The House Project

The House Project

It all started with the House Project Project

This particular book report involved us third-graders needing to build a house representing where the characters in a certain book lived. This was a legendary third-grade project that kids prepared and worked on for months, it seemed. The houses were displayed all throughout the school and the best ones were awarded prizes. Every student knew how important this project was. Every parent knew it too, which resulted in a few houses that looked a little too good to have been put together by kids alone, if you know what I mean.

They looked more like a professional architect or a mom with years of practice with X-Acto knives doing crafts projects would be able to put together over the course of a long weekend while the kids were at basketball tournament. One year there was an entire tree house made for the project to represent where the Swiss Family Robinson lived. Third graders (boys mostly) are still just discovering boogers, not learning how to fashion dovetail joints or spin dowels on a lathe. I'm surely not bitter at all.

Just making an observation.

So imagine my surprise when Mrs. Zanni said, as we pushed our chairs in one day to go home, "I'm looking forward to seeing all of your beautiful houses tomorrow!" My jaw dropped but I quickly looked away as I headed for the Dismissal line so no one could see my shocked expression. I had completely forgotten about the House Project until that very moment. Not really surprising for an urchin like me who prided himself in memorizing all the homework, page assignments, and problem numbers.

Mrs. Zanni was my favorite teacher in third grade. She was my homeroom teacher and I was in her English and Social Studies classes. I would need to go next door for Mrs. Skinner's math section and down the hall for Mrs. Russell's science class. Downstairs was Mrs. Crutchlow's computer class and in another building was art with Mrs. O'Malley and sports with Mr. Diebold. Music class with Mrs. Coakley was the most fun of any of them, but Mrs. Zanni was my absolute favorite teacher that year. She was absolutely wonderful.

Short silver hair, pointed-ish nose, energetic frame, and always with warm smiles and hugs, I loved every moment of her classes. As a third-grader, I had a churlish reputation for being a bit of a know-it-all, pretending to sulk when bored in class. Looking back, her patience with me was noteworthy. I felt it then, but remembering now, she was truly an angel. Every assignment I can remember now, she made sure to include a special challenge for me or hold me back to ask me for something extra on the assignment that made me feel...special. She made me know that she cared. I felt understood.

All of that changed the day I lied to Mrs. Zanni.

The day that the House Project was due, I came into school with the worst one of them all. I looked around the room and nearly started to cry. To my left a classmate had built a castle out of legos that even included walls with goddamn crenellations. Someone had helped this classmate, known to all of us as woefully unartistic, maybe even more so than me, spray paint the entire castle silver, except for a meticulously-painted family crest on the (working!) drawbridge. You're joking me.

To my right was a more humble structure I dare say was actually fashioned by the student herself. It was still remarkable at any rate - a thatched roof cottage made with real straw to mimic the Austrian countryside in the Sound of Music.

And there was mine: a weathered shoebox taped cravenly upright on a flimsy piece of posterboard. One color unmistakable from the other - both formerly white but now a pallid gray due to years in a closet. There were to rectangular-ish holes cut out - one to be the door of the house and another the window. Rectangular-ish in the sense that no two lines were truly parallel, though they made their best efforts to be when looked at from a side angle. One lonely matchbox car stood outside the house, hastily glued to the posterboard. One circular section, hastily measured, was colored with gray marker to resemble macadam. The rest of the board was scribbled with green marker, which at the time I apparently thought made for convincing grass. The house was that of Professor Potts's, the protagonist in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, by Sir Ian Fleming, who is perhaps more famously known for his creation of James Bond.

There was no way around it - this piece of junk I had hacked together in one evening before the House Project was due was sure to land me a poor grade. And it felt like everyone around me was looking at me and whispering. Mrs. Zanni came over and contemplated my project with a look of surprise. She asked gingerly, "Which country is this house from, Michael?"

"England," I replied, looking down at my shoes and then up again at the shoebox, which had just toppled onto the posterboard as the masking tape began to audibly peel as it lost its previous stickiness from the night before. In that moment I was so embarrassed. I didn't know what to do.

So I lied.

"Mrs. Zanni!" I cried, "My sister stepped on my house last night and it all broke. So I had to do this just last night. It's all my sister's fault!"

"It's okay, sweetie," she said. "Why don't we talk about it at recess, okay?"

I sat down, pretending to look upset and meanwhile accepting consolations from my classmates. I grinned inside, having just fooled my teacher. She believed me! I was going to get away with it!

Recess came and I stayed behind in the classroom to speak with Mrs. Zanni. I sat down at my assigned desk. Mrs. Zanni sat at one diagonally in front of me and spun her chair around to face me. My mom walked in the room next with a forced smile. I don't really remember the full conversation or exactly what happened next, but I definitely started bawling to try to deflect attention from my lie. The moment Mrs. Zanni said, "I called your mom to ask about your book report and she wanted to come in and talk to me about it," I knew it was all over.

Needless to say, it was not my finest hour. I received the lowest marks in the class for my treachery. And well-deserved, I might add.

It was the lowest grade I had ever received except for my penmanship class in second grade (which probably shocks no one reading this).

The grade was recoverable. The trust I had lost with my teacher was not. No longer was I awarded any extra attention or effort. I knew deep down Mrs. Zanni still had a soft spot in her heart for me, though she became stern towards me all the same.

At the end of the year, I asked Mrs. Zanni to sign my yearbook. It was a tradition that we always did on the last day of school. I thought that somehow this would be my moment of redemption and that she would forgive me and she would hug me and everything would be okay.

As she signed my yearbook, she asked, "Michael, remember that your friends look to you to be an example for them. You know that, don't you?" "Mmhmm," I replied, averting my eyes from her gaze after this conversation had taken a decidedly different turn than I was expecting.

"If you ever need to ask yourself if what you're about to say is right or wrong, then you already know the answer."

She handed my yearbook back to me. I looked down. No extended message, heart, or desperately-sought vindication. Just name and a simple flourish. I thought about Mrs. Zanni a lot over the last few days. Last week there was an article published on a Chinese education news platform about LearningLeaders that contained untrue information.

Although this article was exceedingly complimentary of us and our work (as it should have been - we paid for the marketing!), there was one sentence that was not true. Yes, just one sentence. It claimed that we (and more specifically, me, Mike) had accomplished something we hadn't actually accomplished. This single article undoubtedly could have increased sales, which we absolutely need right now. But allowing something that is not true to remain online when we had the power to set the correct course cannot be the way we do business.

We called this company and asked for them to correct the article with accurate information, even if it was not as flattering. When the response was that the edit could not be made since the piece was already published, we asked the article be deleted.

Prestige, leads, sales, revenue, profit - deleted.

Just last week I met with some of our senior team members during a Management Academy session. One of the focuses of the session was that 'Culture is the behavior you tolerate.' It's how people behave and make decisions, act, and speak when you're not around.

I, this company, and you, will not tolerate lying, false information, or untrue statements or marketing materials or communications. Even in times when we need sales. ESPECIALLY in times when we need sales. Respecting our core values is even more important in times of crisis. When the going is easy, it's easy to follow your core values. When the going gets tough, we are truly tested.

To make myself crystal clear - publishing information about LearningLeaders that is not true and circulating it to the general public, even if trying to market our offerings, drive sales, or even help our general mission, is never okay.

If you ever need to ask yourself if what you're about to say is right or wrong, then you already know the answer.