Tag Archives: honesty

You Don’t Need an Audience to Do The Right Thing


I like stories.

So I’m going to tell you two. These are true stories that happened at different points in my life. The first happened when I was 18. The second when I was 28.

I may have told these stories here before, so please forgive me if you’ve already heard them.

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It was Thursday morning and I was working my usual shift at the local library. In between shelving books and answering questions, my job was to check in the returns. Every morning I did this. I’d pick up a book, open to the back cover, scan the barcode, and stack the book on the trolley. This morning was no different to any other.

Until I opened a Large Print edition of a Ruth Rendell mystery and was faced with a mystery of my own.

I flipped open the cover, barcode scanner at the ready.

I flipped the cover closed. Had I just seen… Was the really…

I put down the scanner and carefully opened the book again. Then snapped it closed.

There was money in there. Lots of money.

I was 18 years old, working two jobs, trying to study, and living on ramen noodles slathered in cheap tomato sauce. Money was something that happened to other people. But there I was holding a book that appeared to be full of the stuff.

Gently, carefully, as though the cash would disappear in a puff of dream-stuff if I moved too quickly, I opened the book again. This time I kept it open. I flicked through the $50 notes inside. There were twelve of them. I had six hundred bucks right in front of me.

What I could do with six hundred dollars….

I carefully closed the book again, took a deep breath, and pressed a few keys on the keyboard.

“Excuse me,” I said to the little old lady perusing the Large Print section of the library.


“Are you Mrs Newman?”

“Yes.” She fingers tightened on the strap of her handbag and she leaned away from me.

I held up the book. “Did you just return this book?”

“Yes,” she said. Her smile was gone. “Is something wrong?”

“No.” I proffered the book. “But I think you left something inside the back cover.”

She cautiously took the book from me and opened it. The colour drained from her face, and she all but collapsed into a nearby chair. “Oh, my. I…”

“Are you alright?” I was eighteen. I thought I’d killed her.

“I’m… Oh. Thank you. I’m always nervous about keeping money in my purse, so when I take my rent money out of the bank I hide it in the back of a book. For safe keeping. I must have forgotten it was in there. I’m so… thank you. So much.”

I smiled, waited for her to take her money, and then took the book back to the counter. She left shortly thereafter, and returned with a box of chocolates and a bouquet of flowers for me. I walked on air for the rest of the day.

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It was Friday evening. My husband and I were walking through the mall on the way home, past restaurant after restaurant full of happy, smiling people intent on a good night out. We were heading home to have cheese sandwiches for dinner. We didn’t have enough money for restaurants or take-away food. (But on the plus side, we could afford sandwiches!)

“How about we get some Coke on the way home?” my husband asked.

“Sure,” I said. Because sometimes you just have to splash out.

So we dropped into a 7-11 and while my husband was grabbing the soft drink, I went to the ATM. May as well try my luck and see if I can get $20 out, I thought. (Although I was pretty sure I only had five dollars and some change in my account.) I put in my card, typed in my PIN and looked down.

Sitting in the tray where the money is dispensed was a fifty dollar note.

I picked it up. Fifty bucks. There was no-one around. No sign of who it belonged to. I ran it between my fingers. With fifty bucks, we could buy a piece of steak and some vegies on the way home. Or a bottle of wine. Hey, we could probably even go out to dinner.

Or we could do the responsible thing and use it to pay one of our massively overdue bills.

I flicked the note back and forth between my fingers while I pushed buttons on the ATM.


We should still have enough in our bank account to just use EFTPOS to pay for the drink. And there was always the fifty dollars…

“Excuse me,” I said to the guy behind the register. “I just went to use the ATM and someone forgot to take their money.”

“Yeah…” the guy said, like he didn’t know why that would have anything to do with him.

“Can I leave it with you in case they come back for it?”

He looked at me like I was an idiot. Then he took the money, wrote a note about it, and put it in a drawer under the counter. My husband came back with the Coke. We paid for it (holding our breaths while we waited to see if the transaction would be approved) and then left.

And as I ate my cheese sandwich and drank my Coke, I was happy.

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I’ve told people those two stories a few times over the years. Not to blow my own trumpet, but to illustrate the importance of not hiding money in library books, and to remind people to check they’ve got their money before they leave the ATM. And without fail, I get the same reactions from people.

When I tell the first story, I get people saying things like: That’s so sweet! You’re so honest! Not everyone would have returned that money! It’s a good job it was you who found the money and not someone else!

When I tell the second story, I get people saying thinks like: Why would you do that? You know the guy just kept the money, right? You should have just kept it. Anyone else would have.

Maybe people are right. I mean, who knows what happened to that fifty dollar note? Maybe the guy at the 7-11 waited until I’d left the store and then pocketed it and spent the night telling people about the stupid woman who handed it over.

Or maybe it was a couple’s last $50 and they came racing back into the 7-11 five minutes after we left, frantic that they wouldn’t be able to buy any food for their children, and were overwhelmed with relief when the cashier handed them the money.

There’s no way to know.

And here’s the thng: It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter what happened to that fifty dollars. It wasn’t mine to keep any more than the $600 I found at the library was mine to keep. Just because I couldn’t personally hand it back to the person who lost it doesn’t mean I had a right to keep it.

It’s not my responsibility if someone else chooses to do the wrong thing.

It’s my responsibility to make sure I do the right thing.

Even if no one is watching.

When have you been called an idiot for doing the right thing?


Filed under Opinion

The Hobbit: My Secret Shame

The Hobbit

Ask any fan of speculative fiction, and they’ll doubtless list The Hobbit  as one the must-read books of the fantasy genre. It’s the book that precedes The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and sets the stage for one of the most dramatic and epic stories of all time; one that spawned the ideas for thousands of other novels, movies, songs, and artworks and forever changed the world.

Am I over-selling Tolkien’s work? I don’t think so.

In a few days, The Hobbit will be the name on everyone’s lips. The first installment of Peter Jackson’s trilogy based on the book will hit cinemas around the world, and people of all stripes will be engrossed in the story of Bilbo Baggins as he ventures forth from Hobbiton in search of treasure and adventure. It’s an exciting time.

Several years ago, my sister expressed her enjoyment of the Lord of the Rings movies. She’s never been much of a reader, but she mentioned that she’d quite like to read the books. So I picked her up a lovely boxed set that included all three LotR books as well as a copy of The Hobbit. Being the type of person who likes to work through things systematically, she decided to read the first book first. (Makes sense, right?)

A few months later I was talking to her on the phone and asked her how she was going, and if she’d finished reading The Hobbit.

“Yes,” she said. “Well, no. Well… Yes.”

“What does that even mean?” I asked.

“I was almost at the end, and I was really tired. So I stopped reading on the second last page. But that’s really the end. The story’s really over.”

And that was that. She never did read the last page of the book. I mean, sure, there’s no likely to be any grand surprises, but really? It just seems crazy to me.

So my husband and I were chatting last week about seeing The Hobbit in the cinema, and he reminded me of my sister’s unfinished book. I nodded and smiled and agreed that it was funny and then tried to change the subject. But it didn’t work. He talked about his favourite parts in the book, and told me about the first time he’d read it, and got all excited about seeing the movie, and then turned his attention to me.

How old was I when I read it? How many times have I read it? What were my favourites parts?

And that’s when I had to admit my secret shame.

I haven’t read The Hobbit.

Look, it’s not my fault. No, really, hear me out. See, when I was a teenager I was largely introduced to the sci-fi/fantasy world by a guy named Adam. He also introduced me to role-playing and war-gaming and the joys of Iron Maiden. (I had a crush on him, okay? He had a fair chance of introducing me to just about anything.) So he was reading The Lord of the Rings and I showed an interest in it because, you know, then we’d have something else in common, and so he loaned me his books one after the other so I could read them, and I read them all and LOVED them and thought they were the best things ever and then we started roleplaying MERP — which is the original Lord of the Rings roleplaying game — and I got to play a half-elf and go on adventures, and that only made me love LotR more, and…. okay, I’m getting off topic.

The point is, I read Lord of the Rings without any idea that The Hobbit existed. And when I learned about The Hobbit years later, it seemed silly to go back and read it. I was 16, and at that age where reading “kids’ books” was super uncool, and besides — I already knew basically what happened. Why read the beginning of the story after you’ve already read the middle and the end? Right? Right?

And then time went on, and people assumed that I’d read The Hobbit because… well, who hasn’t? And I went along with it. I read the wiki on the book so I knew the plot, and I got involved in conversations as though I knew what I was talking about.

Yes, I faked it.

But no more!

I admitted it to my husband and now I’m admitting it to you. Because the time for faking it is gone. Now is the time for reading it.

So if you’ll excuse me, I need to go update my TBR list and put The Hobbit at the top.

Have you ever faked having read a book? What books are you secretly ashamed never to have read?


Filed under Reading, The Inner Geek

Santa Claus: The Magic of Christmas or a Big, Fat, Bearded Lie

I will never forget the day I found out Santa Claus wasn’t real.

It was early December, 1984. I was eight-years-old.

For as long as I could remember, Santa had been a huge part of my Christmas experience. I’d go so far as to say that Santa had been my Christmas experience. Every year we’d write our letters to Santa, Mum would post them off, and then we’d wait. On Christmas Eve, we’d get the house set up for him.

We’d move all the presents from Mum and Dad to one side of the tree, hang our stockings, put out a glass of milk and some cookies for him, and don’t forget to leave a carrot for Rudolph! We’d write him a note:

Dear Santa,

Thank you for coming to our house and bringing us presents. We hope you like the milk and cookies. The carrot is for Rudolph. Have a Merry Christmas.

We love you so much.

Then we’d go to bed and go to sleep. Straight to sleep. Because if we were late to bed, Santa might have to wait for us to fall asleep before he could come in and leave the presents, and then he’d be late to the next house, and then someone might miss out.

Christmas morning would find us awake at 4:00am — with strict instructions not to wake Mum and Dad until 6:00am — and sneaking out to the lounge room. There, piled under the tree, would be piles of presents from Santa. All of them neatly labelled.

To: Jo    From: Santa xxx

The handwriting was clearly Santa’s. It didn’t look anything like Mum or Dad’s handwriting. The milk and cookies would be gone, and only the top of the carrot would be left on the plate, with teeth marks from Rudolph! Oh, how I longed to be able to keep that carrot top forever.

But I didn’t have to. The note! Santa had written back to us, in his unfamiliar handwriting:

Thank you for the milk and cookies. Rudolph really liked his carrot. I hope you enjoy your presents. Remember to be good girls and boys next year. Merry Christmas! xxx

Then we’d unpack our Christmas Stockings (filled by Santa) and play with the toys inside until we could wake Mum and Dad up to show them. And boy, weren’t they surprised! Every year, Santa managed to surprise us and them with the number of toys and chocolates he could fit in our stockings. And that was before we even started on the presents under the tree!

Santa was kind of a big deal.

And that year, the year I was eight, promised to be even better. We were living in the U.S. for the first year. We had snow outside (for the first time), an open fireplace for Santa to come down (for the first time), and a bigger tree than I had ever seen before.

But on that day in early December, everything changed.

The subject of Santa Claus came up at school. “Santa isn’t real,” one of the boys said. “It’s just your parents.”

“Is not,” I said, full of righteous indignation. “He’s real. He lives at the North Pole, and–”

One of the girls laughed at me. “You’re so stupid. It’s just grown-ups wearing a costume. That’s why there’s so many Santas in shops.”

“No, they’re Santa’s Helpers,” I said confidently. My parents had explained that phenomenon to me several years earlier. “Santa can’t be everywhere at once, so he hires Helpers to sit in the shops and make lists.”

More kids laughed. I found myself in a ring of children, all of them adamant that Santa wasn’t real. I was about to have another “first time”. I was about to get into a fight. Because I knew Santa was real. I knew it with absolute conviction. My parents would never lie to me.

Not again.

I’d caught them out on a lie only the December before. Leading up to my Mum’s birthday, she’d said she was turning 21. I wrote “Happy 21st Birthday” on her card, and wished her a happy 21st birthday on the day. And then I was talking about it with a friend at school when I realised the truth: She can’t possibly be 21. If I’m 7, and she’s just turned 21, she would have been 13 when I was born. And that’s obviously impossible.

I confronted her when I got home from school that day.

“I’m not really 21,” she said. “I’m 27. But sometimes it’s nice to pretend to be a different age.”

We’d talked, and she’d apologised for confusing me, and I’d realised that I liked to pretend to be 10, and so I understood. But she’d promised not to “pretend” like that again.

So there was no possible way that she’d lie to me again so soon. Honesty was the most important thing in our household. We (the kids) got in more trouble for lying than any other “crime”. Broke something? Not a problem. Just don’t lie about it. Accidentally dropped your brother and broke his wrist? Not a problem. Just don’t lie about it.

And that’s why my eight-year-old self was willing to get into a fist fight to back up the fact that Santa was real. I knew in my heart that my parents wouldn’t lie to me about something so important.

Fortunately, a teacher broke us up before things got too far. I say “fortunately”, because it was me against about 25 kids by that point. I would have been road-kill. But as I sat on the bus (alone, shunned by my classmates for believing in Santa Claus), their words reverberated in my head. “You’re so stupid. It’s just grown-ups wearing a costume.”

When I got home, I told Mum I needed to talk to her. “The kids at school said Santa isn’t real,” I said, tears in my eyes. “But he is real. Isn’t he?”

She didn’t answer straight away, just took my hand and led me into another room, well away from the ears of my younger siblings.

That didn’t bode well.

“Is Santa Claus real?” I asked. My heart was in my mouth. So much rested on the answer to that question.

Slowly, gently, my mother shook her head. “No,” she said. “But it’s nice to pretend that he is.”

“Oh,” I said. I couldn’t say anything else. My heart was breaking.

“Don’t tell your brother or sister, okay?”

I nodded, and my mother led me back out of the room, and went back to what she’d been doing. I went to my room and cried.

Not because Santa wasn’t real. I didn’t really care where the presents came from or who ate the cookies. The answer to both of those was obvious once the deception had been revealed. I cried because my parents had lied to me. I cried because they’d betrayed the trust I put in them. If they were going to lie about something so important, and go to such an effort to convince me that their lie was the truth (the carrot, the note, the disguised handwriting), how could I trust anything they told me? How could I trust them when they told me that being Honest was the Most Important Thing?

How could I face my classmates the following day, knowing that they’d been right? I had been stupid.

I’d been stupid to believe that my parents would never lie to me.

And there, sitting in my cupboard (where else would a child go to cry in secret?) with tears running down my face, I made a promise to myself. I swore that one day, when I was grown up and I had children, I would never betray them like this. I would never lie to them year after year after year, while simultaneously enforcing the value of Truth and Honesty. I would never go to such lengths to lie to them.

Nothing was ever the same after that. I felt a distance from my parents. (A distance that has only closed in the last handful of years.) I still enjoyed Christmas — still woke up at 4:00am, excited about the magic of the day. But every Christmas reminded me anew of the deception that had been practiced on me and my siblings.

As time went past, I forgot about that promise. Until I had my own children.

I don’t believe in lying to my children. About anything. Sometimes that’s hard when it comes to Santa Claus. And the choice of how to introduce Santa to our kids caused some tension between my husband and I before we came up with a compromise. But I will not lie to my children, nor perpetuate a lie that is told by thousands of parents worldwide.

In our family, Santa is a cross between a story and an imaginary friend. We can talk about him, tell stories about him, and accept that other people treat Santa as though he’s real. But we don’t tell our children that Santa brings presents, or that he makes the decision about how “good” or “bad” you’ve been. We, their parents, are responsible for both those things.

Maybe in years to come, our sons will look back on this time and feel like they missed out on part of the “Magic of Christmas” because we didn’t tell them a magical man in a red suit broke into our house every year and decided how many presents they should get.

Or maybe they’ll appreciate the fact that we never felt it necessary to lie to them. Perhaps they’ll appreciate the real magic of Christmas: families and friends enjoying each other’s company and exchanging gifts in recognition of the love they share.

What do you think of the fat man in the red suit?


Filed under Life With Kids, Opinion