When I was in third grade, I attended a grade school that was overflowing with students. Lawton, Oklahoma had not kept pace with the population increase, which was possibly the result of a decades-long military buildup associated with the Cold War. Nearby Fort Sill trained a large number of soldiers for deployment in places like German and South Korea.
Because our grade school, Hoover Elementary (later renamed Ridgecrest), was so full, the administration added some temporary corrugated steel buildings that we called “portables.” It wasn’t until Crosby Park Elementary opened that the overcrowding lightened up. Crosby Park was closer to where we lived as well.
It was in one of these portable buildings that year where learned the teachers can be as egotistical and self-centered as anyone in society.
My classmates, plus another class, were seated in a circle and told to remain quiet. The experiment is supposed to go as follows. Someone reads a line, then correctly whispers it to the first person in the circle, so no one else hears. That person whispers the phrase into the next person’s ear, and so on. The idea, of course, is to teach how distorted information can get as it passes through more and more interpretations.
Here’s where the teacher made her mistake.
I happened to be first in the circle, and the teacher leaned down and said, “Ckkkwhisscsiisfsssffsis tsistspwissis.”
I got no massage at all. “What?” I replied bluntly. In her attempt to prejudice the massage from the start, she whispered something so distorted that she expected it would certainly be altered immediately. Instead, I got an ear full of moist teacher breath and a groups of 60 kids staring at me like my IQ was in the 20s.
When she repeated, she toned it down just enough. “Ah popkisn’s spile on hustlerseen fight.” Ah, yes, that was, uh… I put my lips into the ear of the next kid and said, “Tompkins Hill on Saturday night.”
At least the heat was off me I could relax. The message made its way around the room until the teacher asked the last kid what they heard.
“Popcorn sill and a terrible sight.” Then the kid next to me said, “That’s not what Richard said,” and eyes were again on me. I felt intensely awkward and stupid for a long silent moment. The teacher then stood up and said, “The original massage was ‘A pumpkin’s smile on Halloween night.’ ”
The message I got was that her $12,300 a year might have been better spent on playground balls.