Transcript

772: The Kids' Table

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

Kids can be so confident about what they know and what they think they can do. And then they get tested. One of our producers, Elna Baker, talked to somebody who was tested like that as a girl. Hey there, Elna.

Elna Baker

Hi, Ira. Yeah, so the person in this story, her name is Molly. And Molly grew up in an apartment complex outside of Houston-- lots of families. And the parents, they worked long hours, some multiple jobs, which meant that this complex was really run by the kids. They had total free rein. And they did all sorts of things that you could only do if there were no adults around.

Ira Glass

Like what?

Elna Baker

Like there was this four-lane highway up behind the complex, and the kids would go up to the highway.

Molly

And we would play leapfrog across the highway.

Elna Baker

This is Molly.

Molly

And we would wait until a car came. That way, it would be kind of scarier. If we could see headlights coming, this is when we were like, all right, now's the time to leapfrog.

Ira Glass

Oh, my God.

Elna Baker

I know. And then, sometimes, those lights would be a police officer.

Molly

So they would turn on their lights and turn around real quick and start speeding toward us. And this is when it was fun because we were like, we're ditching the cops right now. And we would run and back into the complex and just spread out and hide wherever we could-- under cars, in bushes, in truck beds-- and watch through the cracks.

Elna Baker

Molly loved hiding. So her and her best friend, Ariel, they come up with this reason to hide all the time. They decide that they are spy detectives, and it is their job to sort of spy on everyone in the complex. And at the time, they're 10, 11.

And they're tiny, too. They're these tiny girls, so they can fit everywhere. They would go into the laundry room and hide inside the machines with the door cracked, so they could eavesdrop. Or they would hide in the laundry room trash cans.

Molly

Which is disgusting, but we didn't care.

Ira Glass

So they're hiding and spying on people all the time.

Elna Baker

Yeah. What's funny about it is, everywhere-- if you were a kid in this building, you never actually had-- you'd think you had a moment of privacy. And then you turn, and you'd hear them giggling, or you'd know they were there. And there they are.

Elna Baker

Did the other kids in the complex know that you guys were spies?

Molly

Yeah. Yeah, because they always knew who was stalking them.

Elna Baker

So all of this is going on for over a year. And then Molly and Ariel, they leave the apartment complex one night to go to a sleepover. This is 2005. They're 12 and 13. And when they get back to the complex the next morning, they see this swarm of cops.

Molly

One of the other apartment kids immediately, as right as we got out of the car, ran up to us and was like, someone just got murdered. And we were like, what? And he was like, yeah. And the cops are looking for you because somebody said that you saw it.

And we were like, what do you mean? We just got home. We were at Sheridan's birthday party. And he was like, the apartment below me, somebody stabbed somebody else. And because the kids knew we knew everything, they were like, yeah, Molly and Ariel know. They had to have seen it.

Ira Glass

Wait, did they actually see it?

Elna Baker

No, they didn't, but the kids were just so confident. Molly and Ariel, they see everything. So the kids are like, just go talk to them.

Ira Glass

And so what happens?

Elna Baker

And so they hear these police are looking for them. So they ran up to the cop that they know, Officer Cook, because he lives in the building.

Molly

He was like, hey, I've been looking for y'all. And we were like, OK, yeah, our friend told us, but we just got back from a birthday party. We weren't even here. And he's like, oh, OK, well, y'all stay away from this area. And we were like, OK. Yeah, that's not going to happen.

Ira Glass

Because they think they can solve this.

Elna Baker

Yeah, they think they can solve the murder.

Ira Glass

Wait, how old are these kids again?

Elna Baker

They're 12 and 13.

Ira Glass

OK.

Elna Baker

But, you know. So in order to solve this, they're like, OK, what do we need? We need to know the facts. So they go back to the boy who told them about this in the first place. And they're like, what happened? And he's like, OK, so it happened right underneath my window. And they're like, let's go see.

Molly

So we run up to Daniel's house. And we look down into the fenced bottom floor apartment courtyard area, and we just see blood. And we're like, oh, my God. This is real. This is not a rumor. This is not a joke. It's real. There was a puddle of blood.

So we're like, we have to help the cops. Obviously, we need to be involved in this because we're spy detectives. So we run back down to Officer Cook, and we're like, so what happened? And he was like, this woman stabbed her boyfriend, and he died. And she threw the weapon, and we don't know where it is.

Elna Baker

So they hear this, and immediately, they're like, we're going to find this murder weapon.

Molly

And it's so weird because, I mean, that's impossible. How do you find a murder weapon? But we just knew we were going to find this weapon. This apartment complex is our world. So we know every hiding spot because we've hid stuff there.

Ira Glass

Oh, it's all coming together, all their hiding.

Elna Baker

Yeah, they either have hid stuff there, or they've hidden there themselves. And so they go sit at the top of the stairs. And they just start brainstorming. They're like, all right, where could this murder weapon be? Could it be in the ditch that runs behind the building? Could it be in the field out back? And then Molly has this idea.

Molly

Let's look on the carports.

Elna Baker

Why?

Molly

Well, think of it as, you have something of your sibling's, and you're going to hide it because you don't want them to have it. Well, we would throw it up onto the carport because we knew that there was no way they could get it once it's up there.

Elna Baker

So the carports, they're like 10 feet high. You'd park under them.

Ira Glass

Uh-huh.

Elna Baker

And it's impossible to see the top of them from the ground, but you can easily see it if you go to an upstairs apartment.

Ira Glass

Ah.

Elna Baker

And Ariel's apartment overlooks the carports that are closest to the murder.

Molly

So we run up Ariel's stairs. And her bedroom window looks to the back of the apartment, where the carports are. And we are looking on her carport, and we see a knife. And we're like, oh, my God. That's it. That's the knife she used to kill her boyfriend.

Elna Baker

And when you first saw the knife, were you just shocked?

Molly

Yeah, we were so shocked, because we were like, there's no way we just solved this that quickly.

Ira Glass

That is really quick.

Elna Baker

Yeah, so quick. I mean, if you think about it, police had been working on this for hours. And this is the very first place that they looked.

Molly

So we run down the stairs back to Officer Cook, and we're like, there's a knife on the carport above Ariel's apartment. And they're like, what? And we're like, yeah.

Elna Baker

And the officers are like, OK, yeah, yeah, we'll get to that in a minute, kids. And they do. They come upstairs and look out the window. And to their shock, they see the murder weapon. And then they send an officer out there with a ladder to climb the carport.

Molly

And I remember the officer had one of those bags for evidence. And he picked it up, and there was blood dried on it. And he put it in the bag. And they were like, great job, girls. And we were like, thanks, you know? We're here any time you need us.

Ira Glass

That is exactly the way the dialogue goes in the Disney TV version of the story.

Elna Baker

Well, the girls, for them, this is this huge triumph. I mean, everyone in the whole complex finds out that the girls solved this murder.

Molly

We were so excited. We were so proud of ourselves because we did it. We proved we could do it.

Elna Baker

When she got older, Molly would tell this story. And when she did, she would play it for laughs. But then, something happened recently. She was telling it to one of her coworkers-- also from Texas. And they're doing this thing where they're swapping only in Texas stories. And she gets to this one.

Molly

And I think it was more her reaction to it that made me realize, oh, that's not actually a funny story to tell. That's a serious thing that happened to me. I'm a child, and I just saw a puddle of blood on the ground and found the real knife that killed this real human being.

Elna Baker

It was being able to see that blood on the knife, that's what stuck with her the most. And also, they sent people in to clean up that puddle of blood with bleach. And she was going to remember the smell of that and watching that, the blood spread all over the pavement.

Molly

And where were my parents, you know? Did we ever have a conversation about this? Did they even care? How do you just solve a murder, and there are no adults around? How do you leapfrog across the highway? I mean, it doesn't mean I had a bad childhood, but I would never follow any of the rules that they followed as parents.

Ira Glass

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today, on our program, we have stories of stuff that happens when the grown-ups are not around. Or they are there, but you wouldn't know it. They stay so fully on the sidelines, leaving the kids to figure things out on their own, sometimes with incredible resilience and inventiveness and good, levelheaded judgment-- sometimes not. Stay with us.

Act One: Magically Malicious

Ira Glass

Act One, "Magically Malicious." So this all started pretty small. A bunch of little kids left alone in a classroom, not even that long, before it became a schoolwide, citywide fiasco that the kids had to make sense of. Lilly Sullivan tells the story.

Lilly Sullivan

You know those really vivid early childhood memories, the ones where, even though they happened so long ago, you recall them more clearly than you remember most things? For David Quiroz, his happened when he was seven, in second grade, back in 1993. His PE teacher told their class, we're going to watch a movie today.

David Quiroz

And she rolled the AV cart with the TV and the VCR on it. She popped in a Blockbuster rental or whatever it was. She pressed Play. She turned off the lights and walked away. She made mention of the fact that she needed to go to the teacher's lounge to make copies-- I don't know of what. But she was just gone. And we were just there.

Leprechaun

Ahh. Haha!

Lilly Sullivan

The movie? Leprechaun. Maybe you're familiar, but if you're not, Leprechaun is a 1993 horror film starring a young Jennifer Aniston. It's rated R. It's about a leprechaun who goes on a murderous rampage to try to hunt down his stolen pot of gold.

Leprechaun

Try as they will, and try as they might, who steals me gold, won't live through the night. Hahaha!

David Quiroz

We're sitting there, watching the movie. And I remember immediately people being afraid and people being giddy with excitement at the same time. Where there was kids who were just like, oh, I've seen this. My older brother showed me this, and it's scary! And everyone else is just like, I don't know about this.

Boy

Which was against the rules.

Lilly Sullivan

David remembers thinking, what the hell is happening?

Boy

I'm going to suffocate.

David Quiroz

Oh, I hated it. It was terrifying. I remember people crying. And everyone had this, you have to stay in your seats, and we're going to obey because an adult told us to.

Lilly Sullivan

Here are some of the things that happen in this movie. There are scenes of the leprechaun biting off a face, also an ear. He snares people in bear traps. He snaps the neck of a bloody police officer, then rips that officer's eye from his corpse, only to shove said eye into his own gouged out eye socket.

Leprechaun

An eye for an eye, my dear.

Lilly Sullivan

It's stupid and scary.

Boy

Fuck you, Lucky Charms!

Lilly Sullivan

Oh, and also language. Again, these kids are in second grade, like seven years old.

David Quiroz

And I remember, especially in scenes where the leprechaun was attacking people--

Boy

Help! Please! Please! Help!

David Quiroz

--that there were kids who were holding their eyes to their desk or doing the heads up, seven up, where you put your head down. And there were kids who had their hands over their ears.

Lilly Sullivan

This was near Halloween. Kids remember the teacher saying she put the movie on to get everyone in the holiday spirit, which worked for some kids. David says some of them were into it. And that's where it got complicated.

David Quiroz

Because the kids who were putting their heads down at their desks and covering their ears were being ridiculed by the bully kids because, why are you scared? Why are you scared of this? This isn't scary. This is funny.

Leprechaun

[CACKLES] Do you like the gold buckles on me shoes?

David Quiroz

Well, I guess I should also point out-- I went to a school that was entirely Mexican-American, as I was. And the only reason I say that is because in Mexican-American culture, there is this cultural pressure to be tough.

Lilly Sullivan

Particularly in his neighborhood, David says. The place he grew up was basically all Mexican, all working class, but also had a reputation for being kind of a tough part of town.

David Quiroz

And so, oftentimes, instances where siblings are helping to raise one another, I've seen some things. There was a number of kids in the class who were walking to school by themselves at six years old or seven years old. And we had some rough-ass kids. And those rough-ass kids had way different perspectives than the kids whose parents tried to keep scary things away from them. And so, half the class was enjoying the horror movie, and half the class was terrified and crying.

At some point, the teacher came back into the room, saw that people were visibly crying-- saw that people were crying and were visibly upset and then admonished the kids for crying. She said, why are y'all crying? This is a holiday movie. And I was just like, all right. I beg to differ, but.

And then, well, she's like, y'all need to toughen up, that kind of thing. And then, she said, OK, well, if you don't want to watch it, I don't want to teach. And so, you can sit outside. And sitting outside wasn't-- it was like sitting on the steps. And they were the outside main entrance steps to the school.

Lilly Sullivan

His teacher didn't want to speak to me for the story. David and about half a dozen of his classmates walked outside, stunned.

David Quiroz

We were sitting on the steps, and no one was talking. No one was saying anything.

Lilly Sullivan

Any trying to comfort each other or anything like that?

David Quiroz

No, we were all suffering independently next to each other.

Lilly Sullivan

When school was finally over, David's aunt picked him up like usual.

David Quiroz

And I told her, yeah, this thing happened at school. We saw something. And she was concerned because I couldn't even get the words out. I was just scared to talk about it, I guess.

Lilly Sullivan

Which was really unlike him. David was a chatty, hyper verbal kid, the smart kid in class. So when he was suddenly unable to talk, she and David's mom knew something was wrong, but they didn't get why he was freaking out so bad about some movie about leprechauns.

David Quiroz

And so, my older cousins came home and were just like, no, that's a horror movie. No, they couldn't have shown that to the kids. There's no justification for that.

Lilly Sullivan

David's cousins, like a lot of older cousins, were kind of that weird mix between bodyguards and tormentors. Like, this is our nerd. No one messes with him but us. David's mom, Jovita, says that after the movie, David couldn't sleep alone for weeks.

Jovita

He didn't want to take a shower behind a closed curtain. I had to sit in the bathroom with him. Because he was old enough to shower by himself, but I had to sit in there, have the curtains semi-open, and say, I'm here, son. Go ahead. Especially when I had to wash his hair and his face, you know? When he washed it, if he closed his eyes, I had to make sure I held his hand.

Lilly Sullivan

David felt like any time his eyes were closed, he might open them and find a demon leprechaun attacking him. Jovita told me that after the movie, there was a way that fear just kind of wormed its way into the rest of David's life, like at the grocery store, Jovita told me. He was afraid to go down the Halloween aisle, didn't like seeing the masks or anything costumey. Jovita bought him a Batman nightlight. He'd never been afraid of the dark before.

A lot of people have a movie like this when you're a kid, the movie you see way too young, after which you kind of can't get your life back. Sometimes it's The Exorcist or something. Or I heard from someone who could never recover after seeing a documentary about acid rain in second grade science class.

For me, it was The Piano, a period drama with Holly Hunter about frontiersman in New Zealand in the 1800s. It's rated R for moments of, quote, "extremely graphic sexuality." Also, a guy chops off his wife's finger with an ax, which I will never not remember. I saw it when I was 10. I don't know why I didn't turn it off.

For what it's worth, I'm also Latina. Toughness was a point of pride in my family, too. But the big difference between David and me is that I saw that movie, and it was over. I didn't talk about it. I did everything I could to shut it out. That wasn't possible for David. Because in David's case, over 200 kids in his school went through this mandatory horror together, all at once.

Four teachers played the movie to a bunch of classes, second graders up through fifth graders. Parents all started calling each other about it and calling the school. So David couldn't put it away because it was all anyone would talk about. It became the thing that happened that year.

And if you think this is the point where adults come in and make things better, it's not. Because what happened instead was what happens a lot of the time when you're a kid and adults swoop in to try to solve something, which is, they sometimes make it so much worse.

Announcer

This is Fox News, 1230.

Reporter 1

Houston Elementary School teachers are under fire for showing an R-rated movie to students.

Lilly Sullivan

Someone's mom called the news.

Reporter 2

The Leprechaun controversy started at Browning Elementary School--

Reporter 1

More than 200 Browning students--

Reporter 3

Leprechaun is a violent tale of a murderous elf.

Boy

I think it was nasty.

Reporter 3

What do you mean, nasty?

Boy

There was nasty parts and dirty words.

Reporter 3

Parents and relatives are outraged.

Woman

Horrible!

Man

I don't think it's something that should have been done in school. I think it should have been done at home.

Reporter 4

Debra, help me with the terminology here. Is Browning on that list of what they call troubled or unacceptable schools or whatever?

Lilly Sullivan

David's mom happens to be one of those moms who kept the news on all the time.

David Quiroz

And whenever the local Houston newscasters would talk about it, they would show a clip of the movie in the background. So it would be a voiceover over stock footage of The Leprechaun.

Reporter 5

And hurt them he does in some rather graphic ways.

Man 2

Burn in hell, you little green [BLEEP].

Lilly Sullivan

So now, David would be at home, sitting at the kitchen table, just doing his homework, and suddenly, the leprechaun's demented visage would spring into sight out of nowhere, terrifying him anew each time.

Leprechaun

This old lep, he played one!

Lilly Sullivan

Like in that news clip, this old lep, he played one, he played pogo on his lung. What's happening in this clip is the leprechaun is jumping on a pogo stick on top of a man's chest, somehow impaling him with each jump, blood spurting everywhere. This was on the news all the time. I have 27 different clips I could find. And with every story, the footage.

Reporter 6

And they say this movie should not have been shown at all.

Leprechaun

I want me gold coin! Ahh!

Lilly Sullivan

Jovita would scramble to cover David's eyes and mute, but she couldn't always get there fast enough. 330 parents signed a petition asking that the school fire the teachers. For weeks, reporters were at the school.

And the two factions of kids, the ones who were terrified by the movie and the ones who thought those kids were losers, basically ended up making their case on TV, making the divide between the scared kids and the brave kids even wider and so public. And you know who came off really well? The brave kids.

Reporter 7

But other children we talked with say it was no big deal. Did you think the movie was too scary?

Enrique Lopez

A little bit.

Reporter 7

Were you surprised to be seeing a movie like this in class?

Enrique Lopez

No.

Lilly Sullivan

Thanks a lot, Enrique Lopez. But a few kids did talk about how scared they were, the one everyone remembers.

Reporter 7

Little Chastity walked out of class during the movie.

Young Chastity

I saw half of it. And the movie-- and the person came out, and it was ugly.

Reporter 7

So the movie scared you?

Young Chastity

Yes.

Lilly Sullivan

Chastity was one of the kids on the steps with David that day. It was different for her, though. She told me, it wasn't so much the movie itself that she was afraid of.

Chastity

It was more scared for my soul, I guess. This was like the height of the Satanic panic. And my parents were holy roller people. And I had been told as a child my whole life, Satan could get to you from things like movies or bad books.

Lilly Sullivan

Chastity only watched a couple of minutes of the movie before she'd booked it out of the classroom. Less than five, she was sure. Was that enough for Satan?

Chastity

I mean, I was literally frightened that I had, in some way, participated enough to where the devil would come and invade my soul.

Lilly Sullivan

Not the sort of kid who wants to end up on TV. But one afternoon, reporters are in front of the school, interviewing her mom, who is not just outraged, but also the mom talking on the news the most about her outrage. And Chastity is just standing there next to her, feeling embarrassed.

Chastity

And I felt like everybody was looking at me. And people were kind of laughing and stuff. And I kind of stood out like a sore thumb anyways, because I was the only--

Lilly Sullivan

Chastity, by the way, was the only white kid in her class.

Chastity

Pale with blond hair and blue eyes. So I felt like I couldn't just disappear, blend in, even if I wanted to. But I remember talking to the reporters and I just remember them asking, how did it make you feel? Or how was the movie? And I just said, it was scary.

Lilly Sullivan

The kids at school ran with that. She'd pass kids in the hall, and they'd yell, it was scary, behind her. And Chastity had never been one of the coolest kids to begin with.

Chastity

I had a lot of friends, and most people were nice to me, but I also was very insecure. I had a lot of issues at home. And then just, too, physically, how different I was than everybody else, and then with this whole situation, it just brought more attention to me, I felt like. And I felt like I was bullied more. I cried about it for sure.

So it's like the little phrase that has gone down in infamy, I guess. She was like, it was scary. And yeah.

Lilly Sullivan

Oh, my God.

Chastity

Because I am 35 now, and I will still, when I run into people from elementary school or someone gets in contact with me on social media, they'll still say the whole, it was scary. And it's like, it kind of feels like sometimes if people don't even remember the whole situation, they remember the it was scary part. And that was the sound bite, I guess, because whenever they ran out of material to kind of make fun of me with, it would revert back to that.

Lilly Sullivan

Because of it was scary and the fact that her mom was so vocal on the news, Chastity says kids and teachers blamed her for squealing to her mom and for bringing all this chaos and negative attention to the school. When Chastity looks back on all this, there's a whole list of adults who put her in this situation-- her mom, a TV reporter who made her the poster child for the losers, her parents and church, who told her the devil would come after her if she saw a movie like this, and of course, her teacher, who showed her the movie.

The four teachers who'd shown the movie were all removed from the school. Two were substitutes who were taken off the list of subs the school would call. The two full-time teachers were suspended for 10 days and then reassigned to other schools in the district, including David and Chastity's teacher.

The teachers apologized. David and Chastity's teacher said she owned the movie, but didn't know what was on it. That's the closest thing I found to an explanation for all this.

There was one thing the adults at school did to try to more directly help the kids, which also went a little weird. David remembers a woman coming to his class. She told them she was a grief counselor.

David Quiroz

There was an introduction that said, hi, I'm here to talk about things. If you have any fears or concerns, that's exactly what I'm here for.

Lilly Sullivan

Which David thought, that sounds OK. I do have fears and concerns. But when she started the session, he didn't like how she started.

David Quiroz

If anyone would like to talk about what they saw in Leprechaun, please come to the nurse's office now or whatever office they had us in. And you had to raise your hand after they asked.

Lilly Sullivan

So basically, they were just like, is anyone here still afraid of The Leprechaun thing? Raise your hand if so.

Lilly Sullivan

What did you do? Do you raise your hand, or did you--

David Quiroz

Yes. We literally stood up and walked to the nurse's office as a group, a group of sad kids. And all the asshole kids were just making fun of everyone who stood up or raised their hand, which was like, you're a wuss. You wet the bed. You have bad dreams. You suck, that kind of thing.

Lilly Sullivan

Let me just point out the structural flaw at this plan. Let's ask the kids who are already being teased to self-identify as weenies in front of their peers and get marched away as a group. Anyway, the grief counselor sat the sad kids down in their sad little group.

David Quiroz

She starts asking us questions. And the questions are, presumably, basic grief counselor questions. What's your name? Do you feel safe at home? What's your home life like?

Lilly Sullivan

Questions appropriate for kids who are experiencing loss or abuse or neglect, not necessarily Leprechaun specific. And then time ran out, and that was it, which definitely wasn't worth the public shaming. So when she came to class the next time, a lot of the kids who'd come to the first session dropped out. David, for whatever reason, went again.

David Quiroz

And so, the grief counselor, again, she just starts asking basic questions about who you are and if you feel safe. And I remember raising my hand and being like, are we going to talk about the leprechaun? Are we going to talk about how to kill this thing?

Because in my mind, it was a real fear. The six-year-old me was like, this is bullshit. This counselor is not worth a damn. She's not giving us practical advice. Why are we wasting time talking about this? We need to focus on killing the fucking leprechaun.

And I remember asking the grief counselor, so if the leprechaun comes, should we just be carrying change with us? Do I need to carry gold to exchange my life? Because I think there's a scene in the movie where they distract the leprechaun by throwing coins in the air. I guess the idea was that if they saw coins, they had to count them or pick them up or something.

And they were throwing shoes because the leprechaun was a cobbler, and he needed to clean shoes. But it was those types of questions. Do I need holy water? For real, I need somebody who's educated in this who's seen the movie and can tell me the actual practical recipe to killing a leprechaun.

Lilly Sullivan

What did she say?

David Quiroz

I remember her being kind of taken aback by the questions and just giving the same kind of stock answer of, this isn't real. This isn't something you should have to worry about, which is not helpful. It felt more like, oh, let's send her to the poor Brown school and make sure the kids are all right.

Lilly Sullivan

David just remembers feeling like the message he was getting from adults kept being like, the problem isn't the movie. The problem is your reaction. There's no reason to be so scared. David didn't agree. Again, he was a really bright kid in a class with other bright kids.

David Quiroz

And so, people were more able to express, yo, I don't have anything at home that I'm really worried about. I'm just really worried about the leprechaun. Or I'm afraid of the dark. Or one girl wet the bed as a result of it, which is sad and true.

Lilly Sullivan

How do you know that?

David Quiroz

Because we had to disclose these things in this fucking group session to this goddamn grief counselor.

Lilly Sullivan

So the grief counselor was like, has anyone in here wet the bed, and someone had to raise their hand?

David Quiroz

Oh, yeah, somebody had to opt into that, right? And it was a little girl in my class.

Lilly Sullivan

You remember her name?

David Quiroz

[BLEEP] Lopez. [LAUGHS] Please bleep that.

Lilly Sullivan

I'll bleep it. I'll bleep it.

Oh, David, so considerate all these years later. You know who wasn't so discreet? [BLEEP] Lopez's mom. She told the news.

Mother

She's urinating in her bed, and she doesn't want to sleep alone. She's just-- I just have a lot of problems with her right now.

Lilly Sullivan

Parents-- am I right?

Ira Glass

Lilly Sullivan is one of the producers of our show. Coming up, teenagers left in a room with other teenagers at church. What could possibly go wrong there? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: Classified Dad

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, the kids' table, stories of what happens when the kids are on their own. The grown-ups have left the room, and the kids have to figure things out by themselves.

We've arrived at act two of our program. Act Two, "Classified Dad." This story is about what happens when an adult really is never around at all for a long time and the strange consequences and desires that can come out of that. Chris Benderev explains.

Chris Benderev

In 2018, Georgie Codd was on a cruise with her mom. And the day this all started was not as fun as she'd imagined. Their ship had been scheduled to dock at the picturesque Shetland Islands off the northern coast of Scotland, but instead, because of bad weather, the boat had docked in an unremarkable industrial Scottish town.

Georgie Codd

We were rerouted to a port called invergordon, which possibly has a lot going for it, but I'd imagined that we'd be in Shetland, having this wonderful time, looking at tiny horses-- because Shetland ponies. And instead, we went to a very dreary museum, looking at a reproduction stethoscope from 1965. And then Peter, our friend Peter popped up.

Chris Benderev

Peter was a 70-year-old man from Wales who Georgie and her mom had met in the cruise ship's dining hall a few days earlier. He'd told them corny jokes and a lot of stories from his days as a firefighter. They liked him. And now, in the museum, he invited the two of them to go get coffee.

Georgie Codd

We found this community cafe, and the three of us sat down on a table, which had an empty seat. And about two, three minutes later, a woman came up who none of us had met before, but was also on the cruise ship. And she asked us, could she sit and join us on the table?

And without skipping a beat, Peter said, oh, I was just telling my wife and daughter it'd be lovely to have some company. And she sat down, none the wiser. My mum, I think, groaned, possibly rolled her eyes. And then he spotted my mum's reaction to what he'd said, and he corrected himself. Oh, ex-wife, ex-wife. We liked to go on holiday still for Georgina to keep the family together.

Chris Benderev

Georgie's mom mostly sat out this practical joke. Georgie, meanwhile, tried to gauge whether Peter was really going to keep this up. He was.

Georgie Codd

He was saying things like, oh, Georgina's very clever. She's a writer. She's published a book. She did really well at school.

Chris Benderev

All true, by the way. Georgie decided to play along.

Georgie Codd

Oh, Pops works in the fire service, you know. He's a retired firefighter. He used to go up and down the town in Swansea, asking the ladies to get on his fire truck. And I have no doubt the woman thought we were a very strange family, but she seemed to believe that we were a family.

Chris Benderev

Eventually, Peter, Georgie, and her mom said goodbye to the woman and left. Out on the street, they laughed, proud of pulling off this stupid little caper. As they walked back to the ship, Peter mentioned to Georgie--

Georgie Codd

I always wondered what it would be like to have a daughter. And I thought immediately, wow, I've always wondered what it would be like to have a dad.

Chris Benderev

Georgie's dad wasn't with her on this cruise because he wasn't in her life, never had been, left before Georgie was even born. When she was 25, she found out where he lived and arranged a visit. She packed her bags and was on her way to the station when she got a call from her uncle telling her that her dad had died. He'd had health issues. The closest she got to him was at the funeral.

So she'd never had a father figure in her life until in a really small, silly way, those 15 minutes in the cafe with Peter. It'd been such an odd thing, but it felt so good and so unusual. And she just wanted to see, could that be a relationship that she'd have in her life? An older man to give advice and make dad jokes and be proud.

Georgie Codd

It's like he lit a little spark or something. I felt very elated. It seemed like a little door had opened or I'd glimpsed something.

Chris Benderev

What would you say that was?

Georgie Codd

Hmm. I think it was a need to feel acceptable and lovable by men without a hidden agenda?

Chris Benderev

This is sort of a big thing to discover on a sightseeing trip to Invergordon, that she wanted a dad's love, but it stuck with her. She'd enjoyed Peter's improvisation, but that wasn't exactly what she was after. Then Georgie got an idea. And you should know, Georgie is the type of person who gets very creative when she tries to solve a problem. She once worked in a funeral parlor to deal with her fear of death, took scuba diving lessons because she was scared of fish.

And so she made an ad for a dad, a classified ad. It said she was looking for someone to act as a father figure, nothing sexual. She could be reached at neverhadadad87@gmail.com. Georgie figured a lot of the men who could be her father still read actual newspapers and magazines.

Georgie Codd

So I started with a magazine called New Scientist because I thought I'd quite like a dad who knows science. And I decided for the advert to run just after Christmas because all the dad type folks would have got subscriptions for their Christmas present, so the numbers would be quite high--

Chris Benderev

That's quite sensible. That's very strategic.

Georgie Codd

Oh, I was, yeah, very strategic, very strategic.

Chris Benderev

As you might expect, she heard from a lot of creepy older guys. But they weren't all like that. Many people saw the ad for what it was and seemed genuinely interested. She emailed with a bunch of them, in particular, this one guy, Clive. He was in his 60s, had had kids from multiple marriages, was estranged from one of his children, something he seemed sad about. Georgie and Clive emailed for weeks, and then they started talking on the phone, too.

Georgie Codd

I mean, the first time on the phone, we both acknowledged the awkwardness of it, which was a great icebreaker and a green flag for me.

Chris Benderev

Clive stood out from all the other fake dads that she'd e-mailed with.

Georgie Codd

Some of these guys, they were just waxing lyrical about life in the universe and everything. But Clive was very engaged and remembered details that I told him, showed a real interest in me and my life. And I was interested in him and his life. And he was open about struggles that he'd had with mental health and alcohol. And we would easily be on the phone for 90 minutes, two hours. I think we clicked. We just clicked.

Chris Benderev

They talked about kids. Georgie was wondering if she should have them. And they talked politics-- more than she liked, even though their politics were the same.

Georgie Codd

Brexit. Brexit would come up so often. I guess, much like a daughter might do to their dad, which is like, ugh, I mean, can we just talk-- let's just talk about something else. Let's talk about something else. Shall I have babies or not? Come on, Clive. Tell me.

Chris Benderev

They never met face to face, but they talk on the phone maybe every month or so for a year and a half.

Georgie Codd

It was going really well. After a while, though, things shifted a little bit. And we had this phone call. And towards the end of the call, he said that he had been drinking. And he started telling me that he loved me. And why wouldn't I call more regularly? He would love it if I would just call more regularly.

And I felt cornered. And it wasn't anything like the tone of conversation we'd had for all those months up to that point. And I got scared. And I wrapped it up. And I emailed him that I didn't feel able to be in that relationship anymore, having heard what he'd said in that call.

Chris Benderev

What did it do to you that 18 months into what seemed like a kind of successful fake dad situation, that he had actually seen it romantically?

Georgie Codd

Well, it's interesting that you say romantic because, actually, it didn't feel like he was being romantic. Even though he was saying I love you, and I-- I didn't feel like he wanted to get in bed with me or anything. It just felt like he so craved, he was so craving the company.

Chris Benderev

Which is to say, she'd gotten exactly what she'd asked for-- a relationship like what a lot of people have with their parents, who, understandably, want more phone calls and time and attention.

Georgie Codd

And I couldn't be there. I couldn't call all the time. And I bailed. I think I got scared and went into hiding. I still feel extremely guilty and sad about that.

Chris Benderev

It's been six months since she emailed Clive, which, by the way, is not his real name. She couldn't bring herself to look in the inbox again until our interview. Still hasn't written back. Georgie is still in touch with the guy on the boat, the one who gave her the idea in the first place, Peter.

They talk now and then, are friendly. A while back, he mailed her a box of cakes when she was feeling down. And by the way, when she told him about the ad, he was horrified and worried. You're going to get murdered, he told her, just like a real dad would say.

Ira Glass

Chris Benderev is a producer here at our show.

Act Three: Stations of the Double Cross

Ira Glass

Act Three, "Stations of the Double Cross." So our show today is about kids trying to make sense of what happens when grown-ups are not around. And in this act, it's religious kids and the mischief they get into, even when they're trying to do right by God. Michelle Navarro attended a church retreat when she was in middle school. She has changed the names in this story.

Michelle Navarro

I'd been hearing about the retreat for years. It happened every Easter at my local Catholic parish on the southwest side of Chicago. And at 13, when I was finally old enough, I thought I should go. I always noticed the effect that chanting prayers and rosaries had on the adults in my family. It was the only place I saw their faces fully rested, at peace, and wondered, why didn't I feel any of it? I was standing in between them, but I was an outsider.

Don't get me wrong. I was a good kid, got good grades, spent a lot of time in libraries and book sections of thrift stores, went to catechism classes and mass every week. But Catholicism, I couldn't make any sense of it, and I really wanted to. This four-day retreat, it was run by the youth group at the parish, a group of teens from my neighborhood whose mission was to get other teens involved with the church. They hyped it up to us.

And the thing they said about it that really got my attention was that every year, during this retreat, there was a moment, a moment in the Catholic school gym basement where they found Jesus, felt his unconditional love. They describe this moment as warm and right and that it was when they knew they wanted to serve him.

They called it a newfound love, a newfound purpose, a change in perspective, which is what I felt I needed exactly. I had been waiting around for a revelation, an epiphany, and thought that this retreat is where I could feel it. So I signed up.

The second day of the retreat was Good Friday, and they took us, a herd of 13 to 17-year-old Mexican-American kids, to watch the annual neighborhood re-enactment of the crucifixion. Every year, there was a long-haired Jesus, this year, performed by a former youth leader whose name was, in fact, Jesus. Well, Jesus. He wore nothing but a thorny crown on his head and a white bedsheet wrapped around his crotch.

About eight men followed around him, dressed in full Party City Roman soldier costume attire, with red capes and plastic helmets and whips they would snap at Jesus's feet, as he hauled a wooden cross three times his size around my neighborhood. A priest followed in the back of a pickup truck with a big loudspeaker to read each station of the cross. Local cart vendors were posted up, eloteros selling corn and raspados-- think Mexican snow cones.

My favorite friend from catechism class, Crystal, who had edgy dyed red hair, but was never too cool to participate, walked with me and got some corn along the way. One of the youth leaders, José, noticed that me and the girl beside me didn't get one. He pointed at us and smiled. You guys don't want one, he asked. I got you. We shyly declined.

The teen leaders walked and talked to us, asked us what school we went to, which boys at the retreat we thought were cute. Crystal made fun of our catechism teacher, Jesse, one of the more stricter ones. Jesse was talking about the Ten Commandments and got to shall not kill, she said. Pena raised his hand and was like, isn't your brother in the Army? The whole class laughed, and he got kicked out.

The teen leaders laughed, so Crystal and I were like, oh, they think we're funny. And so we kept going, running through all the other priests and directors. Someone shared their best impressions of Father Greg, our one white priest, whose Spanish was terrible-- he couldn't roll his R's-- and said that their mom doesn't go to the mass anymore when he's there because she doesn't understand him. Everyone laughed.

We followed the procession all the way to the actual crucifixion at the top of a hill in Senka Park. And then suddenly, the mood shifted. The youth leaders seemed to straighten up. They got serious, stopped talking to us retreaters, and started whispering among themselves.

We all need to get to the church ASAP, one of them said. They rounded us up once we were out of the park and started a head count. When we got back to the gym, the team leaders continue to be quiet. Everyone needs to sit down and form a circle around the room, a youth leader said, now.

Retreaters whispered rumors of what could have happened. Maybe someone was ditching during the walk, or they caught someone smoking weed out of an apple from the snack table. Mauricio, the one adult supervising the retreat, walked into the room, looking down at the floor with his hands in his pockets. He stood in the middle of the circle and took his sweet time to look up at us.

Lo que paso ahora...lo que paso afuera...fue absolutamente irrespetuoso.

What happened today, what happened out there, was absolutely disrespectful. Now saying this in Spanish really kicked things up a notch. The whole retreat was in English up until this point. And getting scolded in English was something we got from our teachers at school. But for kids like us, hearing disappointment in the language your parents spoke made it all much more intense.

He paced around the circle. He stopped again, shook his head at the floor. We were participating in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, who carried the weight of the cross to which he was destined to be nailed to, who took the whippings of the Romans. And his mother, our Virgin Mary, watched her son suffer for what? For all you to take a joyful walk in the neighborhood, to buy your raspados and eat your elotes and talk and laugh? His voice trembled, and he started to tear up. He had one hand over his eyes. He walked to the podium and grabbed a heavy crucifix.

Cada uno de ustedes debe sentirse avergonzado.

Every single one of you should feel ashamed, he shouted. How could you call yourself a child of God when you can't stand there with Him when He sacrifices for you, when He is suffering? He held the crucifix tight to his chest and continued to cry. It was my first time seeing a grown man cry in real life. He was out of breath at times in between the yelling and the crying. The room stayed still, and no one was making eye contact with each other.

I quickly tried to recall the whole walk in my head and what I was doing, thinking, oh, shit, I was talking. Was I talking loud? Did I laugh? Damn, I did laugh. Panicked, I looked at Crystal to see how she was taking it. And I noticed tears were streaming down her face. She was still loosely holding the corn on the cob she bought. She got up, threw it out, and a bunch of retreaters began to do the same.

You see this? He held up the large crucifix and quickly walked towards the center of the circle. This, this is what you did today, he yelled. He slammed the crucifix at the center of the circle. I closed my eyes as ceramic hit the floor. It shattered, scattering pieces all over. There was a collective flinch and gasp. Mauricio walked out. It was like watching someone spit out the wafer you get at communion back into the priest's hands.

I looked around to see a lot of retreaters' heads down, hearing disrupted breaths from crying. This girl, Karla, who went to the same middle school as me and was known to be somewhat of a troublemaker, was sitting right behind me. She took a deep sigh and with the exhale, let out a, what the fuck? Which, in a way, was exactly what I was thinking. Dude, be fucking respectful, said the boy sitting behind her. Dude, don't say fucking. We at church, said another whisper behind him. You just said it, Karla quickly snapped. A collective shh followed.

I turned and looked at Karla. She leaned in, smacked her lips, and whispered, man, they do this every year. Areceli told me. I couldn't even process it. So this is an act that they put on every year to make us feel bad? That seemed really unhinged. Every year, Mauricio cries, yells, and breaks a crucifix.

As I was trying to make sense of it, my neighbor, Sophia, who happened to be one of the youth leaders, walked to the center of the circle, microphone in hand, still crying. The other youth leaders took turns hugging her. Finally, she wiped away her tears. Don't worry, you guys, she said. She raised one of her arms up into the air, closed her eyes. Spanish gospel music began to crescendo in the background like a movie. I look over at the speaker to see a youth leader slowly turning up the volume knob.

The rest of the youth leaders followed Sophia in closing their eyes, too. Slowly, the crowd of retreat kids, still sitting on the floor, did the same. Sophia opened her eyes and looked up at the ceiling. If we repent, He will forgive us. I looked up, along with everyone else.

Pressed against the ceiling, I could see soccer balls that had been kicked too high and gotten stuck. I glanced around the room and at Crystal, who was right next to me. She was completely moved, listening and crying, transfixed. Was this the moment? Was this what they were talking about? And was this what I came for?

On the walk home, I told my mom the whole story. She was surprised and thought the breaking of the crucifix was more disrespectful to God than the eating and talking during the reenactment. The part my dad couldn't get over, throwing away perfectly good food. He said that was a real sin, guilting kids into that.

It didn't fully set until that night, the lengths they had gone to, to play with our feelings. That a grown man thought it would be appropriate to pretend to be angry, that the teen leaders chatted us up, try to be cool with us, only to throw it in our faces and use it against us. I wondered how many times they could have possibly done this and how many kids never learned that it was scripted, or I guess, eventually did, when they became the ones who tried to pull this on others.

I almost didn't go back the next day. But I, for real, did think, I might get my epiphany. I might get closer to God. I just needed to trust it more. And at the same time, a small part of me thought, this was just day two. How far are they going to take this? What other spectacles do they have planned? I didn't want to miss it.

I wasn't disappointed. Day three was even weirder. When we all arrived at the gym, there were these tall wooden crates in the middle. Behind them hung a large white tarp. No one explained it to us. Instead, the youth leaders asked us about the times we felt like our parents misunderstood or neglected us.

Lots of kids stood up, and it got very real. One girl talked about how much her mom expected her to take care of her siblings, like they were her kids. Someone shared that he was gay, and he knew his parents would never accept it. It got to me. It got to all of us.

Then one youth leader pulled out a bucket of water balloons. They're filled with paint, she said. Throw them at the crates. Let out your anger and frustration at your parents. People hurled them, hard. Paint was everywhere. When they finished, the youth leaders went to the back of the crates and opened them up. Several parents stepped out, covered in paint. No one saw this coming. See? See what anger toward your parents does? This is what it does. Look at what y'all did.

The room got quiet. The parents looked somber. Some of them kept their heads down. Their kids ran up to them, sobbed in their arms, and asked them for forgiveness. Leaders told other kids to join them, and they did. I just stood there. I looked at the crates. And I could tell that the paint couldn't really seep through the small openings. They'd painted the parents before they even went inside.

It was like yesterday was just a warm-up. There was a pattern, a formula they used. They invited us to be ourselves again, but this time, more fully. People were being vulnerable, and they used it against them. It felt cruel and dishonest and gross in a way I couldn't describe.

Why did they set it up so that we'd end up feeling like we had to beg for forgiveness? It was like the only way they knew to bring us closer to God was to trick us. A part of me was still waiting for my epiphany, but now I was sure they wouldn't get me there. I'd have to get there on my own.

Ira Glass

Michelle Navarro is one of the producers of our show.

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Sean Cole. The people who put together today's program include Jane Ackerman, Elna Baker, Chris Benderev, Zoe Chase, Michael Comite, Aviva DeKornfeld, Tobin Low, Miki Meek, Michelle Navarro, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Marisa Robertson-Textor, Alix Spiegel, Alyssa Shipp, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu.

Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman. Our senior editor is David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor is Emanuele Berry. Special thanks today to Eugene Mirman, [? Kyra ?] [? Welker, ?] Kathryn Styer Martinez, Bridie France, Edgar Stephen Curo, Rebecca O'Connor, Jenna Chandler Ward, Fernando Pimentel, Stephanie Jenkins, and Barbara Dawson, who, by the way, recorded all those news clips we used in the Leprechaun story on her VCR long ago.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 750 episodes for absolutely free. Also, there's videos. There's lists of favorite shows. If you're looking for something to listen to, there's tons of other stuff there. Again, thisamericanlife.org.

This is the last new program we are making with Ben Calhoun on our staff. Ben most recently did that two-episode story about a police officer in a KKK application in Muskegon earlier this year. But he also worked on our Harper High School show a few years ago, many political stories. He was a key player on that episode the won us the Pulitzer.

And he did, I have to say, the world's most definitive journalistic treatment into whether pig bung is being passed off as fake calamari. Ben is a really good editor, which is rare, but good editors who are also great managers, like he is, even rarer. He's leaving to go run one of the most popular podcasts out there, The New York Times show, The Daily. They're lucky to get him. We will miss him a lot.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. I had this cake in the office fridge. And this afternoon, I went to grab a slice-- gone. Totally gone. Then I see Torey standing there with a couple of the producers, chocolate all over their faces, looking, I have to say, very guilty. Torey said to me--

Molly

We just got back from a birthday party. We weren't even here.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.