I don’t know exactly when I decided to do it; maybe when I saw the picture of Adam and Eve getting tricked beside the apple tree.
“What’s that talking to them, Mama?”
“The book calls him a serpent.”
I had never seen one before. Wrapped around the tree, the serpent worked his forked tongue when he talked. There was something about him.
“What did he say to them?” I asked.
“He told Adam and Eve they could eat all the apples they wanted off the forbidden tree, and get away with doing so.”
“Did they eat?”
“Did they get in trouble?”
She pointed to the picture of them slinking away from an angel with a fiery sword.
“Did they get kicked out of their home, Mama?”
“Yes, because they listened to a falsehood, and disobeyed God.”
“But the serpent tricked them, Mama.”
“Yes, he did,” she said, then looked at me. “But we don’t need a serpent to do wrong — we can disobey all by ourselves.”
She paused. “You are just a little boy, but you know right from wrong.”
Her words made me hang my head — here’s why.
After Miss Rachel Flake taught us first-graders how to print, she told us we could make any word using those ABC’s. After I practiced “Leon Smith,” and “Dick” and “Jane” and “Spot” and “Baby Sally,” I had almost enough letters to carry out some mischief.
At our house we were taught “waste not, want not,” so Ollie and I weren’t supposed to waste stove wood by leaving the door open when we walked out of the only room in the house which had a heater. Daddy said if we didn’t try to heat the outside, the stack of wood on the porch would last longer. We must turn off the light bulbs when we walked out of a room to save money on the light bill. We were never to put our shoes on the couch, nor to write on the furniture, because we would mess them up, and Daddy had to work hard to buy the things we had.
At school, Miss Flake showed us there was not one mark on our tables, and told us we would get into trouble if we used our new pencils on them. But one day after school, I walked into the empty second-grade room. The big kids had real desks, and, to my surprise, every one of them had names written on their tops. When Daddy came home, I told him what I had learned.
“There’s an old saying, ‘Fools names, like their faces, always seen in public places,’” he replied. “You are not to do that, son. You don’t want to play the fool.” Then he paused. “And if you do something like that at school, you will be in trouble at home.”
But something inside me did indeed want to play the fool, without getting into trouble. One day, walking through the living room, I spied a two-inch band of empty beige wood that made up the five-foot edge of the mantel piece. Right then, I hatched a plan: full-blown, lying, sneaky and replete with artful disobedience. I found my book satchel, took out my big-lead pencil, and slipped it into my blue jean pocket. Then I watched for an opportunity.
With no witnesses in sight, I took out my pencil, and slipped past the heater. There I reached up and carefully formed five letters on the mantel’s left side: “O,” “ l,” “ i ,” “v,” and “e.” I forgot to dot the “i,” so I went back and did so.
Then I stood back to admire my work. Just as Miss Flake would be proud of my printing, I was proud of the way I had defaced the mantel piece, disguising the name of the fool who did so, while at the same time playing a nasty trick on my sister.
After a while Mama came in. “Who wrote on the mantel piece?” she asked.
I came to look. “It was Ollie,” I lied.
Mama put a knuckle on either side of her apron, and made her lips disappear the way she did when she was not at all pleased.
“Ollie did it, Mama,” I continued. “Look, she even signed her name.”
“Leon,” she said slowly, “what grade are you in?”
“First, Mama, and I can write better than that.”
“You can do something else, too,” she said.
“What, Mama?” I asked innocently.
“You can be deceitful.”
“What does that mean?”
“That you are telling me a falsehood.”
“I‘m not telling you a falsehood, Mama. Look at the mantel.”
“I am looking at it,” she said. “How’d Olive reach way up there?”
“Maybe she got on a chair.”
“I don’t think so.”
“She could have,” I said.
“But she didn’t.”
“How do you know that for sure, Mama?”
“She’s not in the first grade.”
“No ma’am. She’s not even in school. Not ‘til year after next …”
“That’s right,” she said. “You know what that means?”
“She can’t write?”
“She can’t write,” she said. “But you can, so take that pencil out of your pocket and bring me your ‘WriteRight’ tablet.”
”We could have a School for Fibbers, Story Tellers, and Tellers of Falsehoods,” she said. “But I think your work calls for a School for Liars. I’ll let you scrub off the mantel later.”
“Are you calling me an “l-word,’ Mama? We’re not supposed to say that.”
She did not answer, but took the pencil and the tablet and printed “I … will … not … be … deceitful … again,” reading out the words as she went.
“I don’t know all those words,” I protested.
“Copy them, in a row, 25 times,” she said, handing me the tablet and pencil. “You can skip lines.” She walked toward the kitchen, then turned, “When you’re finished, bring your work to me. Remember, ‘I will not be deceitful again,’ twenty-five times.”
“You’re going to cripple my hand.”
“No, I won’t,” she answered. “But I hope to change your heart.”
So I copied “I will not be deceitful again” until my hand hurt, shook it to get the circulation back, then copied some more. I missed the “Lone Ranger” on the radio, then dark came, and it was bed time before I finally reached line 25.
I wish I could say Mama changed my heart that day, but it did not happen then, for as I copied, all I could think of was how bad my wrist hurt, and all the fun I’d missed. So, it was years before I understood that she was trying to show me that lying is intentional disobedience, and that one lie leads to many more. That I had been deceived into believing that the serpent got away with his lie; and that I could conceive such an elaborate deception without his assistance; nor such a spurious defense of my innocence. That I had believed my deceptions were only minor — nowhere near as despicable as lies, because I was sure my fibs, stories, and falsehoods were different, with neither intent to deceive, nor intent to gain unfair advantage of a real lie.
But when I finally caught on to what she was showing me, I began to see the reason she took me to Lying School. I thank her for it.