Choke to Death

Not Smart Enough for College (32)

Mrs. Bouck, my fifth-grade teacher, had a profound and positive impact on me, even though many of her teaching techniques would no doubt be unacceptable today. In fact, if she were one of my grandkids’ teacher, I’m certain I would be leery if she was still using some of her same approaches. However, my grandkids are much savvier than I, so I'm sure they wouldn’t believe some of the crazy things she taught us.


For example, I remember one beautiful spring afternoon she came into the classroom somewhat flustered and upset from the afternoon recess. With her unique style of expressing herself and using a liberal imagination, she stood in front of the room and gave us a stern and scary warning. She told us that she caught a couple of boys smoking on the playground and proceeded with a lecture about the dangers of smoking. Sixty years later I can still hear her warning, and I am embarrassed to admit that I believed her. In all likelihood, I was probably the only student she ever taught who believed her crazy story. It was so ridiculous that I find it completely unbelievable that I was gullible enough to fall for it. On the other hand if I hadn’t believed her, I might have a very different story to tell today.


Her delivery was so convincing as she expressed her concern for those boys and her desire to teach us about the dangers of smoking. So when she said, “Half of all people who start smoking die on their first puff,” I went wow! She had my attention. “The reason,” she said, “was because the cigarette smoke would go down the wrong side of your throat and the person would choke to death.”


Duly impressed with this authoritative declaration, I finished the school year without feeling the least bit tempted to try that first cigarette. As usual, I went to Afton, Wyoming to spend the summer with my grandparents and cousins. One evening after our chores were done and we had eaten supper, our friend Danny came over. He had a pack of cigarettes and invited my cousin Roger and me to smoke them with him.


The three of us walked out to an old log cabin that Grandpa used as a granary, sat down and passed the pack of cigarettes around. We each took one and just as I was about to put it in my mouth, I heard Mrs. Bouck’s impressive warning, “Half of you who start smoking will die on the first puff!” That thought got my attention.


I watched as Danny lit up. He began to cough and hack and choke and I thought, “He’s going to die” and because I had never seen anyone die I watched rapt attention. He didn’t die.


Then it was Roger’s turn to light up, and the same thing happened to him! I thought to myself as he was coughing and hacking and choking, “50% of two is one” so I was convinced he was going die. I didn't really want to see Roger choke to death and was relieved that he didn’t.

But I was next. Four eyes watched as I brought that cigarette up to my mouth, Mrs. Bouck’s warning came louder and louder into my mind and my hands literally began to shake. I knew that Danny and Roger were always lucky, and I was the one that was always unlucky. I also knew that I could not put that cigarette back and tell them the real reason for not smoking it. So I made up some crazy lame excuse, put it back, and the three of us continued to enjoy the evening (although I had to endure some good natured teasing).


While Mrs. Bouck’s information was not true, at the time it gave me the strength to avoid smoking that cigarette when I really wanted to try it and be part of the crowd with my cousin and friend. As the years went on, I was able to turn down a cigarette with confidence knowing that the real reason I didn’t want to smoke was because it wasn’t good for me.


Our children and grandchildren need us to teach them the truth about risky and potentially harmful choices. Truth is powerful enough in itself and we don’t need to be dishonest or use deceitful scare tactics. Some day they will know and understand the truth and we want them to trust us, knowing that we are concerned about their health and life and would never deceive them.


A love for truth is one of the greatest resiliency skills we can teach and model for our children. Let’s help them ‘FAIL FORWARD.’


Happy Failing Forward,


Calvert and Anne

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