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I Was a Grade-School Glass
A writer reflects on the meteoric rise and terrible fall of his journalism career.- January 7, 2004
When the Stephen Glass affair broke, and Shattered Glass was released on the heels of The Fabulist, Glass's own novelization of the story, I admit I was indignant. I'd spent my whole life laboring in obscurity under the shadow of the truth while Glass's lies and untruths were floating to the top of the slush pile. He was invited to seminars and interviewed on CBS—and then there is the matter of that six-figure royalty check.
But now I understand. Glass's story just needed to be told. And, coincidentally, I have a tale of my own, an even more fascinating tale of the rise and fall of a wunderkind. And mine's true. All true. Every word. I promise.
It was in fifth grade, I think. Yeah. Fifth grade at Murch Primary School. It wasn't a great year, and I'm not proud of the story I have to tell, but after thirty years or so, I know I have to.
It all started because I wanted to be moderately liked by a relatively large base of people. When things started, I just plain wasn't very popular. There's no other way to say it. I didn't have any girlfriends. I wore Buster Browns. I had a bowl haircut. I was the only one who didn't make the kickball team. And Jeff Wilson beat me up regularly on the playground.
So I decided to become a journalist. Not just any journalist, but the kind of journalist people liked. The kind of journalist people wanted to read, because they could read what they already knew in a fairly interesting way.
The Murch Monitor fit the bill. It was a bimonthly newspaper that specialized in commentary, short fiction, and features geared toward the 10-to-12-year old demographic. It was a relatively diverse audience, mostly young, mostly upwardly mobile.
You might say that I was given the job of editor as a sort of consolation prize. I got the appointment after I ran for class president and received one vote. Since that vote was my own, I knew that politics wasn't my calling. Miss Bodie, my teacher, knew that as well, so she pushed me in the direction of writing.
But frankly, there wasn't a whole lot to write about. The kickball team was actually doing pretty well—they'd reached a 2-0 record—but I was damned if I was going to give them an inch of column space. Booker Tailor threw up in class. Someone named Maria brought nunchaks to class. Chipper Wateski was his usual insane self. But none of this was news you could sink your teeth into.
Principal Paddlethwack said she'd let me profile her. But, to be honest, she scared me. I wasn't much taller than her hips, so I didn't even know what her face looked like. I'd never actually been inside her office, and I wanted to keep things that way.
So there was nothing interesting to write about. When the first few copies rolled off the mimeograph, they were greeted with something less than indifference. The papers were free, but no one seemed to want them.
Once again, I blamed myself. I don't know why. Whenever people didn't react to me with enthusiasm, I blamed myself. And whenever they did like me, I wondered what I could do to make them like me more. Let's face it: I was eager to please.
I was wandering around the hallways, a little despondent, when Miss Bodie came up to me and asked what was getting me down. I explained what the problem was. She took me out to lunch, bought me a martini, and what she said changed my life:
"You see, John, you need to look beyond the banalities of the schoolday. You can't just write about kickball. You need to tap into life—what people are saying, doing, right now, right as we speak."
I remember just sitting there, staring at the cherry in my empty martini glass, the world spinning slowly around me and Miss Bodie's head glowing like a distant sun.
"Well I can't do everything for you," she said. "You've got to come up with the ideas yourself. The kind of story that'll grab your eye when you're sitting on the toilet seat or waiting for the dentist, or just letting your mind noodle off. That's the only good kind of stories there are, the ones that seize you by the gullet and leave you squawking like a chicken who's about to be dropped in the boiling water of truth."
And so I began what I liked to call "juicing things up." I mean, if it made it easier to get the point across, why not add a little spice to old news? We all tend to rephrase things a bit whenever something needs a little boldface.
But lying about yourself in person—which I wasn't very good at—wasn't at all like lying in print.
It was a real rush. Nothing you'd understand if you haven't been in the business. I mean, it's one thing to know you're being a little sloppy about facts when you talk to someone. It's another thing to know you're taking the whole place for a ride, and you're the only one who knows where it's headed.
So it was off to the mimeograph machine. My first major feature, "Three-Alarm Scam," featured an interview with an anonymous D.C. fire chief questioning the validity of lunchtime fire drills. The point of view was fairly sensible, so who cared if a few of the quotes were doctored. No one complained. And most of the kids agreed with the basic premise: Why not hold more fire alarms during math class?
Then things started getting a little crazier. A later exposé, titled "Snowjob," brought pressure on the D.C. school board for its reluctance to close schools due to weather-related conditions. That particular article featured quotes from the Icelandic Prime Minister, in Icelandic, explaining why sleet and rain in the District of Columbia were just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than sleet and rain in Chevy Chase.
But I wasn't fooling everybody.
Let's face it: I didn't even know where Iceland was. I'd pretty much associated it with the weather condition, without understanding that Iceland was, in fact, so far away from D.C. as to be almost irrelevant to the subject at hand. As anyone who's ever touched a newspaper knows, that's one of the cardinal sins of journalism: Thou shall not fabricate. No exceptions. No excuses.
I wanted to stop, but knew I was in it too deep. They were going to find out sometime. So why not pull out the stops and go down in flames?
And that's exactly what I did. In the third edition of the Monitor, I published a feature titled "His Son's Father." It was an interview with an anonymous student who had transplanted all his organs into his father's skin and slept with his own mother.
That was when Miss Bodie called me to her desk at the front of the classroom. It was during recess; she let all the other kids go out into the playground and told me to stay behind. She asked me if I really understood what I was writing about, whether I knew where babies came from, whether I'd been reading magazines that I shouldn't have been reading.
The gig was up, there was no question about it.
She sent me to Mrs. Paddlethwack's office. "Well, John, you really fucked up this time," the principal said. "We give you access to the mimeo machine, and you wind up spinning all this crap."
Somehow we worked out a compromise. I would be given the opportunity to resign gracefully from the Monitor; I'd tell people I wanted to spend more time focusing on my kickball. And I would remain silent about all that had happened.
So there you have it. It was a story that just needed to be told. I had a meteoric career, and a kamikaze ending, to which few others can lay claim. And I'm a worm. But I'm more than a worm: I'm a poster boy for everything that's wrong about contemporary feature-oriented journalism—and, by extension, the universe. Stephen Glass can eat his heart out.
John Barry is a writer living in Baltimore.
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