In these messed-up times of school shooters, one might believe an active crime scene is in progress if somebody kicks open a classroom door and shoots the teacher. It’s hard to imagine now that people kicking open the doors of an English or journalism class were doing it on the teacher’s behalf to prove how unreliable eyewitness testimony is.
I’d heard about the practice from my father who was a college journalism dean. So I was surprised when my college English teacher did it. I knew the minute the door flew open that the entire argument and shooting were a staged event, so I took notes while it happened rather than doing the natural thing by just trying to stay out of the way.
Eyewitness testimony seems like it should be flawless. English teachers don’t care about the science behind the reason why such testimony is usually terrible even though it puts a lot of people in jail.
After the “bad guy” left the classroom and the professor stood up and said, “No, I really didn’t get shot,” he asked us to spend the next 20 minutes (without consulting any other student) writing down what happened. Of course, the professor knew what happened: he had a script. The video camera in the back of the room “knew” what happened because it had a tape of the event.
Each of us was asked to stand up and read our account of the event. Suffice it to say, what we think we saw was wildly different. Then the professor played the videotape, proving–with a smirk–that most of the students didn’t have a flue what happened.
My account was spot on. The professor was ticked off and asked how I perfectly recorded the sequence of events correctly. I told him that his little skit was as old as the hills so the minute it started I knew it wasn’t real. I took notes rather than reacting.
He wanted to give me an F for “cheating,” but he just couldn’t quite do it, and–in fact–he seemed relieved that I wasn’t calm and cool under fire because I was a macho cop but because I knew I was basically watching a play.
The other students were not astonished when I turned out to be the “perfect” eyewitness; they were not only embarrassed because they had not only been fooled by a skit but couldn’t even remember what really happened.
Naturally, no teacher would create such a skit today unless s/he left out the guns and the threats. So maybe some guy just kicks open the classroom door and says, “I ain’t got no bananas” and then gets into an argument with somebody who supposedly ordered them on his/her cell phone. Lacks punch, doesn’t it?
What the teacher proved, and what many defense attorneys would like to prove, is what effective authors already know: seeing is not believing. Knowing this, we can stage our short story and novel scenes accordingly. We can use to our advantage the characters’ probably faulty memory–as well as the readers’.
The tag line on Campbell’s website is “In Magic is the Preservation of the World.” That tells you all you need to know about his novels.