Jonathan Pauls

. Pinocchio

Photo Credit: Juliana Coutinho (CC-by)

I do behavioral support at an elementary school and I work this kid Corey a lot. He’s new this year and has been referred to me over fifty times. It’s only December. Two of the referrals have been “majors”: one for cheating on a test and another for kicking someone in the privates. All the others have been labelled “non-compliance” or “disrespect” or however the referring teacher happened to define lying that day. Because that’s what he really does: he lies.

When I got the first few referrals I didn’t really know what to do. I was only about two days into a new job at a new school, and he’s in third grade: what exactly do you do to help an eight-year-old learn how to not lie—especially when his lies have minimal consequence for anyone involved. And he was just lying about what kind of trees are in front of his house (they’re maple; he said they were oak). He also lied once about the color of his pencil (which was in front of him on the desk). Who cares, right? Well his teacher Mrs. Bouffard did, that’s who.

On day two she wrote him up for “non-compliance” so I figured I’d go with that particular frame. I gave him my finest two-minute lecture on the importance of community and common expectations. I had nothing for him really, but I did find comfort in my line about truth building trust and that really, compliance is ultimately a skill of trust-building. That truly was the shining moment of the intervention. He was giving me the are-you-done-yet stare, blank but polite, the entire time. I talked far too much, asked no questions. It was clear that I was more accustomed to my old job working with teenagers. I shuffled him back to class and he promptly sat down and told his tablemate that I gave him chocolate. Wait! No! “I didn’t actually…”

Mrs. Bouffard wrote up Corey three more times the following week. I waited until Friday morning to check in with him because, despite the lengthy and detailed descriptions of his infractions, I still didn’t see a huge problem with his behavior. Apparently he liked to lie and he was continuing to lie. Really, I was learning more about the author of these write-ups than I was learning about Corey (and I was feeling pretty smug about it). I went up to his classroom to get him only to hear his teacher berating him for lying again. She looked at me with one of those wide-eyed can-you-even head shakes and then, while walking him down to the support room, he lied about what Mrs. Bouffard said he was lying about. The conversation went something like this:

“So what was Mrs. Bouffard talking to you about just then?”

“She was wrong again. She said I told everybody that my dad’s new Ferrari was red but I didn’t. I said it was green, which I would remember because you wouldn’t think a Ferrari would be green, would you.”

I had heard him say it was red when I was still in the hallway. “Well. That is interesting, isn’t it. Just curious, what color is the actual car?”

“Black. Blackish. Blackish green.”

“I heard you say it was red.”

He paused and looked at me. I saw nothing in his eyes.

“I get it. You’re with her.”

I had made a mistake. I knew the issue wasn’t about the color and yet I asked about the color. The fact was we all knew there wasn’t any car to begin with.

So there I was charged with managing a situation of, of what exactly? One of the referral check boxes is “disrespect.” Was he being disrespectful? Was Corey disrespecting his teacher and classmates by telling stories, the assumption being that truthful storytelling lends dignity and comfort to those around you? Or was it really a case of referral check box #4: “non-compliance,” as Mrs. Bouffard had begun to define it? Was Corey not complying with the cold hard facts of our shared, communal reality? And in this objective non-compliance to the truth, was Corey’s willful disregard for “fact” cause for punishment? I was still stumped, but I was new and people expected me to fix stuff like this. My best idea was that we’d just chat for a while. You know, take a see-where-he-takes-me-and-work-from-there approach. I was feeling more and more pressure to have a plan. At the time, it seemed very important to give the appearance that I knew what I was doing. And I was sure he’d give me ample material to work with if we just spent some time together. Boy, was I right.

In all my time working with kids, I’ve never been led down such a long and circuitous road of deceit. It got to the point where I was fairly certain that absolutely nothing he was telling me was true. He was calling his older brother three different names (he only had one brother—and he was younger), he claimed to have climbed “Mt. Everett in China or somewhere,” he performed emergency surgery on his neighbor’s cow, and not to be overlooked, he literally flew (flapping his arms and all) from his rooftop to the school playground the last Saturday of summer vacation. After our little ninety-minute chat, I decided to flip through his chart to see if I could find anything of relevance. Turns out he was left for dead in a motel dumpster at the age of two weeks and was pulled from his second foster home at the age of three. When the state social workers showed up to take him away he was drunk.

Corey kept on lying. He kept telling story after story with vacant, dull eyes and a slack face. Mrs. Bouffard couldn’t have been more disappointed. She had concerns: he’s not making any friends, he’s disrupting instruction with misleading information, he needs medicine. She meant well, but I could tell her patience was waning. So I kept on responding to the referrals every few days and having circular conversations with Corey that never penetrated his cloud of lies. I knew, I knew the whole time, that the lies weren’t the real problem. But they were so attractive I couldn’t help myself: I had to refute the obviously absurd or challenge the tall tales that I was actually present for.

As you might imagine, meetings were called. We had long conversations around shiny, wooden tables with shaking heads and deep sighs and sermons on the evils of permissive, non-contingent parenting. Lots of people attended: grade-level teachers, the principal, the guidance counselor, the behavior specialist consultant genius, the speech and language guy, and me. There were iPads open and research cited and diagnoses pondered with associated medications—who should call the doctor? I mentioned the notion of weak attachment and got some rolling eyes in return. Apparently a former employee labelled every kid with reactive attachment disorder and ran knitting circles and birth re-enactments for all. Instead we mocked up an air-tight incentive plan with an 80% truth-telling target to be hit by November with opportunities to earn extra choice time and lunch with the principal.

The next day at recess Corey threw rocks at the women doing recess duty and earned lunch with the principal.

After the behavior plan was implemented the rate of referrals on Corey doubled. It appeared that the plan simply justified a reduced tolerance on the part of the adults. There were no skill-building components to his plan. The assumption seemed to be that he already had the skills to tell the truth, he just wasn’t motivated to fly right and with a few special perks dangled in front of him he’d wake up and get with the program. But in reality, Corey was just getting “paper-trailed.” We had made a plan all right: we made a plan to fatten up this kid’s file. And we all know what happens to kids with thick files.

Once all of this dawned on me, I started to panic. It was only October and the new kid in town was already being defined as unfit for education. It was only October and I was losing my first frequent flyer to the institutional machine. I had to put a wrench in the gears. I decided to stop by the principal’s office for a chat. Even though he was already late to a meeting, he let me in, and I laid it all out on the table. I told him that we needed to do something different or we were going to lose this kid. I argued that lying wasn’t really that big of a deal and that we needed to have patience. I knew that because of my newness on the job and the significant style and perspective differences between Mrs. Bouffard and myself that I didn’t have any influence on the way she approached her work or what she thought of Corey, so I asked to change the approach that we’d use in the support room. I got the OK.

I had managed to spare him the details because the truth was that I didn’t really have any details. So I used his permission as a blank check. The next time I got a referral for Corey I was going to pull him out of the classroom immediately and for a big chunk of time. I was fairly certain that this would achieve two outcomes: a) I’d get to dig in with Corey in more meaningful ways, and b) I might just gain a little with Mrs. Bouffard. It seemed she had grown to dislike Corey and clearly enjoyed the time he wasn’t in the room with her. And sure enough, I got a referral that afternoon. Apparently, right after lunch Corey came back to the classroom and told everyone he has just eaten the best steak in his life. (At first, Mrs. Bouffard was simply dropping the hammer on his lie about having steak for lunch. When it was confirmed by one of the favored students that he did indeed have a steak in his lunch box, the narrative changed to the fact that a cold, day-old steak could never be labeled “the best” by any objective criteria and that he was disrupting the class with meaningless information.)

That was the beginning of my walks with Corey. My objective was to keep him talking. Every other adult in the building was trying to do the opposite: to shut him up. But I wanted to see if the lies ever ran out. So we walked. And after a couple weeks, I became convinced that the lies were never going to run out. Upon that realization a switch was flipped. Instead of being interested in the creativity of his stories, I started getting bored. And then I started to get a little anxious leading up to our ten o’clock appointments. I needed a real plan. Out of desperation, I decided to try something new: I decided to start believing him.

It was hard at first. How do you keep a straight face when you learn that someone’s mother has confirmed sea-monster DNA in her legs? Or that random Coke cans contain alien bones although the acid in the Coke dissolves the vast majority of them because alien bones are more like shark cartilage than anything else? I couldn’t find that place inside that would allow me to just nod and move on. I couldn’t validate the invalid, as they say. If I were to continue on a path of believing, I was going to have to do something to help myself believe.

To that end, I tried something new. My work was to assimilate the new information from Corey into my larger world view: a simple game of what-if. What if his mom really had sea-monster DNA in her legs? I turned that doubt into a statement of fact and then counted the assumptions: sea monsters exist, DNA is different in different parts of the body, human chimeras exist and Corey’s mom is one of them, Corey actually knows who his mom is, and more! Add all those things into my cognition and then, and only then, move on. Don’t overplay the wonder of it all. Just take it as fact with all the conviction and faith we place in reading the newspaper.

Immediately it got easier. In fact, it got fun again. I started a notebook in order to keep track of my rapidly changing universe. And, as you might imagine, assuming every absurdity was actually truth allowed me to start inventing my own extensions of Corey’s world. Because when you believe in hover-cars you know you can drive across water. When you believe in winged horsecows, then you know you’ll never run out of milk when you compete in sky gymkhana. And when you believe that your ancestors buried Spanish gold underneath the school you’ll probably try to dig for it whenever you have a few spare minutes while on recess duty, which, in turn, sparks interesting conversations with other adults and then the principal.

I started having dreams about Corey’s world. While a little shocking at first, it opened a window to some of the smaller details of my changing reality. I re-upped my routines connected to lucid dreaming which then opened more of an interactive experience. While this led to interrupted sleep patterns (and crankier interventions with kids not named Corey), I started “living” more of this new world. I began to look forward to sleep. To be honest, I began enjoying parts of Corey’s world more than my own. Day by day, he kept giving me more gifts. He’d have a story about a new animal he saw in his backyard or a new technology that was communicated to him through the tinfoil from his sandwich. Night by night, I kept living new experiences. I would report back to Corey, through my own stories and questions, a reflection of an increasingly shared reality, if only shared between the two of us.

And then two weeks ago, I decided to take this whole thing to the next level. I decided to directly challenge Corey’s reality in an offer to match my own, but not in the way you’re probably thinking. I wasn’t going to try to drag him toward the cold, hard facts of the communal public school third grade experience. But I was going to see if he could wander from his own frames of perception toward someone else’s. It could be anyone else’s, but we’d start with mine. If this showed any signs of success it could point toward a corrective therapy that would guide Corey along a path that would begin to join with other paths, with other kids potentially. My first attempt at a bridge happened on the play structure in back of the school. We were out at recess and he brought up flying again. He mentioned that he flew in loop-de-loops from his three-story tree house to the candy factory on the other side of the mountain. I decided to take the leap.

“Corey, I have to tell you something. I didn’t believe you about the flying at first. But this past weekend I gave it a try. I climbed onto my roof and watched a group of crows for a while. I noticed that they flew a little bouncy with each other and that maybe if I tried to fly a little bouncy I could blend in and join them. I’ve always liked crows. So I got down in a squat and did a few crow hops along the ridge of my house and on the last hop I skipped over the chimney and gave a few quick, hard flaps and took off. Sure enough the rest of the crows accepted me and we went off together to the top of Mt. Howard.”

“I’ve done that, too. Crows tell good stories. Who were you with?”

“I think I was next to one named Nick and then there was a Josh somewhere behind us that he was talking to. I couldn’t believe it, Corey. I couldn’t believe it really worked. My arms were wings and they looked just like this.” I reached out my hand and my fingers had turned into a layered splay of ebony. Long, black feathers extended from where my fingers used to be. I bent my elbow and a black plume fanned out in a broad arc from shoulder to wrist. Another child’s voice, a fourth-grader named Zack, snapped me back with a sing-songy request to go to the bathroom.

I held up my feathered hand to my face and looked at Corey. His eyes lit up, but his face was still holding its same slack indifference.

“Can I? Can I? I gotta peeeeeee!”

I turned to Zack, silent. I waited for his reaction to my transformation.

“Can’t you talk? What’s going on?! I gotta gooooooo!”

“Zack, I have feathers instead of fingers.”

Zack was struck pale. His eyes darted between my hand and my face. “Uh. No you don’t. You’re crazy!” He laughed nervously and ran off toward another kid. He kept looking back at me giggling. I looked at my hand and the feathers were gone. It was just my dopey hand. I turned to Corey. I looked into his eyes; they were dull and hazy again.

“You saw it, right?”

“Are you going to fly with your crow friends again?”

“You did see it. I’m not crazy! You saw it!”

“Sometimes I fly on the back of a seagull just like the babies do when they are born. You can find mothers that miss their kids so much that they let you fly right on their backs even though you’re really too big to be doing that kind of thing. But you just can’t grab on like you want to, you have to keep flapping the whole time and hang on with your legs.”

I was still stuck on my black feathers. And I was mad at Zack for making them go away. I looked back at Corey with desperation. “I want to fly on a seagull too, Corey.”

“You can.” He paused and locked my eyes with an intensity I hadn’t felt before. “You can. Just find one of the lonely, sad mothers. They’ll look at you and believe in you like you were one of their own children and then you’ll know.”

pencilJonathan has been writing for a long time. Recently, he stopped throwing everything away half done and started contributing to local papers. He also writes a couple blogs. Jonathan lives in Vermont with his wife and children. When not writing or washing dishes, he helps kids with behavioral challenges and tends to his chickens. Email: jed.pauls[at]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email