“Slander boldly; something always sticks.” –Francis Bacon, De Augmentis Scientiarum (1623)
When I was in second grade–or possibly kindergarten, it was a very long time ago–there was a boy named Cole. (Well, he wasn’t really named Cole, but I’m fairly certain that I’d be courting a lawsuit if I put his real name here. Not to mention it would be kind of mean.)
Nobody liked Cole. Cole wore the same holey t-shirt every day. (This is not a snobby social commentary on how Cole couldn’t afford other clothes–he could. He had them. He just chose not to wear them.) Cole was obsessed with dinosaurs. Cole liked to suck on his fingers all the time, and then he wouldn’t wash his hands before using the communal crayons. Cole always had his hand down his pants during class. Yeah, Cole was that kid.
So one day, Delilah (again, not her real name) and I were talking about boys. Because even in kindergarten (or possibly second grade), the gender gap was felt keenly; it needed constant discussion, lest we all forget that Boys Are Weird and Girls Have Cooties. Or maybe it was the other way around? It’s hard to remember; it was a very long time ago. We were talking about boys and how Jamie Flint was really cute but not really because he was friends with Tobin Sykes who made fart jokes and pulled Annie’s hair during art class, and how Susie McQueen liked Robbie Boulder and wasn’t that scandalous, and how the aforementioned Tobin was only going to invite boys to his birthday party but then his mom said he had to invite at least three girls and nobody knew who he was going to pick except for maybe Lily and Beth but then who else would he chose?
There was a lot to talk about in second grade (or possibly kindergarten).
This was also the stage in life where everybody teased everybody else about crushes. If Susie liked Robbie, the whole classroom turned into a giant game of Telephone where Susie told Lily not to tell Cindy but she could tell Maria and then Maria told Cindy and Delilah who accidentally told Britney loudly enough that Sammy heard it and told Tyler who asked Jamie if it were true that Robbie had a crush on Alex. Then, of course, Robbie would deny this hotly but everyone would know he was lying because Tobin heard it from Sylvie who had it from Alex who mentioned to Carla that Robbie tried to kiss her during kickball at recess. So then Robbie would have to say something mean to Alex so that Tom and Sammy (the cool kids) and Annie (the girl he actually had a crush on) would know that it wasn’t true, at which point Alex would start to cry because nobody bothered to tell her that Susie liked Robbie in the first place.
There was also a lot of drama in kindergarten (or possibly second grade).
So Delilah and I were talking that day, and she told me that she’d heard that I liked Sammy. This may or may not have been true; Sammy was a pretty cute kid who didn’t pick his nose in public and always shared the very popular red crayons, which more or less made him the nicest boy in room 104. I wasn’t copping to it, though; it was cool to have a crush on someone but it wasn’t cool for people to know you had a crush on someone. Of course, it was cool to know that someone else had a crush on someone, because then everybody wanted to know what you knew, and then you could dangle your inside scoop above your salivating cohorts until at least Reading Circle, and very possibly up to Math Groups if you were stingy with the details.
So I denied that Sammy was anything higher than pond scum in my esteem. Delilah, sensing weakness, pounced: she knew I liked Sammy because I let him beat me at dodgeball during gym and I shared my chocolate pudding with him and I offered him a new pencil when the tip of his broke and the teacher wouldn’t let him get up to sharpen it because it was the third time he’d broken his pencil tip that day. This all added up to an epic infatuation, culminating in Sammy and I getting married and having babies and sitting next to each other when the Social Studies teacher let us choose new seats.
Ahh, the halcyon days of second grade (or possibly kindergarten).
Delilah wasn’t the most subtle kindergartener (or possibly second grader) around. She was naturally loud and one of those really obnoxious personalities that adults call “energetic” and “spirited” and babysitters abhor, and she could talk for hours and hours about so many topics that you’d end up in Antarctica when you started off in Who Got Three Words Wrong On The Spelling Quiz. (She also had the eyes of a hawk when it came to male-female interaction in the classroom, which was impressive given that she often couldn’t concentrate long enough to remember the day of the week.) This meant that Delilah was a great source of unconfirmed gossip and could churn a rumor mill faster than Tobin Sykes could spell “Mississippi,” which was pretty fast even though he made fart jokes. Admitting to Delilah–and Delilah took a lack of fervent denial as a confession in full–that you liked someone was rather like writing it on the whiteboard and telling everyone to copy it down ten times for homework.
Her predilection for gossip made Delilah a good friend when you wanted to listen but a pretty awful friend when you wanted to talk. I had no desire to let Sammy know, by way of Delilah, that I’d love to sit next to him during Social Studies, so I thought that the best way to deter the grapevine was to stubbornly repeat “not true” every time Delilah took a breath. The hungry gleam in her eyes grew brighter and brighter with every denial, and our “conversation” culminated in her triumphant “I’m gonna tell everybody!”
I panicked. Cindy and Beth were one table over with Tyler and Robbie, and if they heard Delilah’s crowing the whole class would know before lunch. I would spend the rest of the day blushing fuchsia and stuttering when spoken to. Alarmed, and edging on desperate, I leaned over and hissed to Delilah, “If you tell people I like Sammy, I’m gonna tell everybody you like Cole!“
Nobody liked Cole. Not even the teachers liked Cole. Saying that Delilah liked Cole would be a social death sentence for the semester. She blinked rapidly and countered, “But I don’t!” The honest bewilderment on her face warred with distaste for the notion. And I nodded sagely, or as sagely as one can in second grade (or possibly kindergarten). And then I added:
“I know that. And you know that. But nobody else knows that.”
If the Harry Potter books had been popular at the time, I’m sure that the entirety of Slytherin House would have given me a standing ovation. A masterful move! Genius plot! Worthy of the highest accolades! Because it was true: I knew that Delilah didn’t like Cole. Nobody liked Cole. But, rather like Regency England, even a hint of impropriety could result in a ruined reputation and a quickie wedding, which in kindergarten (or possibly second grade) translated into rhymes about sitting in trees and baby carriages and K-I-S-S-I-N-G.
To this day, I have no idea how I’d figured out in primary school the only way to kill the rumor mill before it started. It probably wasn’t a good sign that at the age of seven (or possibly five) I’d been devious enough to know what kind of damage words can do without any evidence at all. Out of all of my elementary school experiences, this is the one that’s stuck with me for seventeen years (or possibly nineteen), beating out the entirety of first grade and almost eclipsing that painful lecture in fifth on What’s Happening To Your Body Now That You’re Growing Up.
Was I proud of myself then? For stopping Delilah cold, yes–a thousand times, yes. Should I have done that? Probably not. Does Delilah even remember that day? I seriously doubt it. She sulked for the entire afternoon, avoiding my gaze and pointedly not engaging me in conversation, but by the end of the week she was up to her old tricks. (Tobin decided to invite Lily and Maria but not Beth to his birthday party, and Sylvie broke her arm on the monkey bars and let Carla sign her cast first instead of Alex, so there was plenty of juicy material to go around.) She never gossiped about me again, though–or at least she never did it to my face, which is almost as good.
So I guess the moral of this story should be something trite like “don’t gossip,” or “treat others the way you’d like to be treated,” or “lying is bad.” But I think the real lesson that I took away from that day was that words can change things, and they can transform ideas, and they can break and twist and bend the world enough that pretty soon reality distorts itself to fit what’s being said, and nothing has to be real except in your mind. (“There is no spoon,” anyone?)
(Thirteen [or possibly eleven] years later, as a first-year undergraduate student of linguistics, my professors would introduce the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, and I would smirk a little to myself.)