Not to Be Believed (2000)

Nothing hurt more than having someone think I was lying. It could cause me to hate.

"MAY I SEE YOUR driver’s license?” asks the Home Depot checkout clerk. He is studying my VISA card, eyes furled.

“Sure,” I say, fumbling for my wallet. “May I ask why?”

“Sir, you haven’t signed this card.”

True. The card is my spare. With its green peel-off label still in place, it looks freshly minted. Or, in the clerk’s eyes, freshly stolen.

I am seized by anger and hurt. My heart rate soars. My limbic system awakens to this attack on my character. It happens each time I am suspected of lying. It has been so since May 1970, on my final day of eighth grade. 

Miss Kieves, our Social Studies teacher, was collecting our textbooks. As she took each book, she opened the cover. When she opened mine, she frowned. “This book is stolen.”

I was stunned. I’d never stolen anything. OK—in third grade, I had purloined one of Tony Friedman’s seashells. The pretty white spiral. But I’d been clean for five years. 

“What?” I exclaimed.

“Your name isn’t in the book; the label is blank. Obviously, you lost your book and either found or stole this one.”

I was dumbfounded. “Miss Kieves,” I reasoned, “if I found a book, and by a stroke of luck no one had written their name in it, wouldn’t I write my own name in it?”

“Not necessarily.” Her intransigence defied logic.

One appeal remained. “Scout's Honor,” I said, saluting with my three middle fingers, “I didn’t steal the book.”

“I’m sorry, Paul. If you want your report card, you’ll have to pay for your lost book.”

My mother phoned the school. She let the secretary know what kind of son she had raised and would you please inform Miss Kieves.

Days later, a response arrived. “It is never easy for a mother to accept that her son is a thief,” it read, “but facts are facts.” Signed, Juanita Kieves.

cartoon of an accusing  finger

cartoon of an accusing  finger

It would be impossible to overstate the damage Miss Kieves did to my psyche. I’d hate her—and anyone who didn’t believe me—for all time. I’d feel a kinship with all who’d been falsely accused, from Leo Frank, the New York Jew lynched for the murder of a girl in his Georgia pencil factory, to indigents on Death Row. I would amass a trove of articles vindicating the falsely accused and detailing their emotional and financial scars. I’d wonder: When would society punish its careless accusers?

Last week Miss Kieves cast her shadow. “We had a Reading assignment,” said my sixth-grade daughter, “and Devon got an ‘E’ because the teacher said he never turned it in.”

“What does Devon say?”

“That he turned it in late to the substitute. I believe him.”

I grieve for Devon. If innocent, will he grow up to become like me, gnawed by hate for a now-retired teacher?

Tell it to the judge

I can’t speak for Devon. But for me, being disbelieved has aggrieved me far beyond the classroom walls.

One Thanksgiving, I was driving from Maryland to my hometown in Ohio via the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Traffic slowed at an urban junction, where the gatekeeper was a Ray-Banned trooper straight out of Smokey and the Bandit

As the driver before me reached the junction, the trooper waved her through while his right arm, palm forward, kept other lanes still. Then he turned to direct the opposing traffic. As he turned, he dropped his right arm.

Was I to “whoa” or “go”?

Unsure, I began to inch through the junction. 

Immediately I was in a heap of trouble. With a blast of his whistle, the trooper marched to my window. “Where the hell do you think you’re goin’, Boy?”

I was trembling. “Officer, I couldn’t tell if you wanted—”

“Shut up, Boy, and get back behind the white line! Now!”

Here was Miss Kieves reincarnated, I thought. How else could he think that I—who stopped for yellow lights—was trying to sneak through? Maybe he’d noticed my two-door Corolla’s pop-up headlights and pegged me as a hotshot.

I rehearsed what I would say when my car crawled by him: “Sir, you have me wrong.” But Smokey leaned in and had the final word: “I hope I never see you again.”

I couldn’t wait to be greeted by those three sweet words: “Welcome to Ohio.”

Adjusting the adjuster

Smokey would not be my only automotive accuser. In 1990, the week before Christmas, I realized I had not received my semiannual bill for car insurance. I called my insurer. “I’m sorry,” the rep explained, “but you’re no longer in our system. When we didn’t receive your check seven months ago, your policy was canceled.”

No one had warned me. No one had informed me. “If I did receive your bill,” I said, “I must have mislaid it. Bill me $180 for the current term and $180 for the past term so I can be reinstated.”

“It’s not that simple,” he said. “Most people who let their insurance lapse are poor risks. They sign up just long enough to renew their driver’s license. You’d have to join our high-risk pool, at $2600 a year.”

I couldn’t begin to afford such an astronomical rate. Unsure of my options, I consulted an insurance broker.

“Call a new insurance company,” he advised. “When they ask, ‘Do you currently have insurance?’ say ‘Yes.’ Unfortunately, that’s the only way you’ll get a fair break.”

In other words, lie. I was appalled that he’d suggest this. Besides, I’d be asked my current policy number, and my lie would be exposed. No, thanks. I would handle this my way.

I donned a suit, drove to my former insurance company, and asked to speak with an adjuster.

“Pull up my record,” I said. “One claim in five years. I was paying one of the lowest rates anywhere. I’d be insane to give up that rate by knowingly letting my policy lapse.”

“You’re right,” she smiled. “I’m going to reinstate you.”

My faith in fairness was restored. That day, Miss Kieves had no hold on me. “It’s a wonderful life!” I exclaimed. “Merry Christmas! May I give you a hug?”

“By all means.”

It felt great to hug her. It felt even greater to be trusted.

Believe me.

© 2000 Paul Franklin Stregevsky

Click to leave a comment below.

Click to leave a comment below.