Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 1.13]

I was thrilled after Christmas break, when a new classroom seating arrangement left me sitting across from Doug Mooney, whom I found pretty exciting. He had very blue eyes and shiny golden hair. I wrote notes and knock-knock jokes to him—anything to make him laugh. He mostly played kickball with the third and fourth grade boys during recess, but I watched him like a hawk for any opportunities to talk to him. One day, old Harold, who this year sat on the other side of the room, decided he wouldn’t do his math problems. Each time the teacher handed him his pencil and pointed to his paper, he would just look at her. When she would leave, his hand would go limp and he’d let the pencil roll off his desk to the floor. Then he would just stare down at it. After the teacher tried two more times to get Harold straightened out and then gave him a pretty stern warning, she told him she’d “had it” with him and that he was to go back to the “time-out seat” and think about what he’d done.

I remember Dad saying that using “time-out” as a punishment wasn’t effective if the person, by going there, got to get out of things he didn’t really want to do anyway. In that case, it just became a reinforcer. I watched to see if Harold seemed glad to be in “time-out” or not. Harold went to the area with his head down, dragging his feet. But, once he sat down, he perked up and looked around the room. Doug began making gross-out faces at Harold. Then Harold made faces back at him and acted like he was stopping himself from getting up to come after Doug. The teacher shot Harold a disapproving glance. When she turned away again, Doug threw an eraser. A few of us who were watching put our hands over our mouths to stifle our giggles. Harold threw the eraser back at Doug, and the teacher saw him. She marched over to Harold and said to get up; she was taking him to the principal. Harold kept in his seat, crossed his arms, clenched his jaw, and frowned up at her. She pulled him rather forcefully up by the ear and led him out of the room.

We all looked around at each other, high on vicarious adrenaline. After several minutes, the principal brought Harold back into the classroom and waited while he packed up his things. I looked at Harold’s face and saw that it was red and he was crying. He was a different boy now than he’d been when he left the room. He kept wiping his eyes and sniffling. He looked so little all of a sudden, especially in his T-shirt that was too small for him. My stomach turned and Maynard’s face flashed through my mind. I felt tears coming but wiped them before Doug, who was looking very proud of himself, could see. In my mind, I pretended to be Harold and let the feelings of being teased and punished wash over me. I remembered what Dad said about Harold’s parents not giving him attention, and I worried that he might get in more trouble when he got home. I hated myself and agreed with Mom that I was spoiled and mean. I needed to change my behavior.

A few days later, Doug Mooney told me there wasn’t really a Santa Claus. I cornered Dad in the basement as soon as I got home.

“Dad is there really a Santa Claus? Doug Mooney said there isn’t. That he’s ‘made up’ and that no one’s ever seen him.”

“What do you think, Michelle?” Dad asked.

“Hmm. Well, I know we can’t see him, but hasn’t he been leaving presents? And didn’t we hear him on Grandma’s roof?”

“Well, do you want the truth? Although I may not always have an answer, I said I would never lie to you if you asked me a question.”

“Yes. I really do.”

“No. There isn’t really a Santa Claus. People pretend he’s real because it’s so fun for children to imagine getting presents from him at Christmas—that and because believing in Santa Claus is a way for some parents to get children to behave themselves throughout the year. But it’s really parents who get the presents and set them up, and it’s Grandpa who hits the roof with a broom to make it sound like reindeer feet. It was fun to pretend, wasn’t it?”

“Yes. But I’m surprised he’s not really real.” I felt a little disappointed but was mostly surprised I was so easily tricked. My mind searched for other things I might be getting tricked about.

“So we can still pretend though, right?” Dad offered.

“But what does ‘real’ really mean?”

“Real means things, actual physical things, that exist in the world—things you can see or experience with your senses, or with instruments that can extend our senses, like microscopes and telescopes.”

“Does that mean there isn’t an Easter Bunny?”

“Yes. He’s pretend too.”

“And the Tooth Fairy?”

“Yup.” Dad was chuckling softly, which made me a little mad.

Dad sensed this and said, “I know it’s disappointing, Honey, but we can still pretend for as long as you want. It’s a really wonderful thing having an imagination when we’re young. And you have a great one. We can think up all kinds of great things, happy things.”

“No Dad…that’s not it. I’m wondering whether this means there isn’t…a God either, because we can’t see Him? Is he pretend?”

Dad took a deep breath. “Some people believe—really do believe—that he exists.”

“But how do we know? Has anyone ever seen him before?”

“Well, people think they have, but there’s no way to prove that. No tangible evidence has been found at least.”

“That’s what you said about ghosts when I asked you, and you said they aren’t real either.”

My stomach turned and I began to feel panicky. “But Dad, I don’t understand. I thought everyone had to believe in God or they would go to hell. Don’t you believe in him?”

“Personally, I don’t, Sweetheart. I used to when I was little. I went to church with Grandma and the rest of the family. But now I believe in science and a theory called evolution. Science consists of all the facts and data people have proven to exist. They believe if you can’t see it, touch it, feel it—experience it with your senses or other instruments that can detect it—it doesn’t exist. And evolution tries to help explain where we came from without saying God created us. Have you heard the story in the Bible about Adam and Eve yet?”

“Yes, in Sunday school.”

“Well, scientists don’t believe that it’s a true story. They have other explanations; they can prove with evidence how humans came to be on this planet. In fact, they don’t believe most things that the Bible said happened really happened.”

“So there’s no Heaven and Hell, Dad?”

“I don’t think so. I personally believe that people made up the ideas of heaven and hell a long time ago to cope with the tragedy of death. It makes people feel good to think that when they die, they will not really die. They will go to a wonderful place where they will see all their loved ones again and live forever. It’s used like a reward for good behavior. And I think people made up hell as a scary place we would go if we misbehaved. Hell is what keeps some people from doing bad things to others. People are afraid of punishment. Can you see how heaven and hell would help control the behavior of all the people on earth who believe in them, kind of like the way believing in Santa helps kids behave so they’ll get presents?”

“Yeah. But, does that mean we don’t really have to follow all the things the Bible tells us to? I mean, we won’t really go to hell if we do something bad?” This thought brought tremendous relief all of a sudden—then more fear. “But, Dad, if there isn’t a heaven, what happens to us when we die?”

“Well, our bodies will just die. And we’ll go back into the earth someday and become nutrients the earth and other creatures need to survive.”

Now I felt horrible again that I wouldn’t really get to somehow live forever with Dad. I felt like crying.

“Hey Honey, I don’t want you to be sad. This is just what I believe. Some people obviously disagree with me. I was hoping that you could find these answers out for yourself someday. You don’t have to decide what you believe today. You can keep looking for the answers to all your questions from other sources and people as you grow up.”

“Does anyone, like Grandma Trailer and Grandma Shultz, know you don’t believe in God?” I wondered what they would say to all this.

“No. I haven’t told them because it would upset them a great deal. They would worry about me. In fact, I try never to talk about religion with people anymore. It’s a very sensitive subject, and when I’ve told people, they’ve seemed frightened or judged me for it and think I must not be a good person. Or they’ve tried to preach to me about it. I wouldn’t want any of that to happen to you.”

“So there are other people—like the scientists—who don’t believe in God either, right? And they aren’t scared about going to hell?”

“Right. There are many people who don’t believe in God. There are many people who believe in a different type of god and have a completely different religion and bible. The people who don’t believe in God or don’t know if they believe in God are called agnostics or atheists.”

“So that’s what you are?”

“Yes. But I never tell anyone I’m an atheist. I just let people go on thinking I believe in God so they don’t get upset.”

This was a lot to think about.