafeteria. When I walked back into the school, I observed Dale in the milk room, with chocolate milk dripping out of both corners of his mouth. Confronting him was one of the most disturbing and surreal events in my career.  I think it is in a three-way tie with The Salad Meltdown Lesson (3/21/13) and Rosemary's Shower (2/23/13).
          "Dale, what's in the hand behind your back?"
          "Dale, please show me what's in your hand."
           He showed me the empty chocolate milk carton. He insisted he did not take it. He insisted he did not drink it. When I asked him about the mild dripping down his face, he used his sleeve to make it disappear, and kept insisting he did not take or drink any chocolate milk.
          Yes, I had caught him, practically in the act. There was no reasonable explanation for how the carton got in his hand and how the milk came to be dripping down his face, except the observable fact that he stole the milk and drank it. Yet, he denied it.
         "I didn't do anything," he said. He put the carton down on the cooler and walked out to his place in the school bus line.
         "Dale, I saw the carton. You had milk in your mouth. You took the milk."
         "I didn't do anything."

         What kind of circumstances or life experiences lead up to such an exchange? The term 'pathological liar' popped into my head. Actually, that term can be interchanged with 'compulsive liar' and 'habitual liar'.
It has been defined as "falsification entirely disproportionate to any discernible end in view, may be extensive and complicated, and happen over a period of years, or perhaps a whole lifetime."
          Dale may have been aware he was lying, or he may have believed he was telling the truth. Not a lot of research has been done, but one study supposes a rate of one in 1,000 juvenile offenders. Dale did not have a criminal juvenile history.....yet. The average age of onset  for this kind of chronic lying  is sixteen years. Forty percent of cases also involved some central nervous system abnormality, and I would suppose Dale's intellectual disability fell into that category.
           It's a mental illness. Uncommon, difficult to explain, and most likely it was going to create lifelong problems for Dale. We would just have to watch him carefully. Very carefully. The social worker agreed, and Dale was escorted everywhere he went in the building.
            Then the fires started.
            They were always early in the morning, always a garage, and in Dale's neighborhood. The police, the fire department, and the neighbors were stymied.
            Then one day, after about eight garage fires in a three week period, Dale came into my classroom, with a distinct odor of gasoline on his clothes. He said he was helping his dad at the gas pump and over-filled the tank; some gasoline had splashed out onto his pants. I knew he was lying about it, because he lived with his mother. His father didn't even live in Minnesota.
            It just made me sick. I had a horrible feeling that Dale was involved in the fires. They were so dangerous. A flaming garage could set a house on fire. Eventually, someone was going to get hurt.
           I took Dale down to the social worker's office. I explained to her what I thought was going on. She called the police and she called Dale's mother. Officers came to talk to Dale. They took him home, spoke with his mother, and searched Dale's house and garage. They found evidence in Dale's bedroom and outside his window that indicated Dale had been crawling in and out of the window. Dale's mother confessed that she had seen him sneaking back in the window on two mornings when there had been garage fires. Dale was arrested. Of course, he completely denied everything, and he had elaborate stories to explain it all.
           His mother's testimony, along with the evidence from the house and the garage, convicted Dale. He was tried in juvenile court, not as an adult, because of his severe mental disability. His mother agreed to have him sent to a state mental institution. Dale was going to be held there, at least until he was twenty-five, or until it could be declared that he was no longer a danger. He was sent to a place where he was going to be able to get some help that he desperately needed.
           I have wondered for many years about Dale. His bold, blatant lies still haunt me. We have probably all been told lies, to our face, that we immediately know are not true at all. It is frustrating, but we deal with it by ferreting out the truth and shining the light on it. Still, even with the truth exposed, it hurts our hearts that someone would try to deceive us. With Dale's "condition", it seems like he was not really capable of telling the truth. It doesn't sound right to me, but Dale couldn't help but tell lies. Some of his lies were to keep himself out of trouble. Some of his lies were to make himself seem more grand than he really was. Dale told some lies because he opened his mouth and out came anything but the truth. On top of all that, he was a pyromaniac.
         Could he have told the truth if he had wanted to? Why keep lying if there is nothing to be gained by it? How frustrating is it to hear a lie that you know is a lie, and you also know that the person lying will get absolutely no benefit from lying to you? Are they lying just to lie? Just to get one over on you?
           If the only answer was, "It's a mental illness. There is no understanding it," then it was even worse. In my mind, it was like having a doctor's note for lying. "Please excuse Dale. He has a good reason for lying and you cannot hold him responsible. Oh, and he sets fires, too. Can't help that either." What?
           OK, I can deal with the mental illness part...I am older now. It seemed like a lame explanation for despicable behavior when I was younger. Lying was already one of my pet peeves, and then I met Dale, who had a doctor's note to do it. Grrrrr. Lying was a serious flaw in your personal character....that's how I was raised.  Experience has now taught me there are cases like this, and I cannot waste time fussing over them. He couldn't help it. Over the past thirty years, I have had many students with a variety of mental health issues in my classroom. They have enough problems without being blamed for their mental illness. No one chooses it.
         However....lying is harmful, no matter what the circumstance. It harms the person who tells the lie and it harms the person who is told the lie. The argument has been made repeatedly for "little white lies" being allowed.. Ugh.

          A person who will lie about the little things will lie about the important things.
          Honesty in little things is not a little thing.
          Just tell the truth.
          I REALLY try to impress this on every student I get in my classroom.

          This is when I wish everyone was older, like me. If I were to tell a lie, I would probably forget that I told it, and also forget WHO I told. The trouble would start then. Who did I tell? What did I tell them? What did I tell this other person? Oh my memory is just too poor to tell any lies. I couldn't possibly keep them straight.
        One of the richest men in Des Moines spoke at a Drake University graduation that I attended. He said the NUMBER ONE RULE in life, is to tell the truth; in your personal life, in your professional life, in all your relationships. Tell the truth.
        Try hard. Unless you are one in 1,000, you have no doctor's note.