Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 1.14]

Toward the end of second grade, the teacher announced an art contest in which we would make a piece of art of our choosing using any of the methods we’d learned that year. That was an easy choice for me; my favorite project had involved cutting colored paper into tiny squares, arranging them into mosaic objects, and gluing them onto poster board. I was particularly excited about the contest because, after all, my mom was an artist, so surely that gave me a leg up.

Mom took me to the craft store for the supplies, and I spent the entire weekend engrossed in my project. I’d chosen to make a large, yellow mosaic Volkswagen Beetle with a pink flower on the side on dark blue poster board. It took me hours to cut and glue the hundreds of squares to fill the outline of the Beetle I’d drawn. I underestimated how many squares I actually needed—or rather, I placed them too closely together at the start—because as my stock of squares ran thin, I had to space the squares farther and farther apart. Still, all in all, I was proud of the result. My picture was colorful and realistic, I thought. Considering how much effort I’d put into it, I was sure I’d win the prize.

The day the contest results were announced, we were taken downstairs to the art room. Our projects were hanging on the walls with the winners’ projects clustered up front and ribbons taped underneath. From the back of the class, I could see my VW was up front! As I got closer to it, I noticed the ribbon under my picture was red. Next to it was a different picture showcased with gold stars all around it and a royal blue ribbon much larger than mine underneath it. I stared at the winner’s art. It was a perfectly proportioned, perfectly sketched, perfectly water-colored bowl of fruit. I’d seen paintings like it on TV or hanging in restaurants, and this one looked as good as any of those. There were no extra pencil marks and no paint out of the lines. Every piece of fruit was smooth, shaded, and sitting in the bowl just right. The bowl was perfect, too, sitting on a realistic-looking tabletop. For a second I thought the teacher must have entered the contest. I couldn’t figure out how a fellow second grader could have done this.

I searched for a name on the painting. “Bridget McDunn” was printed in the bottom right corner! I stood in shock while the teacher announced the winners and then presented Bridget with a small white box. Inside the box was a mostly black rectangular block of crayon with vibrant flecks of color peppered throughout. You could tilt it in different ways to draw in different colors. I’d never seen anything like it. It seemed like a rare and precious treasure, one I couldn’t stop thinking about. I went home that night and couldn’t bear to tell my mom I’d lost the art contest. But, I found Dad in the basement and explained everything.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Honey. I know you put a lot of work into that. Hey, second place is really great though!”

“But, second place didn’t come with a prize. Dad, how come she’s so much better at art than me?”

“Well, I hate to say this, but it sounds like Bridget really didn’t do her work all by herself. It sounds to me like her parents probably helped her. There’s no way a second grader can make a perfect bowl of fruit. That’s not as easy as it looks, you know.”

“But that’s cheating! We weren’t supposed to get help. We were supposed to do our own work. I worked on it all weekend!”

“I know, but her parents are both teachers and probably really want her to do very well in school. They probably care more about her grades than we do yours.”

“You guys don’t care and don’t want to help me?”

“No no. It’s just that some people care solely about the extrinsic rewards they get from doing something and we—well, I—don’t think the grades are the most important thing. I want you to enjoy learning intrinsically and do things because you find them interesting. ‘Intrinsic learning’ means learning for the sake of learning—making mistakes and figuring things out on your own—and being okay with that because you just find the learning process itself fun. If you do things only for the reward, you’ll always be disappointed when the reward doesn’t come. And, grades aren’t always the best measure of what you really know, anyway.”

“It just doesn’t seem fair. Couldn’t the teachers tell she cheated? They love her—and I hate them.”

“Well, they probably didn’t want to believe that she got help. Hey, weren’t you happy with your project before you knew you got second place? Didn’t you have fun making it?”

“I guess.”

“Well then, don’t let the reward ruin it for you.”

I can’t recall if I consciously plotted out the entire sequence of my next moves…or if I had only the goal in mind and improvised everything leading up to it, but after school that next day, I made a point to walk home with Bridget and Eve. I’d done this once or twice before and ended up getting to play in Bridget’s backyard on her swing set until her parents got home. When we arrived at her house, I asked if we could play out back. Eve said sure, and after about fifteen minutes, I told Bridget I had to go to the bathroom. Bridget led me inside where Eve was on the phone. When I came out of the bathroom, I asked Bridget if I could see Fluffy.

Inside her room, I scanned everything to see if I could find the box with the multicolored crayon in it, but I couldn’t see it. I tried to subtly bring up the art contest and asked her if I could see her prize. She went over to a cedar box sitting on a dresser and took out the box with the crayon and handed it to me. I “oohed” and “aahhed” over it for a few seconds then handed it back to her and waited for her to place it back in the cedar box.

Once she had, I stalled for a few more minutes then asked her if she could get me a drink of water. As soon as I was sure she’d left the room and gone down the hall, I went over to the cedar box and took the chunky crayon out of its little white box and stuck it in my pocket. Bridget soon came back with the water, so I had a few drinks of it while we sat on her bed and talked. Then I told her I’d better get going. I left her house feeling good about what I had done; the prize was going home with the right person, the person who deserved it. I didn’t even want to try out the crayon; somehow everything was right just knowing I’d corrected the wrong.

Dad got home shortly after dinner and was sitting at the table eating spaghetti. Around 8 p.m., the phone rang and Mom answered. She spoke for a bit, apologized several times, and handed the phone to my dad. He listened, apologized several more times, and asked, “Would it be okay if we came over right now and straightened all this out?” Dad hung up the phone and led me into my room, stating that Bridget’s parents were just on the phone and asked if I had taken something of hers. I spilled my guts and tried to explain how what I did was right. I was glad when he agreed with me about how unfair things seemed in this situation, but he further explained all the reasons why what I did was most certainly not right either.

Mom and Dad talked about it and Mom said she couldn’t bear to come with us. She said that those people already thought they were better than us and that Bridget’s mom wouldn’t even say hello to her if she bumped into her on the street. So it was Dad that took me to Bridget’s house to return the crayon and apologize, which was basically me saying I really loved the crayon and was sorry I’d taken it. Her dad delivered a stern little lecture, ensuring that I understood how I’d hurt Bridget’s feelings and broken her trust, and asked me whether I would ever do something like this again. I shook my head “no,” and he seemed satisfied with that. Bridget’s mom, who’d been watching silently, sitting up straight with her hands on her lap, got up and walked Dad and me to the door. Once in the car, I apologized to Dad. I probably should have felt worse for what I’d done to Bridget, but instead I felt worse for Dad.

“Dad, I wouldn’t be upset if you punished me for this. I know it was a big mistake.”

“I’m not so sure about that, Michelle. I mean, I do understand why you took her crayon. I feel bad for you—that you worked so hard and wanted it so badly—but had to watch it go to someone who might not have truly earned it. At the same time, maybe it is a good time to learn this lesson; there are going to be a lot of times in life where things don’t seem fair and don’t work out the way you hoped. But, you have to respond to those situations in a way that doesn’t do any more harm. You understand why you shouldn’t have done that, right?”

“Yes. And, I didn’t realize that taking it would just make me look like a thief. You are the only person who understands.” I was worried now that the teachers at school would find out by tomorrow and look at me the way the McDunns had.

“That’s another reason why I’m not going to punish you further. I can tell you feel negative emotions, like guilt, embarrassment, and fear, so in a sense you are punishing yourself. You’ll be less likely to make that mistake again in the future. It’s all part of learning to control your own behavior.”