When I was in fourth grade, I longed to know what was happening in the world beyond the S.H. Kress’s store on Broadway Street and the pulp mill across the Wishkah bridge in Aberdeen.
At Robert Gray Elementary School, 11:00 on Wednesday morning was library time. It was the finest half hour of the week. For 28 short minutes, I could be alone with books. That big old library, with its creaking birch floors and the smell of old books mixed with the aroma of pencil shavings, was my refuge.
I was never sick on Wednesdays. If a cold was coming on, I held it in.
But one day, I forgot my library books at home and wasn’t allowed to choose new ones. I was crushed.
I sat, all sad-eyed, watching Georgia Bushnell and Annie Bogle as they whispered, thumbing through the pages of the latest Nancy Drew book.
Mrs. Donner, the school librarian, pointed me in the direction of my only option, the set of Encyclopedia Britannicas on the far shelf. It was supposed to be my punishment.
But after I discovered those books, with their strange and wonderful facts, those Wednesdays in the library, with the rain pelting against the windows, were never the same.
There was Volume 8-dash-H, with the country of Hungary and its red, white and green flag that reminded me of Christmas. And Volume 13-dash-M with exotic sounding places like MO-ROC-CO and MIN-NE-A-PO-LIS.
I wondered if I would ever need to read made-up stories again, with all the true stuff about the world I had yet to discover. And it was all in these 24 books.
Man, I wanted a set of my own.
The summer of the encyclopedia man
Late one August afternoon, when I was nine, the encyclopedia man, short, balding and dressed in a gray flannel suit, showed up on our doorstep and for one brief and shining moment, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
Mama, who was starting to shell the peas for supper, waved him into the house. He could have ten minutes of her time, she said, no more.
I prayed that the encyclopedia man was a sharpshooter of a salesman, picking off unsuspecting mothers before they knew what hit them.
When Mama said, “I don’t have all day,” I knew it was not a good sign.
They sat down on the davenport and Mama crossed her legs, swinging one of her high-heeled feet back and forth. This was how Mama got if you didn’t get right to the point.
“Well, I’ll get on with it, then,” the encyclopedia man said.
He pulled his suitcase out and opened it up to show a perfect, gleaming set of Encyclopedia Britannicas, just like the ones in the school library.
He turned one page of his sales book at a time as he told the story of the Encyclopedia Britannica, pausing for effect at each new picture. He talked about how kids got better report card grades if they had their own encyclopedias. How they always knew the right answer in class. How they studied longer and were more prepared for college.
But Mama cut right to the chase. “All right now. How much would you be charging?”
The encyclopedia man started talking faster as sweat beads started forming on his brow. “I’m almost finished,” he said.
“How much?” Mama narrowed her eyes.
And so it continued, back and forth. Mama asking her questions again and the encyclopedia man evading them with the skill of Sheriff Mat Dillon dodging bullets in a barroom scene on Gunsmoke. Now my head was popping back and forth between them like a badminton birdie.
“I can get you on the monthly plan for just $9.99. That’s my best offer,” the encyclopedia man finally said.
What do you think we are, filthy rich, Mama said, shooing at the man with her hand, like he was a bothersome fly.
And then, just like that, it was over and Mama and I were watching out the front room window as the encyclopedia man’s station wagon peeled out, the gravel on the driveway spitting.
He was gone, taking my dreams with him, all wrapped up in his battered case.
Speed for truth: what we gave up for social
When we were fourth graders, we used the encyclopedia to write our social studies reports. We knew that what was printed in those books was the pure and unadulterated truth. We never questioned it.
We didn’t have any reason to.
Our teacher never had to say once, ” Oh that’s just a silly rumor going around. President Kennedy isn’t really our president. You shouldn’t believe something just because it was printed in the encyclopedia.”
We believed. We trusted.
But now we have social media. Information gets relayed at lightning speed. We know stuff right as it is happening. And it’s all good. Or is it?
Stuff I saw on Facebook last week
A cartoon is making its way around Facebook this week: a photo of Abraham Lincoln with the quote:
I love this. It says everything about the ability of social media to feed us false information that, like a bad virus, gets spewed out to hundreds more when we share it.
Aside from all the politically motivated half-truths and lies—and I don’t want to go there—just this past week on Facebook I saw:
• photos of a fatal car crash with the caption that kids were texting (not true: it was an elderly driver)
• “I’m cleaning up my friends list and will delete you unless you tell me you want to remain my Facebook friend.” (hoax spreading like wildfire right now)
• “Facebook will donate $1 to help a baby with a large growth on her face every time the baby’s photograph is liked on Facebook” (another hoax, this one vile and cruel; unbelieved by most, but not all)
• “Tom Hanks has died.” (seems that his death had been ‘highly exaggerated’)
And, in the downright dangerous department:
• “Because of the drought, the federal government will pay your electric bill this month; just provide your social security number and bank routing numbers.” (identity theft scam—several hundred people in the Midwest and the Atlantic states fell for it).
• “Tell us your ‘royal name.’ Combine your grandparent’s first name, your childhood pet and your street name and add XIV to the end. Share it with us!” (I can’t believe how many of my smart friends were playing this game online, releasing sensitive, password-type information for all the world to see.)
Worst of all, Facebook has made it too easy for us to like and share a blatantly untrue—and potentially damaging— piece of ‘news.’
Yeah, maybe it takes a minute or two to google to verify a fact. But how many of us do that? Not many, I suspect.
Why wouldn’t we believe what a trusted friend tells us, right?
So what about you?
How do you sort the lies from the truth on social media?
Do you ever wonder when you click “Share,” if what you are passing on is really true?
Do you think it’s getting harder to tell?