Monday, June 22, 2015

From Truth to Fiction to Truth

This is a true story.  The names have been changed to protect the innocent...and shield the guilty.  I am at least partly culpable for what happened, and it is a sin I will bear until the end of my days.

     When I picked my four-year-old son up from preschool on a Friday some time ago, his teacher said, "Yesterday, one of the students hurt Ms. Francine's finger.  When she came in today, it was all black and swollen, so I suggested she go to the hospital to have it X-rayed."
     Ms. Francine is a classroom assistant.
     I replied, "Yeah, sounds like it might be broken or something, if it looked that bad.  I hope she's all right."
     His preschool teacher agreed.  I took my son's hand and we walked out.
     On the car ride home, I asked my son, "Who broke Ms. Francine's finger?"
     He immediately replied, "Bobby did it."
     "Yeah.  He grabbed it and twisted it."
     "No he didn't."
     "Yes he did," my son insisted.
     I thought about this for a moment and said, "You wouldn't do anything like that, would you?  That would hurt someone."
     "No," my son said.  "Are we having McDonald's tonight?"
     "Nope.  Spaghetti."

     I wasn't sure what to believe.  Little kids make up things all the time, especially to fill in gaps of information.  So later that weekend, I would try to trip him up by saying things like, "I can't believe Billy broke Ms. Francine's finger," and he would always correct me and say, "No, Bobby did it!"
     "Wow, that's awful that Wilhemina broke Ms. Francine's finger like that."
     "No she didn't!  Bobby did!"

     He was very consistent about who did it.  So later I asked, "What did Ms. Francine do when Bobby broke her finger?"
     "She screamed, 'STOP!'" 
     "No she didn't.  She wouldn't scream like that."
     "Yes she did."

     He was also consistent on this point, though I found his credibility somewhat questionable.  Especially because later he told me that Bobby had bit and squeezed Ms. Francine's finger, which I was certain wasn't true.  

     Over the next few days it became a joke at our household, as such absurd things tend to do: out of the blue I'd ask him to tell me what Ms. Francine did when Benny broke her finger, and he'd first correct me that Bobby had done it and then scream at the top of his lungs in an absurdly high-pitched voice, "STOP!"  Not that we didn't feel bad for Ms. Francine, but we do have routines that we enjoy.

     I imagined that if my son had grabbed and twisted a teacher's finger hard enough to break it, if we didn't get kicked out of that school, I would take him out of it anyway.  Accidental injury or not, Bobby's parents must have felt awful about it.  I still didn't believe that it was anything other than accidental.

     A few days later I saw Ms. Francine when I went to pick up my son from preschool.  Not only did she not have a splint on her finger, it didn't look the least bit swollen at all.  I asked her how her finger was doing, and she expressed surprise that I knew anything about it at all.  

     The real story, you see, was that Bobby ran over to give Ms. Francine a hug, and she just jammed her finger at the impact.  No grabbing, no squeezing, no biting, no break.  No screaming, "STOP!"

     (Interestingly, my wife thought that Ms. Francine screaming, "STOP!" was very credible.)

     I'm to blame, in part, for how the story got fictionalized: I had asked my son, "Who broke her finger?" rather than something more neutral like, "I heard Ms. Francine's finger got hurt.  Do you know what happened?"  So in this case, I led the witness by assuming the finger was broken.  My son filled in the rest with fictional biting, squeezing, and shrieking.  I never could get him to tell me how much of the non-event he actually witnessed.

     Nevertheless, he was correct that Bobby was involved.  Under intense questioning, he stuck to his guns.  Even with the fictional stuff.


Anonymous said...

My daughter also loves to tell me long stories in which it is sometimes hard to discern much truth. Maybe there is truth in her mind. I would never want to discourage storytelling, but there are moments when I wish for a little more truth and a little less fiction.

Unknown said...

Hi, Amy:

Good to hear from you.

Yeah, storytelling's a creative effort, and you don't want to stifle that too much. There are things about his day that my little boy simply won't tell me, or doesn't want to. I suspect it's because his experiences are the only things at his age that are his and his alone, and he's developing boundaries to enclose them.

Anyway, what's more fun: the truth, or a story straight from the imagination? It's frustrating, as I'm sure you know, to try to winnow out the kernels of truth, but at least you can laugh about the stories later.