“I’ve never been very good at maths or science. I enjoyed the stories embedded in history and literature but lost interest when it came to periodic functions and the table of elements. So in sixth grade, when each member of my class was responsible for creating an experiment to show at the school’s science fair in late April, I felt about as excited as I’d feel today if I were told I had to attend a live re-enactment of the entire first season of Grey’s Anatomy. My dad, on the other hand, was thrilled. He had spent the past twenty-five years performing medical and scientific research.
“Will you do it with me?” I pleaded.
“What? No, I already do it all the goddamned day on my own. That’s what I just told you.”
He took a seat on our living room couch and motioned for me to take a seat next to him.
“Now, experiments start with a question. What do you want to know?”
I thought about it for a few seconds. “I think the dog is cool,” I said, motioning toward Brownie, our five-year-old chocolate Lab mix.
“What? What the hell does that mean? That’s not a fucking question.”
“What if I said: Do people think the dog is cool?”
“Jesus fucking Christ,” he said, rubbing his temples. “Think of a question like Do larger objects fall faster than smaller ones? Something like that.”
“OK. Well, can the question be something about the dog?”
“It can be about whatever the fuck you want. Okay, you’re stuck on shit with the dog, so how about this: Can dogs recognise shapes? How does that sound?”
It sounded good. I loved Brownie, so I was glad he could be part of my experiment. My dad helped me outline exactly how the experiment would work.
Basically, every day I would hold up in front of the dog three pieces of paper, each of which had a drawing of either a triangle, circle, or square. I would give him a treat every time I held up a circle, tell him to sit every time I held up a square, and do absolutely nothing every time I held up the triangle. After 15 days of training, I’d perform two days of trials when I’d hold up the drawings of the shapes without giving any of the corresponding rewards. The goal was to see whether or not he’d respond to the shapes in anticipation of the actions that had followed during the lead-up to the trials. I was supposed to record my findings in a journal throughout the entire seventeen days.
When I did my “research” the first day, it was really boring. The dog didn’t understand what was going on; he just stared at me while I held up the pieces of paper, and occasionally licked himself. He mostly just wanted to play, so I started running around the backyard, having him chase me, until I got tired. My dad worked late every night, so he didn’t know I wasn’t following through with my experiment. He’d check in from time to time, and I’d tell him my research was going fine. I just assumed I had plenty of time. As long as I started 17 days before we had to turn in our findings at school, I’d be fine. But then I forgot about the experiment altogether.
One afternoon, the teacher reminded us our experiments were due in three days, and my stomach dropped. My mum picked me up from school that day, and when we got home I ran into my bedroom and shut the door. I took out my journal and began making up fake results from my nonexistent tests, complete with fake corresponding dates. I figured that a sly way of hiding my laziness was to report that the dog had slowly started to recognise the shapes toward the end of the experiment. Then when I did the trials without the rewards, he’d reacted in such a way that I knew he recognised the shapes. I remembered hearing a story about Pavlov’s dogs. Pavlov sounded like a madcap scientist, and this experiment sounded like one he might even have performed himself. This was enough reasoning for me.
“How goes the science life?” he asked on cue. Before I could answer, he saw my journal and picked it up. “All the data is in there, Dad.” He was no longer paying attention to me, just perusing the data.
After turning the pages and digesting my results for a minute, he set my journal down on my desk and looked at me.
“So the dog recognises shapes, huh?” “Yeah, it’s weird,” I said, trying to sound ambiguous. “Yeah, that is weird,” he said. “You obviously don’t mind then if I run a little test on the dog, just so I can see for myself,” he added. At that moment I went a bit numb. All I could think was that maybe somehow, some way, the dog would know the shapes and react how I had written down that he reacted. My dad grabbed the crumpled pictures of the shapes from the floor of my room and walked outside. “Sometimes the dog doesn’t do it, though. It depends on how he’s feeling and stuff,” I said, trying to cover myself for any possible outcome.
My dad wasn’t listening. He called the dog’s name, and Brownie ran over toward us. My dad proceeded to hold the first shape, a triangle, in front of Brownie’s slobbering face. According to my “data”, Brownie was supposed to do nothing when he saw the triangle. Which he did. Unfortunately that was also his reaction to the circle and the square, which he was supposed to react to by sniffing my hand, in anticipation of a treat, and sitting down, respectively. Brownie ran off, and my dad turned to me. He looked me in the eye with an eerie sense of calm.
“I’m going to give you a chance right now to tell me anything you want to tell me,” he said.
I started crying immediately and, between heaving sobs and snorts, confessed that I had forgotten to do the experiment and faked the data. My dad grabbed my notebook, tore it in half, and at- tempted to hurl it over the fence. But the loose pages fluttered about like a disappointing confetti celebration. He started kicking them around and then, still not satisfied, grabbed one of the dog’s toys and hurled it across the yard like a shot-putter going for the gold. When Brownie retrieved the toy and pranced up for round two of what he thought was their game of fetch, my dad exploded.
“All bullshit! you wrote all bullshit!” he screamed.
“I thought you said you’d give me a chance to tell you!” I yelled back.
“Yeah, you told me, and then it was all bullshit, goddamn it!”
My mum hurried out to see what was happening. She calmed my dad down and led him up to their bedroom so they could talk. After about ten minutes, he returned to the backyard, still simmering.
“You have shamed the entire scientific community. Fucking Einstein, everybody.”
I told him I knew that, and I was sorry.
“This is what I do for a living, goddamn it, and I take it very, very fucking seriously.”
“I know you do.” “No. You don’t know shit. So here’s what’s gonna happen.” He proceeded to tell me that I had to go to my teacher and confess that I didn’t do my experiment and faked the data instead, and ask her if I could deliver an apology for cheating to my classmates.
“And if she says you don’t need to do that, tell her tough shit, you’re doing it anyway. And I want to see the statement you’re going to read before you read it. I got final say.”
The next day before science class I explained to my teacher what had happened, and when the bell rang she turned to my sixth-grade class and told them I had something to say. I got up and read my prepared statement, which opened with something like this: “To my classmates and to the science community, I have committed an act of fraud. I falsified my data, and in doing so, have taken a process that is important to the development of the human race and disgraced it.” After that it went on for a few more lines, but no one, including myself, had any idea what in the hell I was talking about. In between sentences, I glanced out at thirty sixth-graders staring blankly at me. After I was done reading my statement, I sat down. The teacher thanked me, said a few words about cheating, and then we moved on.
When I got home that night, my dad asked me how it went. I told him I had read the apology and that the teacher had thanked me.
“I’m sorry I had to be so hard on you, but I don’t want people thinking you’re a lying sack of shit. You ain’t. You’re a quality human being. Now go to your room, you’re grounded.”
Justin Halpern’s book, Sh*t My Dad Says, is on sale now.
Illustration: Wendy MacNaughton