Ms. Eckolls had to have been at least sixty when I was in the second grade. Maybe fifty if she was a smoker, which now that I think about the abnormal amount of deep and canyon like wrinkles on her face, she most definitely was. It never occurred to me to stop and consider what circumstances would lead a woman to settle on a career as an elementary school janitor. Now that I’m older, I imagine that she had a whole other life before she came to work at Danielsville Elementary, but back then I assumed that she had simply been there forever.
This was back when we, as fresh faced children, looked at all grown-ups as omnipotent and successful. The very fact that you lived to see twenty-two meant that you had made it! You were a grown up and you could have a job and money and a family! Back then your classmate could say, ”My dad’s a garbage man!” and it meant, “My dad drives a really cool truck with a giant metal arm that can pick up a whole dumpster!” instead of, “My dad has a job that most people either ignore, look down upon, or define by the things that they assume he didn’t do with his life.”
This was a simpler time for most kids, but not for me.
I’m fairly certain that I spent the better half of my childhood career as a pathological liar. If you had asked what, “Ms. Eckolls is the janitor,” meant back then I most likely would have replied, “Ms. Eckolls is the lady they call when things get bad. She’s the lady who isn’t afraid of barf or the weird toilet by the lunchroom. She’s the lady who reads all of the notes she finds on the floor and, if there is a ghost in the gymnasium, then she knows about it and just isn’t telling anybody.”
Of course I never knew these things for certain. It wasn’t like I ever sat down with Ms. Eckolls to go over the intricacies of her daily routine. I just knew that she had lived a long, long time and never griped about having to mop up whatever filth spewed out of us kids. I really respected Ms. Eckolls. I wanted other kids to, as well.
That said, I don’t know why I told Ms. Eckolls that I had a little brother.
I also don’t know why I told Ms. Eckolls that this little brother I had made up had just died.
One might think, “Big deal. All children lie,” and they would be absolutely correct. Case in point:
“Who ate a donut during the night?” Mr. Price asks his eldest son.
His son, aware that a truthful response will undoubtedly result in punishment, says,
“My brother did it.”
His younger brother was then grounded for fourteen days and both children learn that telling stories helps people avoid dealing with real life choices. Coincidentally, both children grow up to be fine, upstanding Mormons (in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s The Book of Mormon.)
My family subscribed to the southern tradition of tough love, so telling a lie to avoid a spanking or getting grounded was a no brainer. The way I looked at it, if my butt was on the line then all bets were off.
Time only complicated my process. What had started as a series of experiments on how to avoid spankings and afternoons spent writing the same, laborious sentence over and over again had evolved into an unstoppable force that only carried my desire for camaraderie and attention to brand new heights.
In addition to having no clue as to how to channel all of the thoughts in my head, I also failed miserably at socializing with the other children at school. Stories took up an unusual amount of space in my brain. I usually spent recess alone, walking around in ball field and talking myself through elaborate, made up scenarios. Sometimes, if I hadn’t found an appropriate end to whatever game I thought up at recess, I’d ask for the bathroom pass afterward and lock myself in the handicap stall until I had talked myself through a satisfying conclusion.
I felt that if I could even be a quarter as interesting as half of the things I made up that I’d be set. It only made sense that I began to tell little stories here and there to see if I could make myself sound more interesting – and I enjoyed little successes here and there. One time a group of kids let me play with them for a whole week after I assured them that I could see angels when really I had only seen Angels in the Outfield.
Perhaps it was in the spirit of taking things to the next level when I told a high schooler on my bus that I could speak German. My mother had bought me a cassette tape and companion book about a little German bear who was trying to walk to school by himself. I had learned to count to ten and how to say key phrases like, “My name is Jessica,” and “I am a bear.”
Apparently that was all she needed to be convinced of my geographic lineage. A couple of weeks later, she sat down across from me and said,
“Hey, so I’m doing a class presentation on Germany and I was wondering if you could teach me that song so that I could teach it to my class.”
The problem with this request, of course, was that I had already forgotten the German lyrics.
So I did the next best thing. I taught her a song in complete gibberish.
The seriousness of what I had done failed to hit me until later that evening: I had lied to this girl and taught her a song of pure nonsense and she was going to sing it to her entire class.
“Maybe she won’t even sing the song,” I thought, “Maybe she’ll leave it out at the last minute! Or better yet, maybe she’ll do a report on a different country!”
But when my sister cornered me a couple of weeks later and asked,
“Did you tell a high schooler on the bus that you were from Germany?”
I saw that poor girl her in her class, standing in front of a room of confused teenagers and a disappointed teacher. I knew that she had gone through it and, rather than confronting me, she went straight to my sister.
“Why do you make stuff like this up? You know that we aren’t from Germany. You don’t even speak German!”
“Yes, I do!” I replied, idignantly, “Einz! Zwei! Ich bin ein Bär!”
|I don’t say that Louise from Bob’s Burgers is my childhood spirit animal because I’m trying to be cute.|
This pattern of behavior continued for an absurd amount of time as I only developed new ways to justify everything that came out of my mouth.
“I’ll say this to get that person to let me play with them.”
“I’ll just say the teacher will put him in time out if he doesn’t stop making the animal figurines fight and act wild instead of talk and be friends.”
Shortly before the winter break, the teachers gathered all three third grade classes together to watch Mickey’s Christmas Carol and have a popcorn party. For a child whose imagination was so easily tipped over the edge by almost any kind of media, cartoons were my Kryptonite. Talking lions and superhero transformation sequences effected my brain nearly identically to to way that MDMA effects ravers at EDM festivals. I’d be out of commission for approximately four days, riding the high of the game for a good 72 hours before crashing back into reality and the realization that none of these things were or ever would be real.
I managed to make it through the Ghost of Christmas Past and the Ghost of Christmas Present without squirming too terribly, but then Death showed up with a billowy, black cloak and motherfucking scythe. There was Death in a Disney movie showing Scrooge McDuck that Tiny Tim had died and not only that, but that Scrooge indirectly murdered him. The content filter in my brain exploded and thoughts of everything that was wrong with my life – no, everything wrong with the world – flooded in and took over. I looked around to my classmates, still and disaffected, and wondered,
“Why am I the only one who is bothered by the fact that Tim is dead? What is wrong with these people? What is wrong with me? Why do I feel like this?”
The boy I sat next to noticed and, after a quick snicker, asked,
“Why are you crying? It’s just a stupid movie.”
I tried to explain, “No, this movie is sad and something is either wrong with everyone or with me, but I really think it’s you and I don’t know what to do about it or all of these things I am feeling!” but only managed a stifled,
“It’s – it’s just -”
I just couldn’t handle it. I asked if I could go to the bathroom and bolted out of class.
I sat in the stall, talking my way through a happier scenario that probably involved me pulling a Mary Sue and swooping in to save the day, but a loud noise stopped me before I could finish. A quick peek from under the stall revealed that Ms. Eckolls had just dropped her mop. I had no clue how long she had been there or if she had even been listening. I instinctively lifted my legs up to the toilet seat, but it was too late.
“Who’s in there? Why aren’t you in class?”
I tried to play the silent game.
“Whoever’s in there should come out right now. I know you’re not using the bathroom.”
I stepped out of the stall, my face flushed red from embarrassment and streaked with tears left over from the movie. And then, out of nowhere, the following words tumbled from my mouth:
“My little brother just died.”
The pause that followed felt excruciating.
“I’m – I’m so sorry,” she said.
She didn’t move in for a hug. She didn’t move at all. Her expression, though, was one I would never forget. It shifted from pure annoyance to absolute bewilderment and empathy all at the same time. Now that I’m older I realize the complexity involved with being privy to a very private process – especially that of a child’s. Ms. Eckolls was old enough to know and understand death in ways that I could not. I felt the pressure of a situation that I did not understand and, all of a sudden, I felt an immense weight settle into my body. I had just done something very, very wrong.
“Why are you at school?” she asked.
I looked at her and, unable to find words, ran right past her and back to class, where I put my head on my desk for the rest of the afternoon.
At first I tried to brush it off by assuring myself that Ms. Eckolls wouldn’t say anything to my teachers. And so what if she did? There was no way my teachers would call my parents during the break; who wants to bother with little lies during the holidays? My attempts at consolation failed. Miserably. No matter what I told myself, the guilt that I felt weighed heavy on my conscience and remained through the break. I even began to fear that someone close to me might die out of the universe’s spite for what I had said. I began to have nightmares where a monster came and chewed off my sister’s leg or my brother, who was in the Navy at the time, was killed during battle. I still didn’t tell a soul what I had done.
Although I had made it through the holiday with no fatalities, lost limbs, or even close calls, I still didn’t feel the familiar ambivalence or justification that usually settled in after I made up a story. I had exhausted all other options. As soon as the bus pulled into the school, I ran through the halls until I found the custodial office that she shared with the other Janitor, a man named Mr. Griffeth.
They were both in there.
“I … need to tell you something.”
“Um… Well. I only want to tell it to you.”
Ms. Eckolls seemed a little surprised, but Mr. Griffeth excused himself to grab a cup of coffee.
“Shouldn’t you be getting to class?” she asked me.
“I don’t have a little brother.”
“No. I never had a little brother. He didn’t die. He didn’t die because I never had a little brother.”
“… Why on earth would you make something like that up?”
“I … don’t know,” I said, starting to cry, “I just feel really sad a lot and … I don’t know why … so…”
“Hey now. Sit,” she said, pointing to an overturned mop bucket.
“Do you make things up a lot?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Look. It’s ok to feel sad. Everyone feels sad and not everyone knows why. Sometimes things happen to people that are bad. And sometimes people just feel sad just because. If you ain’t got anything to explain, then don’t try to explain it just yet. You know how much I thought about you and your family this Christmas?”
I started crying more.
“Did you have a good Christmas?”
“Kind of. I felt bad.”
She paused for a minute, as if to say something, and then seemed to think better of it. Then the bell rang.
“Well, be grateful that you have your family. You best be getting onto class.”
I stood up and made my way to the door and as I was just about to make the turn, she added the following:
“You need to quit making up stories like that or else one day you might not be able to. You should be a good girl and do the right thing. You don’t want to end up like me with nowhere to go. You always want to have somewhere to go. And you don’t go nowhere by lying like that.”
I didn’t really speak to Ms. Eckolls much after that, but I realized how right she was when I discovered that breaking the cycle of stories would be more difficult than simply stopping. At first I slipped up often, then slightly less often. Even as an adult, I still fight the urge to say something that will make me seem more interesting or knowledgeable or more “something” than I think I actually am.
Her words stuck with me through the years, though. My classmates and I grew older. We developed fleshed out, and sometimes not very kind perspectives on the world we lived in. The kind of perspectives that led a group of girls to look at the new custodian at the high school and say,
“Jeez, how bad do you have to fuck up to end up being a Janitor?”
And then, with a slightly different perspective and the same old words, I replied like a crazy person:
“That’s the guy they call when things get bad. That’s who isn’t afraid of barf or the weird toilet by the lunchroom. That’s the guy who reads all of the notes she finds on the floor and, if there is a ghost in the gym, then he knows about it and just isn’t telling anybody.
And I know that he doesn’t really look it, but regardless of how he got to be a janitor, I can guarantee you that he knows more about yourself than you do.”