This week, we present two stories of how memory impacts our lives, our families, and the way we see ourselves.
Part 1: When Jirard Khalil is twelve years old, his mother suddenly starts to change.
Jirard Khalil is a YouTuber, actor, writer, and performer. You can find him online at @JKCompletesIt on Twitter, and That One Video Gamer on YouTube.
Part 2: A teacher’s social experiment lands fifth-grade Ben Lillie in an ethical dilemma.
Ben Lillie, co-founder of The Story Collider, is a high-energy particle physicist who left the ivory tower for the wilds of New York's theater district. His current project is Caveat, an event space for entertaining talks and conversations opening September 5th on Manhattan's Lower East Side. He is also is a Moth StorySLAM champion, and was a writer and contributing editor for TED.com.
Part 1: Jirard Khalil
My last name is Khalil because when my father emigrated to the states when he was young, they switched his middle and last names. So I’m technically first generation Khalil. I have no relatives with the last name. I am the first and hopefully not the last.
But I want to share a story today about how they met and kind of just the wonders of the world and how things kind of pan out. I wrote a three-page paper basically so bear with me as we get through this.
So Charles Khalil, or Charles Richez, as I've expressed to him, came from the country of Lebanon in a war-torn state when he was… he moved to the states when he was about eighteen years old. He got really tired of living in a country that’s falling apart and he wanted to make a name for himself by coming to America. So he moved to America, he learned five languages, took several classes, worked several jobs. He was a mechanic, he was a teacher assistant, he was a janitor. He did anything and everything he could learn about American culture any single way.
Eventually, he met my mom, Karen Reid, at a gas station one day. He was the manager of a Mobil gas station. Actually… I think that gas station is actually on Pico and Westwood. So we’re actually not that far away from it, ironically enough.
He was managing this gas station and he saw this beautiful blond woman come out. She ran out of gas and she had no money to her name, and he didn’t care. He was instantly magnetized to her. He saw her and became infatuated with her. Back in the day, obviously everyone smoked so he was like, “Hey, I got some cigarettes, I got some money. Let’s go hang out.”
So they went on a date ironically enough, and everything kind of went hunky-dory from there. They got married after dating for ten years and they had five kids. I am the youngest of five kids so I’m the baby. My brother… I'll start in order because that’s how I always learned to do that. My sister Leila was always the calculated, smart one of the group that was always scared to meet new people but very judgmental.
My brother was the aggressive jock named Jacque, who was five-foot-six but like jumping in the face of the biggest quarterback head-butt first into them. So was kind of an abrasive guy.
My sister Monika was kind of the crazy, rebellious one who smoked weed and stayed out late and never responded to her parents via pager. It was kind of rebellious.
And then my sister Kelly was the socialite. She was the one that was like always going to Pop Warner and student council president and got good grades and was very controlling and educated and had to have things a specific way.
And then there's me the problem child. I was very quiet in the family. I didn’t contribute much. I was a shy boy who didn’t really like to do anything but play video games. Look at how that turned out. And I had a health problem. I was born with a spinal hemangioma, which was this benign tumor that was embedded in my spine. Back in the day, no one knew anything about this.
This part of the story, while it seems science-y, isn’t actually the science-y focus. It’s just letting you know for context.
So when I was growing up, money was not really around. But my father grew into it because my mom’s dream was to own a flower shop. So his whole life he worked hard for her and he got her a flower shop. Then she wanted to have five kids, so they had five kids. He wanted to make money and provide and really care for his family.
And right around my tenth birthday, my parents stopped being parents. They just kind of were like, Ah, we did four. The last one can kind of take care of himself. But more importantly, my mom started changing. I saw a change in her that was very different and very weird.
To give you an idea, my father owns three Mobil gas stations in southern Los Angeles as well as owns a marketing company based around Mobil Oil and the convenience industry. So if you go to like a Chevron or a Mobil gas station or a Circle K and you see all the nice pretty back bar design and stuff, my father is probably one of the people that brought that to the table.
So he in the nineties was thriving in this industry. He was making million-dollar deals and working his butt off. My mom was taking care of all five of us kids doing… you know, there's five of us so that means we all have to learn languages, we all have to play eighteen different instruments, we had to be on student council and cotillion and Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and all that stuff. So she was a super person. She was a super mom. She's doing all these incredible things.
Around my tenth birthday, she just was like, “This sucks. I don't want to do this anymore.” So my dad said, “Well, what can we do, Karen? What can I do next? You wanted the flower shop, I got you the flower shop. You wanted the kids, I got you the kids. You wanted the money, we got the money. What more can I do for you? I want to make sure that this family is a family.”
Of course my mom was like, “No, no, no. That’s not what I mean. It’s just I can’t be a super mom all the time. I need to do something for me and for our family in a way that doesn’t feel like I’m just doing a nine to five.”
So my mom got this idea. She wanted to make her kids a star, or one of them at least. A star. That was her whole thing is she wanted to make someone famous. She knew nothing about the music industry. She knew nothing about fame or fortune in that regard. She didn’t know anything, but all she knew was that she wanted to do this thing.
And she was very driven. My mom was a very driven person. Ah, the things that she would do.
So she got what she wanted. My father financed her company. And this company was awful, just waste of money. No direction, had no contacts, no one involved was able to kind of help her shape what she was doing. She was kind of fledgling and she didn’t know what to do.
Then she met a man named Bill Head. Now, Bill Head was a country singer, a retired musician from Kansas City who had moved out to California to try and get his hands into young talent and produce them and kind of live off of their royalties. And he had an idea of the music industry.
He kind of came in. He was like six-foot-four, skinny, just long greasy hair, hat, glasses, very like you don’t trust this guy. It’s just kind of creepy.
So he and my mom started this company together. And when I say started this company together, I mean he asked for money and she gave him everything he asked for. Lo and behold, this man known as Bill Head was actually not Bill Head. He was a con man from Tennessee who had just convinced my mom to give him over five hundred thousand dollars in hopes to create this company.
But at that point my mom was so excited and so happy to see what she was building that the money that she was spending didn’t really matter. She was happy and she started changing even more and more and more as the days went on.
Eventually, she found herself back into faith. My family is technically Catholic, Christian, but we don’t really go to church or anything. But my mom suddenly got re-energized by faith. And Bill at the time, this guy was like, “Oh, yeah. I know all about faith. I know all the pastors and the people from the West Coast to the East Coast. Let’s go on a tour.”
So suddenly I, having a medical condition, was yanked out of school and I did a tour with my mom and this stranger to all the different pastors from the West Coast to the East Coast. So there's probably even footage of me online somewhere. The Trinity Broadcasting Network they used to have those public sermons when the guys would smack you in the head and you’d fall over, and the tongues are coming out. There's got to be footage of me somewhere, a twelve-year-old me just getting smacked in the head and waking up in the hotel room the next day.
But my mom took me on this incredibly long journey that made no goddamn sense. I should not have gone. I should not have graduated into sixth grade. I missed nine months of school and I didn’t really remember much of that time.
But what I did remember was I saw my mom transformed. She went from being the woman who was about strong principles and family and love and care to a woman who was being manipulated into someone who loved drinking and alcohol and drugs and trusted everyone, and had no ability to judge or say what she was doing. She was just kind of feeding the machine, if you will.
So after nine months of traveling on the road meeting minister after minister, I stole her cell phone and I called my dad, and I said, “I want to come home.” My dad, for some weird reason, didn’t piece together that I was with her. He thought that there were caretakers at home, because my father was running a business. He was travelling all over the world, literally every single week. So he was like, “Why are you not in school?”
So he pieced them together and said, “Oh, my God. He needs to go home.”
So my mom comes back from this long trip and my dad looks at the bank account statements and all of the money and all the trips and everything, and she had spent a lot of money, maxed her credit cards, all this stuff. My dad was like, “What happened? What’s going on?”
And my mom said, “I don't care. I’m sad in this relationship. I’m getting a divorce. It’s over.”
My father, most men in this situation would probably freak out, be upset, and really just like go through a lot of emotional changes. My father, for some weird reason, didn’t. He was kind of like somebody who’s playing poker and just was like, “I know what I’m doing. Now, something is not right.”
So he assessed everything that was going on, and my mom was talking about divorce, taking all of his hard work and the family and the kids. All of us kids saw everything. We witnessed everything that was going on, and we knew that something wasn’t right.
So my father said, “You can divorce me and take everything you want as long as you go with me to the doctor.”
And she was like, “Oh, that’s easy. Let’s go to the doctor. That sounds like an easy, easy trip.” Well, that trip to the doctor lasted about three and a half months’ worth of testing. She got tested and tested and tested and no one knew what was wrong with her, but there was something chemically wrong in her brain. They couldn’t figure out why she was changing the way that she was.
It took almost two and a half years from there, I was fourteen years old. It was my first day of high school and we’re all getting together. I get called out of class. We go to the doctor’s office over in Gardena. And the doctor says, “Your mom has been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia.”
Now, frontotemporal dementia is basically Alzheimer’s, except where Alzheimer’s is more the back of the brain, the frontal lobes or the lobes in the front are more the emphasis of this illness. And what we saw was instead of someone forgetting who she knew or memories or anything, she actually regressed in the way where she forgot things and how to talk and how to communicate and how to be a human being.
I remember sitting there in the room and everyone in the room is crying around me. I’m sitting there going, Okay, I know we’re all sad but what’s the next step because this is going to suck for a long time. We need to kind of push forward. So that’s when things changed one final time where I didn’t think I was going to go in this really big journey.
So my mom basically degraded to the state of a child until she passed away. But what was interesting is how the body remembered everything of who she was long after she was gone from her brain. What I mean is this. Every morning at five a.m. fourteen-year-old Jirard with his big brother and his dad would wake up at five a.m., bathe my mom, feed her, clothe her, get her ready for her nap. I'd go to school, I'd do my comedy sports and my improv classes and my drama classes, and I come home and I'd finish up what was left off, and then I'd do homework at eleven, twelve o’clock midnight. I did it over and over and over again until I was eighteen years old and looking to go to schools.
And in the middle of my sophomore year, usually someone who’s diagnosed with FTD lasts about six and a half months, mostly due to malnutrition, just not getting enough food, not eating enough, not being present in the moment in listening and reacting. So the doctor… she was on life support, she wasn’t doing well. They said that she's just not going to make it.
So one day my dad and I were sitting at home and he started going through family albums and photos and videos sort of archiving how they met and reminisced about all these things they did together and the lives they built. He popped in an old video cassette of my mom making this lasagna dish, this one that her mother had taught her when she was a kid. One of her favorite dishes. And she had this particular way of how much cheese and what kind of noodle product and what kind of meat went into it.
My dad just kind of said, “This is really stupid, but what if she's still in there somewhere? What if we can prepare this dish and her body will remember what it was like to make it and what it was like to create it, what it was like to eat it and get her out of the hospital?” Because she wasn’t drinking any Ensure, she was ripping out IVs, she was causing problems for everyone.
So we made this meal, this lasagna, and she instantly ate all of it with her fist. Just consumed it as much as she could. And for eighteen months, from then on, she ate lasagna breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every single day. We got up early, we made lasagna by the bulk and it was in the fridge, and it was nice and cookie-cut clean. Sometimes if we weren’t home, she’d sneak in the fridge and eat it just cold because that’s what she wanted.
After that, she got sick of it, so we said what do we do? We need a new dish. My dad said, “Well, one of the favorite things she loved was going to the Chinese restaurant, the Szechuan that was down the street from our house.” And she loved honey-glazed walnut shrimp, and that restaurant was still open, so my dad went down there and he bought ten pounds of honey-glazed walnut shrimp, brought it back, plopped it down, and she ate that every single day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, for another three years.
So we were retroactively keeping her alive by using the memories of her body with mind and sense and smell to keep her going for as long as she could. And while this was going on, I saw this transformation. It’s creepily something out of The Walking Dead. I saw this woman go from saying, “Give me that fork,” “give me that knife,” “give me that spoon,” to “give me that gray,” “give me that blue,” “give me that silver,” to even, “give me that thing. I want that thing,” to “thing, thing, thing,” to nothing. And this went on my entire high school and college career.
It wasn’t until 2013 she passed away to malnutrition. She was unable to eat, speak, do anything. She was bedridden and she passed away with her family all around her. But I will say that, as sad as this story is, my mom was a strong-as-hell woman. She went down fighting every single step of the way.
And more importantly she is the longest-lasting survivor to date with someone who’s been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia. They gave her six months, she said, “Screw you. I’m going to live fifteen years.” She pushed the boundaries of what science knew and what people knew about this illness.
For me, she wanted one of her kids to be a star. That’s what she kept saying. I want my kids to change the world with what they're doing and to become the brightest star they can be, to show them how much happiness that she got from her kids.
Ironically enough, I’m that star. I have over half a million subscribers on YouTube, I run my own production company employing fourteen employees worldwide. I get to meet some of the latest and greatest in both film and games. I would not be here had I [not] lived such an incredible crazy journey with her and my family.
Being the youngest of five teaches you a lot. My mom and dad always used to say this phrase, and my dad still does to this day. He says, “One of us… when you're alone by yourself, you're a stick. You can be broken, you can bend, and you can be destroyed. But when all five of you kids get together, you're a bundle and no one can break you and break you down.” That’s the philosophy we've ever lived as a family.
Until this day, we’re all healthy, we’re all still doing the best in our industries. Without my mom, I would not be here today, probably on this microphone.
So yeah, that’s the story of Karen Khalil. Thank you guys for taking your time. I appreciate it.
Part 2: Ben Lillie
In fifth grade, when we walked in the door every day, our teacher would have written up on the board our schedule. Nine a.m., English. Ten a.m., Social Studies. Eleven a.m., Math. And it would just go on and that’s how we’d know what we were doing for the day, because fifth-grade classroom, you do all kinds of different things.
So one Monday, I walk in and it says, Nine a.m., Social Studies. Ten a.m., Social Studies. Eleven a.m., Social Studies. Noon, lunch. One p.m., Social Studies. Two p.m., Social Studies. Three p.m., go home. And that was the day, and we’re all like, Oh, something is going to happen.
Now, this has happened before. Our fifth-grade teacher liked to have us do this big classroom things. And so the whole year was Wild West themed, so they're always Wild West themed. I grew up in Oregon so actually a lot of years were Wild West themed. So he would have us do these things, like earlier in the year we had played the Oregon Trail, like the video game but like LARPing. So we had groups and we had to pick what we were putting in our wagons and trying to get across the Oregon territory. It was great because I had a team, and, like, I wasn’t the kind of kid who had a team. I wore sweatpants to school every day. I didn’t have a team. But for that I had a team.
It didn’t go well. We got stuck in the mountains and it went all Donner party. It was pretty bad actually, but things like that were great.
So when we walked in this day we knew some kind of big activity was going to happen. We walk in and the teacher, Mr. Swanson goes, “All right. Here’s some cards.” And he gave us all five cards. And this was Wild West themed so on each of these cards was something Wild West-y, like a musket or hardtack or a fur -- you know, like they had in the West.
So we each got dealt five of these cards and he said, “All right, here’s what we’re going to do. This is a trading game. Your objective is to trade to make better value.” I don't remember if he said value. Better something for yourself. So like we were supposed to trade and we were supposed to get points for the cards on our hand.
They had different values, so like a musket was worth five and hardtack was worth two, but you could make sets. So like a hardtack was worth two, but three hardtacks was worth eight, or something. I don't remember the actual numbers. But it was like, all right, so you need to trade with each other and make sets and get points, and this is going to teach us something.
So he's like, “All right, there's just a few more rules.” He explained the whole rules of the game and then set us out to trade with each other. We had like ten minutes to trade and make sets and get points.
Now, some of the rules were kind of weird. There was a whole bunch of them. Three of them were particularly odd. The first rule was that if you were trading with somebody, you couldn’t show them your hand. You had to tell them what you wanted, you had to tell them what you had to offer, and they had to do the same. You couldn’t just look at each other’s hands and decide what to trade.
As a fifth-grader I couldn’t have told you this, but you can sort of see how that makes sense. Like maybe learning the value of communication or like, asymmetric information and interaction. Like economists might say something like that.
The second weird rule was that if you started trading with someone you had to trade. You couldn’t walk away from the trade and you couldn’t trade the exact same thing. You, like, had to make an actual substance of trade.
And the economists I've talked to about that tell me that that is all about what the… why would you do that? That doesn’t mean anything. What is that? That’s what they said.
And the third weird rule was that while you were trading with someone you had to hold hands. I got nothing on that one.
But so those were the rules and we had ten minutes. We got five cards. We had to trade and make the best thing that we could. We did it. And after that, you went up to Mr. Swanson and you showed him your hand. He said, “All right. You got this many points. You're supposed to write that up on the board.” I’m like, “All right.”
And we sat down on our desks and it’s like, “All right, we’re going to do that again.” So we did it again. Cards, trade, hold hands, not be able to show each other. All that stuff. Ten minutes, show him points. All right.
All right, we’re going to do it again, and we’re going to do it again, and we’re going to do it again, and that is all we did that entire day is we just traded these cards, we got points and it was sort of Wild West themed. We were like, What is going on?
But all right. Fine. We don’t have to do math or read or… which some of us liked but some people in the class… anyway, we’re just like, all right, fine.
So we did that and then we went home and we came back the next day. Nine a.m., Social Studies. Ten a.m., Social Studies. Eleven a.m... whole day. Like all right. I guess we’re going to do that again.
So we sit down and he deals out the deck and we play a couple hands and he says, “All right. We’re going to keep doing this. We’re going to keep doing this all day, but we’re going to make one change, a couple of changes in fact.”
The first change he said, “All right, everyone look at the scores on the board and figure out who are the seven highest-scoring kids in the class. Also figure out who are the seven lowest-scoring kids in the class.” Then he says, “Get into groups.” I was in the highest scoring group because, obviously, I’m brilliant. Or I got good cards. I don't know. It’s hard to tell.
So we split into groups and he says, “All right, here’s what you're going to do.” And he had these plastic conference-name-tag things, where it’s like a little plastic thing and you can stick something you've printed out in it. He goes up to those of us in the highest-scoring group and he says, “Here, you're going to wear these.” He gave us these little plastic things and each of them had a green triangle.
And he goes to the middle group and he says, “All right, you guys each get these,” and he gave them an orange square.
And he goes to the lowest scoring group and he says, “All right, you guys get these. You get a purple circle. So what you're going to do is you're going to wear these around school all day while we’re playing this game. By the way, we’re playing it all week.”
We’re like, okay. So we put on our little name badges and wore the green triangles and the orange squares and purple circles. We wore these badges. And if someone here were looking at me right now you’re going like, “Wait a minute. Did he just say badges? Is this going to get really dark? Is this going to be like some Lord of the Flies shit?” Yes.
Because the other thing that changed was he said, “All right. In between each trading round for five minutes the Green Triangles can sit in the circle. It has to be unanimous. But as long as it’s unanimous you can make up any rule you want.” Somebody over here just said, “Oh, my God,” which is correct.
We’re like, “All right, we can make up any rule we want.” So we sat in the circle and the first thing we did, the very first thing, we repealed all three of those stupid rules, because why would you have those? Those were really dumb. And in retrospect, that’s exactly what those rules were there for. They were there so we could remove them to legitimize our regime. The time it took us to go from that, from making an obvious rule that helped the whole class, to making the rule that because we were working so hard for everyone we deserved an extra card, was just over twenty-four hours. And we did it.
And we kept playing. Came in the next day when we made that rule, Social Studies all day. Now, people in the class are starting to go, “Uh, I don't want to be doing this.” And all of us in the Green Triangles are like, Yeah! I had a team. I had a group. This was awesome. The Green Triangles really loved it.
We came in the next day after we made that new rule. Thursday, nine a.m., Social Studies. Ten a.m., Social Studies. I’m like, Yeah, this is fun. All right. We get to do more of this.
My friend Mack who was an orange square was like, “No, I don't want to do this.” I’m like, “Why not? It’s fun.” He's like, “No, it’s not fun.”
Lunch that day on Thursday, we had been playing this game just over and over again. I go out to lunch, and a lot of days my friend Mack and I we would play this game during recess called Wall Ball. It’s pretty simple. You get a ball, you find a wall, you hit the ball against the wall. It’s great. It’s a great game. I recommend it. And Mack and I would play this.
So on this Thursday I found him and I said, “Hey, Mack, I checked out the ball.” He's like, “No, I don't want to play.”
“What are you talking about?”
He says, “What are you talking about? Why would I want to play with you?”
I’m like, “What?”
He's like, “What you guys are doing is unfair. That rule is insane.” There's other rules I forgot and he was upset about them.
I’m like, “Why are you upset? We’re making everything better. We’re working harder.”
He's like, “No, you're not. You're not.”
And if it sounds like he's being very sharp for a fifth grader, he grew up to be a civil rights lawyer. He was very good. I didn’t get it. And we argued and we left and I went to find the other green triangles.
We get back in there in the afternoon. We’re back in the class dealing cards, trading cards. Now, one rule we hadn’t repealed was that the Green Triangles, that the power group was the seven highest-scoring people. And one of the Orange Squares had been getting enough points that they were going to surpass one of the Green Triangles. Because even despite the extra stuff we had passed to make it easier for us, one of them, let’s call him Scott, because I don't remember his name and I kind of hate Scotts. (All right, there's one in the room.) He hadn’t been doing well.
So we were talking about this. We were like in a round or two, Scott is going to go down and it’s going to switch. Someone was like, “Well, we have to pass a rule to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
I was like, “Wait, what? We have to do what?”
Someone was like, “Yeah, we have to stick up for our team.”
So someone else says, “Well, what should we do?”
And we hadn’t changed the rule it had to be unanimous. We’re all talking about this. So someone says, “Well, we should just give them a hundred points.” A hundred was a lot. “We just give him a hundred points. We can do that.”
And it goes around the circle. Everyone is like, Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. It gets to me and I’m like, “That feels wrong.” I'd been thinking about this thing Mack said, just the whole thing felt wrong. So I said, “I don't think we should do that.” And they got pissed. They got angry.
They were like, “What are you talking about? This isn’t wrong. We have to protect our team.” Another kid was like, “We have to stick together.”
I was like, “It doesn’t feel fair.” And we were saying this out loud, and we’re all in the same classroom as the other kids so the rest of the class heard what we were talking about doing, and they started getting very pissed off, because they should be. They started yelling and they started screaming and they're coming towards us. And they're standing up and they're screaming about fairness and I’m listening to that. Then the other Green Triangles are sitting here and they're talking about you have to stick up for your team. And I’m sitting there going, “I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do.”
The one thing I knew, and I couldn’t have put it in these words at the time as a ten-year-old, but I knew that this was important. Like this decision was important because it would tell me the kind of person that I was. Was I the kind of person that stuck with my team and did the thing for the team, or was I the kind of person who did what was right and what was fair and what was just?
Or, on the flip side, was I the kind of person who just wielded power for the sake of wielding it and because that was intoxicating, or… and I can’t come up with a bad thing for the other decision, because it’s clearly the right one? But this decision mattered and would tell me who I was. And I’m sitting there trying to figure out what to do with everyone yelling at me.
Now, over the last couple of years, I have spent a lot of time talking to two groups of people. One of them are people who understand stories and narrative and they have taught me a lot of things like, for example, if you pause just before revealing a crucial bit of information you can get through a lot of exposition.
The other group I spent a lot of time talking to is neuroscientists. One of the things neuroscientists tell you that is fascinating is that our memories do not behave the way we think they do. Not even close. They're very, very fragile things.
So we think that something happens and we record the memory like it’s on a hard drive and then every time you want to remember you just read it off the drive. I remember this thing. I remember this thing. I remember this thing. That’s not what happens.
It turns out when you remember something, you sort of crystallize it when it happens and then when you want to remember it you pull it out of storage and it becomes this living thing that you think about as you remember it and then you put it back. Then the next time you remember, you're not really remembering that thing, you're remembering the last time you remembered it. And then the next time you're remembering, the memory of the last time you remembered remembering it.
And this keeps happening. Every time you pull it out and then put it back, you can kind of fuck with it, you can kind of twist it, and little imperfections can go in. So counterintuitively the more you remember something, the less accurate the memory is. And we can distort the memories that we have by the way we tell it to people or the things people say to us as we are telling them the story or by who we want to be.
And the other thing that both the neuroscientists and the narrative people tell me is that we tell stories about the things that we did in the past as a way of affirming who we are in the present and who we want to be in the future. We tell stories about ourselves as a way of establishing our own identity and our own sense of our goodness and our place in the world.
So there are two endings to this story. You know what both of them are. I’m going to take you through them briefly.
Ending one: I am sitting there. I don't know what to do. The Green Triangles are yelling at me about being part of the team. Everyone is yelling at me about fairness. Finally I say, “No, we can’t pass this rule. It’s unfair. We have to not do it. I’m not voting yes.” And the Green Triangles go nuts. They start screaming at me. The rest of the class is relieved finally one of us has done something right. There's all kinds of general chaos and Mr. Swanson, the teacher, steps in and ends the game.
And he says later as we’re all sitting in class that this has been an exercise in what happens when one group gets unlimited power over another group. As you've all guessed, that was the point. He told us that in fact our year was one of the tamest, that sort of the least bad stuff happened that year compared to other years that he had done this. And in later years I would both be grateful to him for having taught us that lesson and have deep reservations about the ethics of doing that to fifth-graders. Like, seriously, what the fuck?
Ending two: I’m sitting there, the Green Triangles are yelling at me, saying, “You have to be part of the team.” Everyone else is saying, “You have to do the thing that’s fair.” The Green Triangle is saying, “You have to be on our side.”
I say, “Yes, you're right. I have to side with the team.” We pass the rule. The guy gets a hundred points. Everyone else in the room starts going nuts. They start running at us. It looks like they're going to throw things. Mr. Swanson steps in and ends the game, etcetera, etcetera, exactly the same.
Now, here’s the thing about that story. I have told it so many times. I have told it to people to tell them what a great person I am. I have told it to people to tell them what a horrible person I am. I have told it to myself in both ways. I have told it with all kinds of endings. I have no idea, no idea, which of these is correct. Absolutely none whatsoever.
I was right about one thing, though. I thought in that moment that this was important, that this moment would define who I was as a person. And I was correct. What I didn’t know is that I would become a person who was obsessed with uncertainty and ambiguity and nuance and how it exists in the world.
And what I finally realized Mr. Swanson was teaching us was that absolute power corrupts not because of evil in the world or inherent badness but because we all tell ourselves that we are the heroes of the story, and we don’t know if that’s true. Thank you.