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MTT News's picture
Matt Geiger

The relentless optimism of conspiracy theorists is inspiring. They possess the admirable ability to believe people can dream up and execute complicated plans! The quixotic idea they embrace is that someone, somewhere can keep a secret. They harbor the wonderful but completely unjustified belief that human beings can communicate with each other, listen to each other, and follow through with their plans. They think people can do what they set out to do, and they can do it without trying to take credit immediately after the fact. 

If you believe the earth is flat, or that 9/11 was an inside job, or that the moon landing was faked, or that Lady Diana was murdered, or that a tiny cabal of powerful people run the world, then you also believe people are capable of pulling off these sinister and complex schemes. So while you think you are being clever and not buying into “the system,” what you are really doing is revealing that you think people are ambitious, competent and humble. 

Personally, I’m comforted by my skepticism. I don’t doubt that countless people would try to execute evil backroom plots and deals, but I cling to serious doubts about whether they have the intellectual fortitude or humility to pull any of it off. 

I do adore conspiracy theories, listening to flat earth and bigfoot podcasts for hours at a time. Perhaps it’s because really, I want to believe people can get along, and communicate, and achieve things. And maybe, maybe they can. If humans can walk on the moon (oh, wait, maybe that’s a bad example), or fly through the air in an airplane, or talk to someone 10,000 miles away, or see the images and hear the voices of great women and men long dead, maybe we can do things together. 

But really, it is our small actions, not our large ones, that define us. 

Perhaps it is not walking on the moon that makes humanity special; perhaps it is making a second lunch for a teenager you don’t know…

One of our classmates in high school was named Katie. I’m using her real name because there are a lot of Katies in the world (about 50,000 right now, in the United States alone), and I’m only going to say libelous things about myself in this column, not about her. 

She was pleasant and kind and funny, and she hovered somewhere between the realms of friend and acquaintance. She was a good student, and therefore was probably one of the people whose education was slightly imperiled by my classroom antics. 

On most mornings, a friend and I would get bathroom passes and leave for as long as possible, usually until we were led back to the chemistry classroom from which we had absconded. Before that happened, we would open Katie’s locker, which did not lock due to a malfunctioning latch, and remove her lunch. Her mother made amazing, thick sandwiches with tangy mustard and scrumptious love. There were cookies, too, and always a refreshing beverage. The first time we did it, it was simply a way to pass the time.

“Hey, this locker isn’t locked,” I said. But when we tasted her mother’s lunch, made with such care and stuffed into a brown paper bag, we were hooked. “This,” I said. “Is amazing! I can actually taste the love.”

That we were intercepting love not intended for us was beside the point. We were getting the love, and that was all that mattered to us.

Our standards might have been low. I didn’t have a locker, an oversight by the school’s administration, perhaps, or maybe a function of the fact that I was technically an 18-year-old junior. I’d missed an entire year of school when I fell ill with encephalitis and meningitis, so I ended up only attending high school for three years and was lucky enough to test out of having to stay on until I qualified for social security benefits. 

My parents usually gave me money to buy lunch at school, and I of course used that money to buy cigarettes so that I could get in trouble for smoking them on “The Path” just off of school property. I didn’t like to smoke, and I knew it would lead to cancer if I kept it up, but that seemed so far away, and at the time I really wanted to see and hear all of the very interesting people who hung out on The Path each morning, with their piercings, their tattoos, and their apparent lack of concern for society’s wants and needs. They were like characters in “Cannery Row,” come to life to smoke and plan parties just outside a small, New England high school.

Whenever I got into the school, and my stomach started to rumble, I’d always realize I’d made a mistake. 

“I’m starving,” I thought at 9:15 each morning. “I wish there were some way to prevent this from happening over and over and over again.”

“But what can you do?!” I thought, for no teenager understands fully their own agency.

Katie’s lunch gave me something to look forward to, and it quieted my stomach. The little notes that read, “I love you – Have a great day!”–while perhaps not intended for me personally, always lifted my spirits. The cookies elevated my blood sugar. 

“Someone keeps eating my lunch,” said Katie one day. “It’s happened three times now.”

“Oh, that was us,” we told her. “It was wonderful.”

“Oh,” she said. “Do you think you’ll eat it again?”

“Please,” I interjected. “Tell your mom her sandwiches are amazing. When my mom used to make my lunches, she’d just throw two seemingly random items –the only requirement being that they were of a spreadable consistency–on bread and toss it into my bag. But your mom is an artist.”

You can probably guess what happened next. 

She told the office and had the lock fixed.

She told the teacher and had our hall pass privileges revoked. 

She told her mother, and her mother came down to the school and gave everyone hell and had us suspended for our ridiculous theft. 

You could guess all of those things. You’d be justified to. But you would be wrong.

What Katie did was tell her mom. Because Katie’s mom thought up a simple solution. She started packing two lunches. One for her daughter, and one for the two boys who had been eating hers. The two bags didn’t always contain the exact same things, but they did always seem to be made with equal care, and they did always include cookies for everyone. 

As my friend and I stood in the hallway, encountering that extra lunch, we were stunned. Vengeance is the language of American lives, and this kind of compassion seemed alien, radical and transformative. 

Katie’s mother probably thought we were taking her lunch because we were legitimately hungry. She likely envisioned a couple Dickensian waifs, our faces covered in chimney soot, the xylophone of our ribs wrapped tight by our jaundiced skin. I doubt she knew I was only hungry because I chose to spend my lunch money on cigarettes, and that I was actually, if the doctors were to be believed, venturing into a category known as “obese.” 

Still, kindness is kindness. And it is the only way to reach or change anyone’s mind. 

At the time, I didn’t realize how much that kindness impacted me. But it was more than 20 years ago, and I still think about it regularly. In my small, internal life, it has become like the passage, near the beginning of Les Misérables, in which Jean Valjean is caught stealing from the priest, and the priest, rather than having him imprisoned, lies and says the silver was a gift, and gives him some more. 

Today, I understand that Katie and her mother could have easily ruined my life. They could have gotten me in so much trouble. I could have been suspended from school, or even expelled. Maybe I couldn’t have gotten into the college I did. Maybe I wouldn’t have started working at a newspaper while I was there. Maybe I wouldn’t be here, today. And I like it here, today.

I don’t know if large groups of people can work together to accomplish their goals, whether that goal is landing on the moon or pretending to land on the moon. But I do know, thanks to Katie’s mom, that individual people can be kind, and they can accomplish far more than they ever realize. 




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