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There, podcast listeners. Ira here once again, using this space at the top of the show to recommend a podcast to you. This is a new one that's out now from our coworkers at Cereal. And if you like our show, I think you might like this one too. It's called The Kids of Rutherford County, hosted by a reporter in Nashville named Maribah Knight. Few years back, Maribah began investigating a county in Tennessee where kids were being thrown in jail for skipping school, schoolyard fights, underage drinking, all kinds of common misbehavior that we do not punish with jail time. Some of these kids were as little as seven and eight years old, thrown in handcuffs and shackles. Throwing them in jail like this, by the way, was totally illegal. When Maribah looked into it, what she discovered was this mini legal drama like you would see on television centered around this young, down on his luck, juvenile court lawyer who tries to raise the alarm on what's happening to these kids. It's a tight four episodes. They are all available right now. I've heard three, loved them. Can't wait to hear the fourth. If you're curious, search for the Kids of Ruthford County wherever you get your podcasts.


A quick warning.


There are curse words that are unbeeped in today's episode of the show. If you prefer a beeped version, you can find that at.


Our website, thisamericanlife.




From WBZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Hannah Jofie-Walt, sitting in for Iroquois. I was little, maybe six or seven, bedtime. I was deploying my best delay tactics. I needed water then a Band-Aid. I think I had a lot of other demands too that I don't remember. Then this part is vivid. I remember I asked my mom, How do you have the answers for everything? She was on her way out the door. She said, Oh, I don't have the answers to everything. I stayed up for hours. It was a deeply unsettling thought. I hadn't remembered that moment in a long time, but working on the stories in today's episode, I kept being reminded of it. All kids eventually learn that the adults in their lives don't have the answers to everything. Right? I think so. I ran this by the ones I have on hand at home. Do you remember a time where I did something or said something where you were like, Oh, you're just a person. You don't know everything.


No, I never had that epiphany because I never believed that you guys knew everything or were perfect, like ever. Straight out, the woman was like, These are flawed people right here.


This is Jacob. He's 12. Can you tell? I just... He was not going to bite.


Yeah, I mean, I guess it was really surprising to me when I found out that you used to smoke. I was like, That doesn't really sound like you. Like, even though as a baby, I know you were a flawed person. I just didn't expect that from you. You did.


Not know I was a flawed person as a baby. You're right. You depended on me for everything.


Even as I was being formed in your belly, I was like, This is a flawed belly.


Get out of here. You're excuse. Go get your brother. Jacob's brother is still little enough that he hasn't started trolling me yet. Micah, he's 10. I told him about the moment I first understood my mom didn't know everything. I'm wondering, are there any moments like that that you can remember?




No hesitation there. Micah can remember when it happened. Specific moments like this one from when he was six or seven years old.


Yeah. At one point, I had a nightmare, and I came to my parents' room.


To- Me? Yeah, your room. You can talk to me.


Great. So I walk into this room and I'm just like, See, the lights are off. Then I try to wake up my dad. And then I'm like, Hey. I keep saying, Hey. Hey. He's not responding. I have to shake him, and then he wakes up, and he's like... He jumps, and he's just like... It just makes me think like, Are you scared that something's going to happen.


As well? Oh, because he was scared.


Yeah, and also if it takes that much to actually wake you up, then that also scares me.


Why? Because if something.


Happens and I'm stuck in my room or whatever and I can't come over here or whatever, if I yell for you, you guys aren't going to answer. And that's hard for me. And then I'm just like, What? It's like something actually happened.




Not just that we might not answer if he yells or jump up if he comes into the room. It's also he feels like, shouldn't we already know what's going wrong while we're sleeping? That's a real question, Mike, I had.






If I'm somewhere else and I know that something's happening, fly through the window. If I was in school or whatever and something happened and you would just be at work typing, whatever, and you'd be like, Oh, I sensed something in the force. And then just flies through the window and enters the school and just picks me up.


Did you really think that?


That's exaggeration, but something of the sort. But before I realized that guy was great.


And what about after?


No, nobody can save me. It's me, myself, and I and whatever problems around me. These are the only people, the only things that are around me, and there's nothing that can help me but me. And that's a scary thought for a seven-year-old.


For anybody?


For anyone, but especially a seven-year-old. Yeah.


That's a pretty enormous leap, right? From my dad takes a minute to wake up to I'm totally alone in the universe. But I think this is what can happen when you're faced with the fallibility of adults in front of you. One tiny moment and your mind takes you to all sorts of huge conclusions. You enter this freefall, and it doesn't just happen with parents. It doesn't just happen when you're young either. You can keep having these moments with all sorts of grown people. Adults you'd previously assumed were all-knowing, may be omniscient, but instead are fallible, ignorant, or just tired. Today's show, what happens in that freefall and what happens after. We have people who are entering the post fallibility world. The scales are just falling from their eyes, and we see how they react, how they come out of it, and what happens next. Stay with us.


Act One: See something, slay something. Our first story is about a kid who really doesn't want to question the adults in her life. She's in middle school in Texas, great student, likes her teachers, and she wants to trust the authority of adults, wants to believe they know what's best for her, even when the most powerful people in her school begin to make that very difficult. Talia Richmond covers education for the Dallas Morning News. She tells us what happened.


When the story begins, Madison was 13, starting eighth grade, and she'd finally cracked the middle school code. She had a good group of friends, people from her cheer team and some kids in the theater program. She messaged them all the time in group chats, said they were like a lunch table she could carry around in her pocket. And she was speaking up more in class, like in math, her favorite subject.


It's not like reading and writing where there could be an infinite amount of answers to what does this poem mean? But in math, there's always a singular answer to a question.


I wish I felt that way about math. It's. But when you can never get to that singular answer, it's not so fun. Madison hoped to get into this prestigious high school program, the same one her older brother and sister had gone to. She seemed totally on track to do that until this one morning, her second semester, January 26th, Madison was in second period PE, sitting in her assigned spot toward the bleachers. She noticed the new kid in class in front of her. He was talking to another boy. And she heard the new kid say something.


I heard this kid was telling his friend, Don't go to school tomorrow. The other kid asked why. The kid was like, Don't worry about it. I don't think my mind first went to a gun threat because I subconsciously didn't think that kid was a danger. He was a new kid. It was like, well, it could have just been a joke.


The bell rings. Madison leaves the gym, goes through the rest of her school day. Then in the last class of the day, she starts thinking about what she heard, Don't come to school tomorrow.


Then I was like, Well, I can't just not take that seriously. I really started getting stressed out over it. And I think the only thing that was going through my head is I can't keep this to myself. And I wasn't going to be able to do anything alone with that information. I had to tell someone.


Madison was a toddler when Sandy Hook happened. As far back as she remembers, her schools have done lockdown drills every year. In her middle school, there are posters telling kids, See something? Say something. When school lets out, she decides to text one of her closest friends.


I wanted validation that my suspicions may be correct.


She explains what she heard the new boy in PE say, and she texts, I can't remember if he was smiling or not, but I don't think he was. The more Madison tells her friend, the more worried the friend gets. Wtf, she writes in all caps. That's crazy. Madison and her friend agreed to message a handful of their best friends across two group chats to tell them what she overheard and to warn them. Then Madison tells her friends she's going to talk with her mom.


I said, Well, hold on.


This is her mom, Lisa.


It was like 4:45, 4:50. I was like, Okay, everyone's gone. Give mom a second. I started pacing the floor because I was like, Who can I reach out to? So that we can escalate this concern.


Lisa regularly uses phrases like, escalate this concern. She's an operations director, manages more than 100 employees. She's good at putting out fires. Her kids sometimes say that mom is in her Olivia Pope mode.


What mom needs you to do now is to cease and desist on any further conversation and let some adults look into it. About that time, my phone rang and it was Ms. Samples.


Ms. Sharla Samples is the assistant principal at Madison School. She was calling because the school had actually gotten wind of the situation already because of Madison's text to her friends. Word travels fast in the middle school.


I said, Thank you for calling. Madison just alerted me to a concern, and I was just trying to figure out how to contact you.


Ms. Samples wanted to know more details from Lisa and Madison. Madison cried as she told her everything over a speaker phone. Ms. Samples was reassuring.


She told me at the end of the phone call that she was going to take care of it and that school was going to be safe.


Later that evening, school police went to the boy's house. They found no weapons and no intent to carry out violence of any kind. It was a false alarm. Everything was okay. Everyone was safe. So the school shooting scare was just that, a scare. In my experience as an education reporter, that thing happens all the time. What I'd never seen is what happened to Madison the next day at school. During first period, Madison gets called to Ms. Sample's office. That's the assistant principal who called Lisa and Madison the night before. Madison had actually never been to the principal's office before. She thinks maybe they have an update about yesterday.


I go to Ms. Sample's office, and she tells me, You can take a seat.


Ms. Sample, in her assistant principal way, asked Madison some questions about the day before. Ask to see the text Madison sent her friends. Madison shows her the text, tries to answer all of her questions. I texted you. Ms. Samples looks over everything, and then she turns to Madison.


And she says, So I was looking through the evidence that I gathered, and I've decided that this was a false accusation.


Ms. Samples had determined that by texting her friends first before telling an adult, she had essentially spread a rumor that there'd be a school shooting. On page 11 of the student code of conduct said students cannot, quote, make false accusations or perpetrate hoaxes regarding school safety.


At first I was like, Wait, I'm in trouble. I could barely what she was saying. I was very confused because they told us, See something, say something. I did do that. She told me that we all have to face the consequences of our actions. And she said, Unfortunately, the punishment is the AEP place, advancement.


Daep stands for Disciplinary Alternative Education Program. It's Texas's version of school for kids with serious discipline problems, a place where kids get sent for fighting or selling drugs. Madison didn't know much about DAEP, except that it was a bad thing. This wouldn't be some quick stint at DAEP. She'd be going there for the next 73 school days, the rest of eighth grade.


I remember my job physically dropped and it took me a minute to process what she said, because before this, I felt like I was doing the right thing and that I was helping. So she gave me some tissues because I started crying. And I sat there sobbing, thinking, What am I going to do? What am I going to tell my mom?


When Lisa got the call from his samples, the call where Lisa would learn her daughter was being sent to DAEP, and to the school to be for the rest of eighth grade, she was at her sister's place.


It almost felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. It felt like she had the wrong kid. I mean, my kid's a good kid. She's never in trouble. She doesn't talk back to teachers. They love her. They have great things to say about her. I was so out of my mind that I thought, I'm not going to remember anything this woman is saying. I told my sister, Put your phone on record because I'm going to need to replay this so that I can remember what she's saying. Because financial disruption in this school. Can I ask a question? I think that there's a lot of angles to perceive this by. I think that Maddie owes the young man an apology if she misinterpreted him. But I implore you, can we talk about this some more? If there's anything- We can talk about it some more. Okay. If there's anything within your ability to make a different decision, then I'm pleading with you to try to look at this through a different lens.


On the call, Lisa tries to get missamples to explain the school's reasoning. How did they consider this a false accusation?


Her claim was that a kid said, Don't come to school tomorrow. And the kid said, Why not? And the other kid said, Don't worry about it. Is the false claim that that conversation never existed, that those words were not said? It is not that the words were not said. It is that she took those words and she put her own inference on them, and then she went and told her friends that there was going to be a pool shooting.


Ms. Samples said that students are supposed to immediately tell an adult or call an anonymous tip line after they hear something suspicious. Hearing her answer filled in part of the story for me because the school district, Louisville ISD, never made Ms. Samples or any other administrators available for me to interview.


I think one of the biggest things that is bothersome is that she held on to the information for so long, and then she chose to spread it on… She took the safety of what she felt at the time, whatever she interpreted it as, and then she didn't tell the right authorities, and she spread it- She but- -and it caused a panic. And it essentially is considered a false accusation in the student's code of conduct.


And so for waiting all day, then texting her friends about 30 minutes before telling her mom, they were giving Madison 73 school days in D-A-E-P, kicking her out of her middle school. When Lisa first told me about her daughter's punishment, I think I gasped a half dozen times. I had never heard of anything like this. In another big Texas district, fighting another student could get you up to 45 days in D-A-E-P on your third offense. Making a quote, terroristic threat would get you 30 days. I couldn't make sense of why Madison's middle school was throwing the book at her. It is true that schools across the US are dealing with a big increase in shooting threats. Some are hoaxes, but a hoax can still disrupt school and threats that turn out to be fake, those still scare kids and parents. So maybe Madison's middle school felt like they had to take a tough stance on kids who were involved in any way in a threat that doesn't materialize. But 73 days? Lisa was also racking her brain for an explanation. And she told me at first she didn't let herself consider that a punishment this severe had anything to do with the fact that Madison, like her, is black.


I really tried to keep my mind away from that, but she's 5'6, she wears her hair natural, very big, very proud, and I just felt like maybe she wasn't being given the same lens that they would look at a fair, blue-eyed, petite girl.


Black students are often given a different lens when it comes to school discipline. Federal civil rights investigations have repeatedly found evidence of black kids being punished more severely for the same things that a white kid might get away with. In Madison School district, only 12% of students are black, but in the latest data, they made up 33% of all kids in DAEP. Lisa was hyperconscious of maintaining her cool during the phone call.


If I went in there being irate, I was just going to be another angry black woman. I kept it very even toned because I wanted to negotiate. I wanted you to feel comfortable enough and not have your defenses up to talk with me. Let's lay this out and let's talk about this. Sure. Here's another question for you is, so… Ms.


Samples keeps trying to explain the disruption Madison caused and how she potentially tarnished the boy's reputation at school. Sure, Lisa agrees, that is bad.


But we're holding her to a standard of a grownup with a mature brain, and she's a 13-year-old who made a error, but it wasn't done with malice, but this punishment feels very punitive, as though she did whatever she did with malice, and I keep using that word malice. She seriously thought there was a threat. I really wish that we could talk through this some more and… I think of other ways to make this a learning opportunity for Madison and not turning her into a juvenile delinquent. I understand your point.


Ms. Samples listens but stays firm. She tells Lisa there's a formal process if you want to appeal this, but she isn't going to undo or reduce the punishment or explain its severity. Lisa does decide to appeal the school's decision. The administration gives her a hearing date, and Lisa goes into Olivia Pope mode, spends hours each day preparing a defense of her daughter. She keeps Madison at home out of alternative school as they wait for the appeal hearing, which leaves Madison with a lot of time to think about the punishment and what this will mean for her future plans. One thought really seeds inside her. What if Ms. Sample's punishment is really bad? Because what I did was really bad.


In my eyes, I thought she knows what she's doing and she knows the correct punishments to give and I shouldn't question it.


What's behind that belief? Is that how you've always felt about.


School principals? Yeah. I thought that there were rules there for a reason and the principals put them there because they know what they're doing.


For a kid who's never been to the principal's office before, it's a powerful feeling, and it begins to take a toll on her. She starts eating less. Her doctor puts her on anti-anxiety medications. The appeal takes place at the middle school 12 days after Madison got in trouble. It feels like a court date. Madison, her mom, and her grandma show up with the family's new lawyer. They sit at a table along with Ms. Samples and the head principal, Dr. Barry Dyster. Both women are white. What were you thinking about seeing Samples and Dyster for the first time since this happened? Did you have an idea of how you wanted to come off to them?


Well, at first I just wanted to be as polite as I could. But then my grandma was like, Hey, stop smiling.


Why do you think she said that?


Because she said, We're not here to be friends.


Did you agree?


I don't think I likethat. Fully agreed.


Madison knows that the point of this appeal is to get the punishment reversed, to get her official record cleared, and to get herself back into normal eighth grade. But that's not all Madison wants out of this hearing. What were you hoping that you could get them to understand about your situation?


That I wasn't the kid that they were seeing me as. Maybe they saw me wrong. Maybe they just don't know me enough.


What was the kid they were seeing you as in your mind?


Not a good kid. The kind who would cause trouble and lie about stuff. I was thinking maybe if we have all these advocates for me, my mom, my grandma, this lawyer, that we could give the facts, rationalize, and just talk it through with them, and it would all be okay. All right.


I'll do my best.




Right, let's begin.


This hearing is convened on.




eighth, 2023.


For the.




Of an.


Appeal- Doctor Deister, the head principal, kicks things off. First, she asks Ms. Samples to review the school's official timeline of events. The tone is pretty damning toward Madison.


Madison's choice had a great impact on many different people. Several people were scared about the safety of.


The school because her messages started spreading.




Had to be sent.


Out to the whole school community because the message.




Spreading, which in my hands were shaking. I remember feeling like I was in her office again. At this time.


The student and/or those wishing to speak on the.


Student's behalf are invited to do so.


This is Dr. Dysdere again.


This is.


Your opportunity to explain why you disagree with the investigation findings or the disciplinary decision and what outcome you are requesting. I had prepared what I was going to say because I didn't want to be emotional. In Madison, I knew she was agitated and she looked nervous. She looked really nervous.


Just like in her eyes?


Yeah, I could see it in her eyes. I didn't want to let her down. I did not want to let her down. Thank you for allowing me to respond to the assertions that Madison engaged in perpetrating a false hoax or disrupting school.


Lisa Peppers her rebuttal with references to the Texas education statutes.


Then under Section 4206, it goes on to say that the student has to knowingly initiate that they are making a false claim that is baseless or false. Madison did not violate this code.


Then she asked them to remember that Madison's a kid, how it's a normal thing for kids to check in with their friends for advice.


I think that the school did the right thing by jumping into action and making the assessment that this was not a threat. But if it had been something that he meant different when he said those words, we would be thanking Madison for raising the bill.


Lisa concludes. Madison's grandmother speaks up for her, so does their lawyer. Then it's Madison's turn. School administrators have the right to ask Madison questions, and she's really nervous about it.






So Madison, you and I talked a little bit.


Can you remind me what you said and.


Why you chose not to tell someone at school? I believe I said it wasn't the first thing on my mind. I'm not sure.


No, okay. I really want you to remind me because I know we talked about it. I just wanted to hear.


What you had.






Help me.


Understand why you put it in two different groups.


I just wanted to make sure that all of my friends knew and that they were safe.


Okay. How did it go from.


Don't come to.


School to guns?


Because today, that's what you think of. You think there's going to be some school violence at school.


But you didn't.


Hear him say.


Guns, right?


It was at that moment sitting there in her swivel chair being interrogated by her principal that Madison realized something.


The way she asked the questions, she wasn't trying to find out my perspective at all. It was like a light switch being turned on. Like, Oh, maybe they aren't as I see I saw them before. They're not on my side. They were trying to form a case against me.


At the end of the hearing, Ms. Samples recommends that Madison's sentence be reduced from 73 days in the AAP to 30 days. There's no explanation as to why. The principals were lowering Madison's punishment, but they weren't erasing it.


Even after all of the reasoning and the logical talking we tried to do with them, they still thought that I deserved punishment. That rooted the idea that, okay, they don't like me.


Lisa watched her daughter from across the table, and she realized Madison was getting a lesson that Lisa had hoped she'd be able to put off for a while.


It's something she was going to learn later in life that there were going to be cards stacked against her for being a woman, being a woman of color. There were going to be all these things that she was going to have to combat. I was sorry that that lesson happened at 13 and not when she was older and more equipped and educated to battle it. I deal with it every day. That was sad to me.


Lisa and Madison didn't have to live with her 30 days. In Madison School district, there are three levels of appeal, and they could try again. And this time, the judges don't work at Madison's Middle School. They plead their case to a committee of three administrators from different schools in the district, not Dr. Dyster. Their decision arrives by email in less than a day.


I was in bed and with one eye open, I saw that something came through, and so it took me a second to get my vision together. But when I read it, I just ran upstairs and jumped in her bed and I was like, We won.


When educators outside the school looked at the situation, they saw Madison the way she saw herself. As a kid who never meant to cause a disruption. A kid who maybe just needed a refresher on how to best go about reporting suspicious activity. After about three weeks of being away, Madison was cleared to go back to school. Shortly after I wrote about Madison's story for the Dallas Morning News, the district launched an investigation into the way she was punished. Dr. Dyster went on administrative leave and eventually resigned. She didn't respond to request to be interviewed for this story, but in an email, she said her decision to leave was voluntary. She also wrote, quote, All I can say is that every day, administrators are faced with making harder and harder decisions. And in those decision making efforts, I have always done my best to treat others with kindness, with dignity, and to follow the district guidelines. This whole mess didn't derail Madison the way she feared. She's in ninth grade now. She got into that special high school program.


I learned this word in class the other day. It's open-minded skepticism, where you view things from both a perspective of interest and you can also be cautious about things and be skeptical.


That was your new worldview? Yeah. It felt different from before in that it was all open minded, none of the skepticism? Right. Madison says it was so much easier back when she just believed she could trust every adult. This new way of dealing with the world where she has to figure out which adults she can trust and which ones deserve her skepticism. It just takes a lot more brain power.


Talia Richmond is a reporter with the Dallas Morning News. This story was produced by Chris Bendarev. In preparing today's episode, we asked a bunch of people when they had this realization that adults are flawed. People talked about moments when they saw adults lie, make mistakes, be reckless, cry in front of them. A woman who brought her friends from college back to the farm where she grew up to meet her parents. And her dad started acting really distant and she realized, Oh, my God. He's intimidated. But the experience we heard the most was like Madison had. The realization that adults might not be looking out for you might not protect you. We heard several stories about experiencing real school shootings and lockdowns. And in those stories, what stood out to people was the way adults fumbled. A 20-year-old college student named Adele Morris told us that two weeks after a gunman shot and killed a teacher at her school, the University of North Carolina, they had another lockdown, someone armed on campus. And Adele watched her professor, someone who probably didn't grow up having lockdown drills like she had.


He didn't turn off the lights. I don't remember if he...




Didn't lock the door very quickly. He actually started.


Playing skits. It was my.


Portuguese class, Portuguese skits on the SMART board really loudly. And I just didn't know what was going on. You don't know where the gunman is. And at a really loud volume, it was unsettling to me. Some of the professors, one of my friends professors, led a round of applause for the maintenance men who had come and locked the door, even though there was a gunman on campus and you're not supposed to make noise.


Adults who failed to protect children. There's the abstract fear that adults can't protect you, and there's watching it happen right in front of you. I've been thinking, watching the news from Gaza and Israel this week and the week before that and the weeks before those, about how many children are experiencing the most terrifying version of this? The most brutal version of adults not having a handle on things. We are all witnessing children who are directly facing the fact that the adults around them cannot protect them. Children facing that fact, not as part of a slow understanding of adult fallibility as they age and develop, but as a sudden reckoning. A three and a half year old in Israel whose parents rushed her into a safe room and kept telling her to stay quiet because Hamas was shooting right outside. Her dad told her and her sister, Stay silent. He kept telling her that for 10 hours. He could not stop what was happening. He could just tell her to keep quiet. That's all he could do for her. A video from Gaza shows two kids, siblings, holding hands in the street right after an Israeli airstrike.


They've just come out from under the rubble and they're covered in dust and blood. They're looking around for their mom and their brother. Around them, the street is chaotic. People are moving in every direction. The older kid spots his brother on the other side of the street and yells, That's my brother. Here's my brother. The one in blue. That's my brother. He can't get to him. He needs the help of an adult. Please, I'm begging you, he says. That's my brother. A few adults do help. They rush over to the brother. He's tiny, crying with a bloody nose. Come here, they say. They guide him to his siblings, take their hands, and join them. Now the three kids are hand in hand, looking up at the adults. The tiny kid says, I need my mom, but nobody produces the mom. When the video ends, the adults look like they're about to continue on and rejoin the chaos around them. The three kids are left there holding hands. Coming up, a man-sized first grader. That's in a minute when our program continues. It's This American Life. I'm Hannah Joffy-Walt sitting in for Iarra Glass. Today's show, we're talking about those experiences where you discover the grownups around you can and will fail you.


A revelation that can take a long time to sink in, as it does in our next story from comedian Gary Goleman. That's Act Two: Dad's Big Idea. Gary Goleman tells the story on stage about something that happened when he was seven years old. He was about to go into second grade and right before the school year started that September, his mom had some friends over one night.


So on that night in my house, there had to be 24 or 25 moms. And in the 1970s, that meant there were probably four carols, there were six phillises or fill-I. There were two Auntie Judy's, and there was one Just Judy. And Just Judy was Judy Burns, who was royalty in our neighborhood because she was the first-grade teacher, and she was also my next-door neighbour, and she was sitting in my kitchen. It was like having a celebrity there. And she was so down to earth. She was able to maintain that idea that Kipling so beautifully espoused in the poem, If, where she was able to walk with kings yet keep the common touch. She just sat like she was just one of us. And so I was so excited to see her, and I tried to maintain my composure. But not only was she my favorite teacher, she was also the mother of my favorite person in the world, Jonathan Burns. Jonathan Burns was in fourth grade, but in the 1970s, a fourth grader was lawfully permitted to be your legal guardian. They permitted him to take me anywhere. Two summers before, he had taken me to see Jaws when I was five.


I just loved Jonathan Burns and his mom was in my kitchen and I tried to play it cool and just be like, I said, Hey, Mrs. Burns, how was your summer? And she said, Oh, it was excellent, Gary. How was your summer? I said, It was good. It was good. And then I couldn't suppress my enthusiasm, and I cut right to the chase. I said, You talk to Jonathan? And she laughed. She said, Yes, Gary. I talk to my son nearly every day. And then I ran out of small talk, and I thought I'd get in a little bit of business. I wanted to get down to the nitty-grit, and I said, Mrs. Burns, I know this might be out of order and everything, but can you tell me who I'm going to have for second grade? Am I going to have Morrison or Mrs. Turner? And she looked at me in a way I felt there was something off. And she said, Gary, your father hasn't told you? And I said, No, I see him from noon to 7:00 on Sundays, according to the divorce decree. And she said, Well, Gary, your father went to the principal and the superintendent of schools insisting that you repeat the first grade.


And at that moment, I invented a phrase that is quite commonplace now, but had never been uttered in September of 1977. I said, Wait, what? I remember I said, But Mrs. Burns, I was in the top reading group, Sun Up. Sun Up was the top reading group. We read beautifully. Never had to put our finger on it. Never had to sound anything out. The other groups, it was like a sideshow. Isn't that how you determine whether somebody should go to second grade, whether they can read? I said, What reason did he give? And she said, He didn't feel you were mature enough. And we showed him charts and studies showing what damage and impact this will have on a kid. And yet he said, You weren't mature enough. He said, I know my son. I said, He does? You're with me six hours a day, five days a week. He said, Mrs. Burns, I'm darn near precocious. You know how a six-year-old boy knows he's precocious? And how you can tell a six-year-old is precocious? He uses the word precocious. Because I had been called it so frequently by so many teachers and parents in the neighborhood, and kids would tell me if my father says you're precocious.


I read my brothers, my oldest brother was a senior accounting major, and he would open up his accounting textbook, point to a word. It was this little parlor trick, but we would do it in the living room because we were not in a Tennessee Williams play. He would point to a word and I would say it, and he would always pick something that was obscure. I remember one of the words he pointed to and I said, Oh, fiduciary? I was reading at a 16th-grade level and also mature because you'll notice I didn't giggle at the douche in fiduciary, which you aren't even able to clamp. When my father came that Sunday, I said, Dad, why am I repeating the first grade? What about when the kids tease me? He said, You tell them your father didn't feel you were mature enough to go to second grade. I thought, Oh, yeah, that'll mollify him. I remember I asked my mom years later, I said, Why did he hold me back? Why didn't you get in the way? She said, Well, you know Daddy. I said, Yes. She just was afraid to argue with him. He could make her cry by getting very angry.


The effect was almost immediate. When I started my second run through first grade, it was just a new me. And it started this just I zealously hated school. I started faking sick, and then I would start to get an anxious stomach every morning and just dread. And it was also very difficult to make friends because I was not only emotionally and socially more mature than these kids, I was also physically much larger than… I was the biggest kid in the grade the first time through first grade, okay? Second time, I looked like a teacher's aide. And the effect that had on me, and it was… I wasn't aware of it, but I realized looking back now that since then, I've always been trying to prove to everyone that I'm smart. And you can see that just by the way I talk in my act for the past 30 years. My act is bombastic. I would say even grand eloquent. I love letting my wife or anyone know that I know. We'll be listening to the radio and she'll say, Who sings this? But I hear that as, Hey, could you give me a two-hour lecture on the grunge era?


Also, could you assign me some reading? I didn't bring it up for a long time with anybody. I was ashamed about it. I would keep it to myself. The interesting thing about my dad is that… I mean, was he a bad parent? Certainly. But he was a good person. And the mystery, which I've thought of over the years, like why he would have done this, and maybe he wanted to… Because he only saw me once a week, he wanted to have some impact on me, perhaps. And then I had this theory after hearing the Johnny Cash version of a boy named Sue. A Boy Named Sue. And A Boy Named Sue is this wonderful song that was actually written by Shell Silverstein, which feels really good to tell a room full of people that might not have known that it was written by Shell Silverstein. So I'm a wash in dopamine and serotonin right now, as I've got the chills, as I tell you that Shell Silverstein wrote a boy named Sue. But a boy named Sue is basically about this boy named Sue, and his father left him at an early age, and he said he named him Sue so that he would have to get in a lot of fights, and it would toughen him up, and he would be strong enough to survive in a world without a father.


And sometimes I think maybe that was my dad's approach, was that he knew he wasn't going to be around that much for me. And so he wanted to make sure that when he was around, he would make such foolish decisions that I would actually be glad he wasn't around more. All right. Thank you very much, everybody. Good night. Thank you.


Gary Goleman, recorded in Florida. He's on a tour where he's doing stand-up based on stories in his new book. It's a memoir of his childhood called Misfit. Act three: ride or die. The idea that grownups don't have a handle on things. There are kids for whom this is not a new realization. Kids who are more adult than the adults in their house. These kids look at the conditions around them and understand that they are going to need to handle things. I keep thinking about this novel that captures the perspective of a kid like this so beautifully. The book is called Fight Night by Miriam Taves, and the narrator is a nine-year-old named Swive. Swive lives with her mom and her grandma. Her grandma is wild, fun, and weird. The grandma homeschools Swive, and her lessons are things like how to dig a winter grave and let's analyze our dreams. The grandma is also sick, so Swive helps her bathe, keeps track of her medications for her, and the tiny batteries for her hearing aids. She also helps her grandma cut up her favorite mystery novels in the smaller sections because the grandma likes to take thin pieces of her books with her when she goes out.


Swive's mom is a working actor struggling to get jobs. She's pregnant and seems to be suffering a mental health crisis. As Swive says, Sometimes, quote, Mom goes scorched earth. It's rare to see these particular adults through the lens of a nine-year-old, and she's such a nine-year-old. She's both naive and knowing. Swive is constantly interpreting these two women. She speaks the way they speak. She believes what they believe, but then she's not sure. A lot of the book is her reacting to them, figuring out what they have under control and what she, Swive, will need to take care of herself, including the baby coming. Swive calls the baby in her mom's belly, Gord, and she's often warning Gord about these crazy adults and how she'll have to prepare him. My favorite parts of the book are when Swive is out in the world with her grandma and her mom, and you see how much she is constantly anticipating their behavior and trying, in her very kid way, to manage them. Here's an excerpt from Fight Night.


Today was Thursday, and grandma and I went to Scarborough for her body work. I did all our laundry for the trip to Fresno and went to shoppers for grandma's meds. On the way to Scarborough, Mom rode on the bus with us for four blocks and got mad at three men for not letting her or grandma sit on the bench for old and pregnant people. I had already found another seat for Grandma, and Mom didn't really look very pregnant with her giant Inspector Gadget coat on. So how are those men supposed to know? But naturally, Mom got mad anyway and said, Excuse me, but these seats aren't meant for you? The men were all deaf or they didn't want to answer her, and they just stare at their phones or into space. Mum said she was pregnant and her mother was elderly, so could the men give them their seats? One of the guys said, Congratulations, but didn't move. Then grandma hollered at Mum from the front of the bus and said, Honey, it's fine. Swibb found me a seat. Plus, Mum was getting off in five seconds at the theater. So why would she even want to sit down and then leap up again right away?


Mum said, Okay, but that's not really the point. And then she stopped talking and stood there silently. Only like a normal person, which was such a relief that I almost started crying. But then no, she couldn't bear to be normal for more than four seconds, and she said to the woman standing next to her that this thing made her mental. I wanted to tell the woman standing next to her that every thing made mom mental and do not respond. Grandma didn't hear anything and just sat happily beside me, reading one of her dead heat sections. I noticed a teenager looking at grandma's sought up book, and the teenager saw me looking at her and then looked away. My family should never be out in the world.




Woman standing next to mom said, I know, right? I lose my shit. Mom had found a crazy friend. I looked out the window and saw the theater where mom rehearses and turned around to look at Mum and beg her with my eyes to get off the bus now, but without saying goodbye to me and without drawing any attention whatsoever to the fact that we know each other. Oh, said Mum, my stop. Bye, honey, she said. Don't forget to cross at the lights with Grandma, which made it sound like I was a stupid little kid who didn't know how to even live. When Grandma was the one who was hell bent for leather and wanted to jaywalk, but was too slow and distracted to dodge the cars properly and would almost get killed every time. Mum pushed herself and Gord through the people standing in the aisle and bent down to give me and Grandma kisses and then had to shout at the bus driver who was closing the door. Wait, wait. This is my stop. The driver opened the door again and shook his head and Mum said, Bye, guys. Bye, honey, in a loud voice, waving directly at me and then finally got off the fucking bus.


My face hurt. I tried to drop my shoulders and read Dead Heat along with grandma to take my mind off being the daughter of the world's most unstable person. Then the lady Mum had made friends with was suddenly standing beside me and said in an even louder voice than Mum, Oh, man, your Mum is awesome. She said it so loud that even Grandma heard her, and she said, She is indeed. She's my daughter. One of the guys who hadn't given Mum his seat heard it too and said Mum was a crazy bitch. Mum's new friend said, She's not a crazy bitch. You're a crazy bitch. The other two men who wouldn't give up their seat started laughing. Then Mum's new friend said to Grandma, Oh, wow, you guys are three generations, which was like an obvious thing, not an oh, wow, thing. One of the guys said, Suck it, bitch. Grandma said, That we are, aren't I lucky? Mum's new friend said, Fuck you, you fucking piece of shit. The bus driver looked at everyone in his rearview mirror and said they had to behave themselves or get off the bus. The lady talked away in her loud voice about wishing she could come home with us and be in our family.


I had to do something. I couldn't slice my head off by slamming the window on it because they were sealed up to keep children safe. I stood up and said, Oh, Grandma, this is our stop. Come on. Grandma said, What? We're nowhere near Scarborough. I said, I know, but first we had to stop at this other place called... I quickly looked out the window. For your eyes only. Grandma looked out the window. What do you want with a gentleman's club, Swive? She said. She started laughing with Mum's new friend. I pulled Grandma up from her seat and stuffed her book section into my backpack. Because it's where we're going, I said. Bye, I said to the lady. I whispered it. Okay, said Grandma. She shrugged. Looks like we've got an interesting itinerary. I pulled grandma off the bus without saying thank you to the driver. Mum can't stand it when people say thank you to the driver when they get out at their stop. But grandma thinks it's a decent thing to do. She told Mum that people clap and applaud when Mum does her job of acting. So why shouldn't people clap for pilots when they land the plane or say thank you, at least, to a bus driver.


Mum said applause seems sarcastic and bizarre. She hates applause, even for herself. And Grandma asked her how the audience is supposed to express their gratitude for her performance. And Mum said, Just by sitting there quietly. Grandma said thank you to the bus driver, and he nodded very slowly. My pleasure, he said. Enjoy your day. Grandma wanted to say more about her day, but I pulled and pulled on her arm and the driver shut the door and we were finally alone on the sidewalk. Grandma read the sign more closely, and then she stood back and looked at the giant pictures of naked women and started laughing her ass off again because I, of all people, had wanted to get out at a strip club. She had to lean against the building, right against one of the pictures of the naked ladies to catch her breath. I walked away down the sidewalk so nobody would see me standing outside for your eyes only and left grandma there struggling all by herself to live. She finally finished getting her breath back and I said, Come on, grandma, let's go. I mean it. Then, believe it or not, she posed on the sidewalk in the same position as the naked lady in the picture, with her knees bent a bit and her butt poking out and her hands on her boobs.


I looked down at the sidewalk for things to kill myself with. There was nothing but globes of spit and cigarette butts and a flyer about the end of the world. And then grandma was beside me and she took my arm, laughing and said.


Oh, boy.


Where to next?


That's from the book Fight Night by Miriam Taves. The audio you heard was excerpted from the official audiobook, which is narrated by the author and Georgia Taves, and came to us, courtesy of Recorded Books. Your mom.


Is only human.


Like sometimes she has to sneeze.




Father sometimes acts like you.


When he hates.




Eat his pees.


Your mom is sometimes angry.




Dad is.


Sometimes blue, and they both have feelings just.










People, too. Let me.


Know that your mom and dad are persons.


Our program was produced today by me and edited by Emmanuel Barry. The people who put together today's show include Jamesat The Second: Sean Cole, Michael Komethe, Aviva de Kornfield, Bethel-Habte, Cassie Howley, Valerie Kipness, Sethlind, Miki Mik, Stone Nelson, Catherine Raimondo, Nadia Raymond, Alyssa Ship, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Diane Wu. Our managing editor is Sarah Abdul-Raman, our senior editor, is David Kirstenbaum. Special thanks today to Abraham Alex Niansky, Marion McCune, Jessica Mendoza, Brooke Yarbo, Juan Pinchy-Gonzales, Paige Duggins-Clay, Aaron Einstein, David Reedman, Amy Klinger, Andrew Hairston, Russell Skibba, and Ella Mustafa. Our website, thisamericanlife. Org, where you can stream our archive of over 700 episodes for absolutely free, This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to my boss, Ira Glass. Did you guys know that Iras know me since I was a baby? I asked him recently if he knew way back when that one day I would host his radio show. He said he was sure it would never happen.


Like, even though as a baby, I know you're a flawed person. I just didn't expect that from you.


Well, here I am. I'm Hannah Jaffee-Walt. Ira will be back next week with more stories of this Americanstates. We know that you're mom and dad are true.


They're all human. And they treat you just like you. And you know the love. You know the.


Love you. We all treat you like a human race. Parents are people. Parents are people. Parents are.


People, too.




Give you, Mom and Daddy, a.


Big hug.


Next week on the podcast of this American Live, Yellowstone Park. Two wolf packs charging at each other. One, led by a massive, powerful wolf, the other, led by an old wolf, much smaller, near the end of his life.


They got to within 40 yards, 30 yards, 20 yards, 10 yards.


I knew just in a.




It was all going to be over.


The wolves leading the packs about to face off. One of them raised the other. What happens? Next week in the podcast on your local public radio station.