Daily Archives: January 30, 2011

Crimes of Education

I’ve been getting a lot of e-mail asking for my thoughts about Kelley Williams-Bolar, the woman here in Ohio who was recently sentenced to to ten days in prison (of which apparently she served nine) and now has a felony record because she and her father listed the father’s residence as the primary residence of her children, in order that the kids could go to school in a better school district. As I understand it, idea here is that because she didn’t live in the district and pay taxes there, she committed fraud, although from what I understand the jury wouldn’t or couldn’t convict on that charge and instead she was found guilty of tampering with court documents. Ironically Ms. Williams-Bolar is not that far off from getting a teaching credential, which she now may not be able to use because she’s a felon.

How do I feel about this? Well, I will tell you a true story. When I was in sixth grade, my mother and her then-husband broke up, and in the space of three months I lived in four different houses in three different cities, and in three different school districts. The school district I had been in when this all started had a genuinely excellent “gifted and talented” program, and my teacher at the time, Keith Johnson, was one of those teachers that you’re lucky to get once in your entire life. I’d been at the school for a couple of years and I had friends who I still have now. And, not to put too fine a point on it, the breakup of my mother and her husband wasn’t exactly out of the blue, and the school and the people who were there who cared about me were an island of stability in a life which was, though no fault of my own, completely messed up.

When my mother left our house and moved, taking me and my sister with her, what she should have done, procedurally speaking, was take me out of that school and put me in a new one, in the city we then lived in. And then two months and two moves later, when we were in a new city and new school district entirely, she should have done it again, giving me three different schools, three sets of schoolmates and three entirely different social situations to adapt to on top of the fact that my family and home life had just been blown up.

She did do was no such thing. Through four moves, three cities and three school districts I stayed in the same class with the same teacher and the same friends and classmates. How my mother managed to do this is something she would have to tell you, but in point of fact I know that officially — and, I suspect, legally — speaking I was not supposed to have been allowed to stay there. My mother made the decision to do what she thought was better for me rather than what was probably the letter of the law.

Did my mother break the law doing what she did? I don’t know, but possibly. Did she break the rules? She certainly did. Did she do right thing? Probably not, from the point of view of the procedures of the school district. From the point of view of what was best for her child: Absolutely. There’s really no doubt about that. And if in fact my mother broke the law on my behalf way back when, I can say that doing so made a positive difference at a critical time in my life.

So: How do I feel about Ms. Williams-Bolar? Basically, I think she deserves a prison term and a felony conviction about as much as my mother did, for performing essentially the same actions, thirty years ago.

Being Fictional

The other day in the Whateverettes sidebar I linked to Elizabeth Bear’s discussion about being fictional — or, less pithily, her dealing with that fact that lots of people who read her books and/or her blog have an image of her in her head which is a construct, based on that writing, which may or may not have much to do with who she actually is. The number of people carrying a fictional version of her around in their head is smaller than the number of people who have a fictional version of, say, Angelina Jolie or Barack Obama in their head, but it’s a large enough number of people that she does have to deal with it.

And it’s a weird thing to deal with. As eBear notes:

Sometimes, it’s a little like dealing with 5,000 high school crushes. Sometimes it’s like dealing with 5,000 high school enemies. Sometimes, I learn things about myself I did not know from my Wikipedia page.

I understand where eBear’s coming from, because she and I have essentially the same level of micro-celebrity, and with the same subset of people — which is to say it’s difficult to imagine people who know of me not knowing who she is, and vice-versa. And I think she’s essentially correct when she notes that the fictional version people have of you in their heads in more about them than it is about you; everything gets filtered through their brain and how people fill in the blanks is by sticking in bits based on their own experiences, sometimes from others but mostly from themselves.

This fictional version of you is additionally compounded by the fact that, if you’re a writer, the version of you they’re building from isn’t the experience of you (as in, you’re someone they know in real life), but from the fiction you write and/or the public persona you project, either in writing (in blogs and articles) or in public events, such as conventions or other appearances. The fiction one writes may or may not track at all to one’s real-world personality or inclinations, and while one’s public persona probably does have something to do with the private person, it’s very likely to be a distorted version, with some aspects of one’s personality amped up for public consumption and other aspects tamped down or possibly even hidden completely.

All of which is to say these fictional versions of one’s self are to one’s actual self as grape soda is to a grape — artificial and often so completely different that it’s often difficult to see the straight-line connection between the two.

And this is why I personally find them fascinating, especially — since I am both an egotist and a narcissist — when they involve me. I like going out onto the Web and discovering these strange, doppelganger versions of me, and also the people who speak so authoritatively about the sort of person these doppelgangers are. Occasionally those doppelgangers are better, more clever people that I am in real life, and occasionally they’re complete jackasses. Sometimes they’re people I’d like to meet; often they’re people I would avoid at parties. Their life and career details are generally similar but not precisely my own, and it’s interesting to see how those variations have spun their lives off of mine, and what conclusions people have made about them based on those variations.

What do I do about these fictional versions of me out there? Generally speaking, nothing, because there’s nothing to be done about them. When one is in the (mostly) happy position of having more people know of you than you can personally know, an abundance of fictional versions of you is part of the territory. I can’t make a deep and personal two-way connection with everyone who reads my books or this blog, and I can’t demand that people don’t make assumptions about who I am from what they read or hear (well, I could, but then part of their data set when they think about me would be that I was both paranoid and completely unrealistic). Generally I try not to do things in public which would encourage people to think I’m a unremitting prick, but I would try to do that even if I didn’t have the level of micro-fame I have. And of course some people think I’m an unremitting prick anyway.

But you do try not to worry about it. Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who is often a font of wisdom on many fronts, has a useful standard response for dealing with people who confuse their fictional construct of someone with that actual person, which I will paraphrase thusly: “I am not responsible for actions of the imaginary version of me you have inside your head.” This is an important thing for people to remember, when they get to the point where more people know them than they know.

Personally, I’m less interested in the fictional versions of me that are out there than I am about the moment where people first ever meet me — either in my real-life “I’m actually standing in front of you” version or the first time they read one of my books or come to this site. I always wonder what that’s like for people, and what impression they come away with. There’s no way to ask them as they’re having it, and I always wonder about it (I could when they were actually meeting me, I suppose, but it would be both meta and obnoxious: “Hey! You’re meeting me now! How is it for you?”). I’m not worried about the fictional versions they construct from that point, but I always hope the first time they “meet” me it goes well.