I’ve been very lucky in my life. I have had many teachers.
When I was a college senior, a teacher offered me a job grading papers. He was not a good teacher; in fact, his classes were notoriously bad. He offered me $2.50 an hour for a few hours a week. My budget at that time left no room for error, and even a dollar misspent would leave me without the cash I needed to wash my clothes or buy a meal. This teacher might have known what students thought of him; in any event, he was grateful for my help. When I was about to graduate, he asked if it would be okay if he set up some job interviews for me.
This was 1978, and there were no jobs for college graduates. My first interview was with a man who had a small public relations agency, although he had a big reputation. He had been president of the local PR association, and everybody knew him. I can’t recall anything we talked about except that when I told him the salary I was expecting, he smiled because it was so little. One day later he called and offered me a job. I started working two weeks after graduation. This was my first lucky break.
The office was in a nice building in a fancy part of town. My boss dressed well and drove a big car. The people I worked with were helpful and friendly. The work was interesting and seemed important. I got a raise. I learned a lot, but the longer I worked there the more uncomfortable I became. I figured out that my boss didn’t pay all his bills, or that he juggled things so that he paid what was necessary to keep things going, and ignored everything else. The problem was that I was the one who hired the suppliers for our projects—the photographers, the printers, the artists—and he was the one who didn’t pay them. This was something I couldn’t fix, and it troubled me. I felt like a liar, a con, a cheat. After about a year, I began to look for another job and found one. When I told my boss I would be leaving, he gave me a farewell party.
A few months later, I got a call from a former client at the PR agency. He told me that he had asked my old boss about me, chiding him for letting a good one get away. He wanted me to know what my old boss had said in case it ever got back to me. “He said that you had a nervous breakdown and that he had to send you back to your parents.”
It was ridiculously, even insanely, untrue. Here I was, sitting in another office not three miles away, working for someone else well-known in a relatively small field. But in one sobering instant I knew that as long as I worked in that city, I would have to defend myself against the lie. I had seen behind the curtain, and he had reached out in retribution to steal what little I had: my name.
Perhaps it was luck. I never again went looking for another job. Never had another interview, never asked anyone for a referral or recommendation. The next career move I made was to start my own business with an honest partner. I was 23. I kept that job for nearly 20 years.
I never even thought about my first boss, but he still hung on. Bad business practices don’t necessarily put you out of business. One day I met someone else who had worked for him long after I left. He had told her about me, she said. He had told her the lie.
The guy died in 2010. He had a very long resume.
Why would someone keep lying? Liars have to lie, it turns out. They have to keep lying because they are lying to themselves. They have to keep lying because they are a lie.
Over the many years since I learned this lesson, I’ve tossed nearly every bit of the name that was besmirched. In the end, nothing was lost, and the experience gave me a pretty good handle on the truth.
There is a ruckus in the news these days about lies and liars. Should the press call a lie a “lie?” Should they call a liar a “liar?” Should they call cheaters “cheaters,” traitors “traitors,” thieves “thieves,” racists “racists” and monsters “monsters?”
I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had many teachers, and so I can answer the question. Yes.
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