'Miss Maine' of '88 tells all

Sometimes a lie can be a tool for creative enhancement

Posted: Friday, September 09, 2005

A teacher I admire recently told me, "I make it a point to never lie to the kids." My immediate thought was, "Funny, I lie to them all the time."

Let me clarify, I never, never, never lie to them about content. It is a bad idea to teach math rules incorrectly the first time. But, I do think pretty much anything beyond that is fair game for creative enhancement. Growing up the fifth child in a half dozen, four of which are boys, has certainly honed my trickster skills. But, I'm having a crisis of conscience, so I decided I needed to come clean about a few things.

Sometimes I use a little creative license when talking to the kids about mathematicians associated with our lessons. I string together facts I know about the historic figures and try to create a character behind the idea and the problems they needed to solve. Sometimes these stories become elaborate. Soon the kids catch on to me, but enjoy the story nonetheless.

My best lie is out of control and has been for sometime. I keep trying to retrieve the memory of when the lie first began, but I haven't a clue from whence it came. It started on a day when I was teaching in the Phoenix Program, and I inadvertently let slip that I was Miss Maine in 1988. The story has since evolved into me winning the Miss Maine title and going to the Miss America pageant, but not making the final 10. What was your talent? "You'll never guess, but if you do I will tell you." The disbelief rises momentarily, and inevitably someone blurts out, "You were not Miss Maine!" I give them the "Why don't you think I could be Miss Maine?" A hush falls on the crowd. They are too polite to get specific.

Twenty years ago, I could have perpetuated this lie for my entire career, but with the dawn of the Internet, my lie was at risk. A few clever students back in my Phoenix days looked it up on the Internet. I thought I was sunk, and so soon. They went to the official Miss Maine Web site and discovered that my name was not listed as the winner in 1988. I declared foul play and went with them to look at the Web site myself with convincing disbelief. Fortunately for me, the name listed as Miss Maine for 1988 was also listed as the winner for six consecutive years. Now it doesn't take a rocket scientist to determine their proof was bogus. Thus, my secret would live to see another year, but I knew the days were numbered.

Some years, I outright tell my students on the first day that I was Miss Maine, only because I like to see their eyes bug out. Most years, the kids have already heard the rumors and boldly ask me. But my lie has caught up with me, as they always do. They fixed the Web site, and my hairdresser let some incriminating evidence slip. Time to come clean.

I was not Miss Maine in 1988 or any year, though I can't tell you how many times I have looked for my tiara and wondered where I put those pictures from the pageant. I like to believe I can be whoever I want to be if I want it badly enough. I want my students to see the potential in people, not just their outer surface. Is that so bad? So I lied, and some teachers and students assisted me. I'll think of something new, I'm sure, but right now I confess. Miss Maine has become my alter ego, the one that doesn't get any attention. When I was a kid, watching the Miss America pageant was as big as watching the Oscars, and I looked forward to it every year.

Sometimes a little enhancement is necessary to get or keep the attention of my students. I like to think my occasional antics keep my students sharp. I'll miss being Miss Maine, but my reign was long enough that I started believing it myself, and this perhaps is not a good thing. I guess I'll just have to work for world peace as myself, a high school math teacher, and that will do just fine.

• Mary-Lou Gervais is a math teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School.

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