As soon as attendance roll had been taken that day in eighth-grade math class, Mrs. Johnson (name changed to protect the guilty) issued notice of a pop quiz.
I don’t remember now what was on the test, but I remember vividly what happened during it.
Mrs. Johnson handed out the quizzes, and I began to solve the 10 problems as accurately as I could.
When I was about halfway finished, the kid behind me blurted out an accusation as unexpected as the proverbial lightning bolt from a clear, blue sky.
“Castens is cheating off my paper!” said the boy, whose name, mercifully, I disremembered decades ago.
I turned around in my seat and faced him.
“You’re a liar!” I declared.
My innocence seemed self-evident: I was seated ahead of this prevaricator – in the front row – and my eyes had been glued to my paper.
In seven-point-something years of matriculation, I had never been accused of cheating.
Even if I had desired to get an unfair advantage on the quiz, I certainly wouldn’t have been copying answers from the paper of one of the least-performing students in the class.
I assumed Mrs. Johnson would quickly acquit me and chastise the accuser.
She took on a posture of righteous indignation, all right, but she aimed it squarely at me.
“Castens, you don’t call anybody a liar!” she yelled. “I don’t call anybody a liar, and I don’t allow anybody else to use that word!”
She turned around and huffed back to her desk chair, obviously self-satisfied at having put me in my place, without so much as a disapproving glance at my accuser.
That my classmate had intentionally besmirched my character and risked costing me a failing grade may not have registered with Mrs. Johnson.
That “cheat” and “lie” are essentially of equal value in defaming someone’s character may have been lost on her.
That she had furthered instead of rectifying an injustice that it was her job to solve may not have occurred to her.
She took umbrage at the word “liar,” and nothing else mattered.
Mrs. Johnson petulantly demanded her own brand of civility – avoiding the use of the word “liar” even when it fit the situation exactly – while studiously ignoring the greater incivility of false accusation.
She was offended by my choice of words – or pretended to be – to the point that she lost all perspective of what was true and just.
My classmate got exactly what he wanted: He not only told a lie against someone he’d decided to make his enemy and got away with it; he was even made a victim/hero for his lie.
Given the state of our country today, I’d almost bet money that my long-ago classmate became a politician.
Errol Castens is the Daily Journal’s Oxford-based reporter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (662) 816-1282.