Opinion » John Rember

Asking for Truth

And other hazards

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The paper was in a stack of late-September English Comp essays, all of them written to fulfill this assignment:

"Contrast your public persona with your private self. Don't lie. Not even a little bit."

The prompt was designed to bring self-consciousness into my students' liberal arts experience, because a month into college, self-consciousness--and its attendant self-forgiveness--comes in handy. By then, high-school GPAs have become burdens instead of talking points. SAT scores have been compared and found wanting. Carefully murdered high-school identities have lurched up out of obscure graves. Facades have fallen apart in embarrassing ways.

It's always nice to know you're not the only one these things happen to. So when these essays were handed in, I offered extra credit to anyone who would read their work to the class. No one raised a hand.

That's because, among other things, the words you choose to introduce yourself to your English professor are not the words you use to introduce yourself to new classmates.

Still, struggling through my assignment showed my students that parts of the same person could detest each other, speak in different tongues, or have mutually exclusive needs.

Such discoveries are good for people. Reconciling yourself to yourself is an exercise in depth, one that lasts a lifetime. If, at 70, you end up with a private self and a public persona peacefully coexisting in the same skull, you've lived a meaningful and honest life. If a long-ago English Comp assignment gave you a head start on that deepening path, so much the better.

But this paper that I pulled from the pile--it was different from the rest. It began with a psychological insight more appropriate to a world-weary film star than a college freshman.

"Most people don't see me," he wrote. "They see a nice boy with a short haircut and nice clean preppy clothes who smiles at them. They supply the small details. They think I'm who they would be if they had been reincarnated in my family, in my body. Even if they don't like themselves, they like me. I'm young. I'm handsome. I have a clear complexion. I'm not fat. My grandparents bought me a Mercedes ML320 to drive to college. My tuition is paid for. I have $200,000 in a trust fund. People can't help liking me."

I crossed out "People can't help liking me," and wrote "Redundant" in the margin. I didn't write, "Some people can help it," but part of me wanted to.

The next paragraph had a subtitle: "My Mercedes ML320."

"My Mercedes," it read, "is how people see me when they need a ride to Fred Meyer. All I am to them is an expensive SUV with leather seats that can hold the stuff they buy for their dorm rooms. I have a full tank of gas."

"My Trust Fund," was the heading on the next paragraph. "It's what girls see when they need a date. I'm a bank account. I can take them out to an expensive restaurant. How could they not help liking me?"

"Redundant," I wrote, and underlined the question.

"But what I see when I look at my Mercedes," he wrote, "is air bags and seat belts and a roll cage. It has electronic stability control and weighs 4,614 pounds. I can get in a head-on collision and walk away from it, but the people in the other car would be very dead. I drive down the road and if someone crosses into my lane, even a little bit, I steer over toward the center line and hit the gas."

I stopped grading. Across the top of the front page, I wrote, "Grade Withheld. See Me." I usually wrote that when I suspected plagiarism. But in this case, he was following the assignment and understood far too well the gulf between private self and public persona. A product of psychotherapy gone rancid, I decided. He was messing with my mind for something to do while he waited for sophomore year and a political science major.

I passed the papers back and waited for him in my office. When he walked in, smiling, with his notebook and pen in hand, I sat him down and told him, "Don't write this stuff. Even if you're not serious, it says more about how you look at other people than you want."

"You told us to be honest," he said.

"Let your public self be honest," I said. "That's who's getting the grade from now on."

For the rest of the semester, he turned in conventional papers, well researched and factual, and if there was a private self behind them, I never saw it. For my part, I quit inventing assignments that smacked of psychotherapy.

He passed the class but I never saw his name on a grade roster again. He dropped out after a couple of years. A decade later, he was my waiter at a not-so-expensive Boise restaurant.

A decade hadn't done him much good. Bad skin. Excess weight. Stress wrinkles. The Mercedes must have gotten rear-ended, his grandparents must have died and given their money to Planned Parenthood, his trust fund must have gone to drugs and low companions, and his therapist must have written him off as a disordered character. I tipped him more than I should have.

"You know that first paper I wrote for you?" he asked me when he handed me back my credit card. "I made it up. Every word was fiction."

By that time I had spent large portions of my life writing fiction and essays, developing my private self at the expense of my public persona. It had been hard work to keep it an entirely benign process. I had also been a defensive driver for years.

"Good for you," I said. "You had me fooled there for a while."