Transcript

770: My Lying Eyes

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

The new guy had been there for a month, and he was coming to meetings all the time. And the meetings were on Zoom, but he never turned on his camera. One of his co-workers, Phil, says that wasn't a big deal. Lots of people do that. This was a tech startup.

Phil

Maybe it's just engineers. Maybe it's our company culture. I always have my camera off.

Ira Glass

But then his fourth week on the job, the new guy turned it on.

Phil

And then that's when I was like, what the? Like, who is this guy?

Ira Glass

And when you say, who is this guy, why? What were you seeing versus what you were expecting to see?

Phil

Well, so when I interviewed him, he had his camera on. And literally, he looked different, like physically just different.

Ira Glass

Also, during the job interview, every time this guy would answer a question, he'd give this big smile.

Phil

It was almost as if he was tying a bow around his answer, and this pleasant smile.

Ira Glass

He was charming. This guy on the Zoom, no pleasant smile. No smile at all. In fact, just the opposite. He was sort of a scowling, dark presence. But there's another part to it.

Phil

The other part of it was-- I'm trying to find the most PC way to say this, but-- so like he's Indian.

Ira Glass

Mm-hmm.

Phil

And so there-- you know, there was a part of me that, like-- I'll put it this way. I'm Asian American. I've had Caucasian friends mention to me, hey, that guy over there, he looks exactly like you. And I'm like, dude, that guy does not look like me at all, you know?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Phil

So I sort of had that thought, too. And I felt a little bit guilty about it, to be honest. I was like, oh, I was like-- I guess this is the right person, and it's kind of on me.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait. But are you saying that you thought, oh, wait a second, he looks really different, but maybe I just can't tell with an Indian person. Like, am I racist? Is that what you're saying?

Phil

Yes, but I'm not racist. Yeah, I'm saying like, maybe--

Ira Glass

But I'm saying, that was the question in your head.

Phil

Yeah. Yeah. Exactly.

Ira Glass

Phil kept all this to himself, though there was another person who noticed there was something different about the new guy. That somebody else was Phil's boss, Subra, who also supervised the new guy, who hired him, and who is Indian. Subra was struck by one detail in particular.

Subra

So the person who we interviewed, he had curly hair.

Ira Glass

Dark, curly hair, memorably curly hair. Like, this was the thing that hit Subra about the guy the first time he interviewed him.

Subra

His hair is similar to one of the Indian saints, Sai Baba-- bushy hair, curly. And then once you see it, you cannot really forget it.

Ira Glass

Hmm.

Subra

But then, when he was in our meetings, he was not showing his hair. He was only showing up to his forehead. He was not showing his hair.

Ira Glass

Wow. I have to say, you really have to position yourself close to the camera for it not to see your hair.

Subra

Yeah. I mean, I did that. I asked him, could you please show your complete face?

Ira Glass

And that's when Subra saw the new guy didn't have that big, bushy, curly hair.

Subra

And then I asked him, did you get a haircut? And he said, yes, I had a haircut. Then I doubted myself.

Ira Glass

He doubted himself. He thought, he'd been interviewing so many job applicants lately. Their tech company was rapidly expanding. He thought maybe he was remembering wrong.

Phil, meanwhile, knew none of this. Then one day, Phil was in a Zoom meeting with the new guy. And for a second time, the new guy flipped on his camera. And surprise.

Phil

And it turned out to be the guy from the interview. Instantly, there he is, right? And then came utter confusion of, what the hell's happening here?

Oh, my god. OK, now there are two different people. I don't know what to think. In the back of my head, I was like, there just can't be two people.

Ira Glass

OK, so not long after that, Subra is meeting with Phil about some stuff. And Subra asks him something like, the new guy, does he look different to you? Phil says it was a huge relief to even be asked the question, to know that somebody else saw it. And they figured out what happened.

A very qualified guy with bushy hair and a big smile interviewed for the job, and then a less charming, shorter-haired guy showed up for the job. It turns out he wasn't all that qualified, didn't actually understand the tasks he was given. They fired him. Though I should say, Subra told me, if he could have done the work, he'd have kept him. He didn't care who he was.

And I bring all this up because I think it's so interesting, that period. It was like days when both Subra and Phil, they knew the truth, they saw it with their own eyes, couldn't be anything else, but each of them talks himself out of it, doubts the evidence that's right in front of him. Phil says a big reason that he doubted the truth that one guy would interview for the job, and then another guy would show up, was that he just didn't know that that kind of thing was on the table as a possibility.

Phil

The thought of this guy not being that person is just so crazy. Why would I even think that, you know?

Ira Glass

Yeah, that's not a thing that happens.

Phil

Yeah, like who would even think to do this?

Ira Glass

Well, today on our program, we have other stories of people looking squarely at the truth, staring right at it, and they still find it hard to believe what's right in front of their eyes, for all kinds of reasons. Our power to deny the reality of what we're seeing is like one of our superpowers as a species. And if you doubt that, well, just stick around.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: She Blinded Us With Science

Ira Glass

Act 1, She Blinded Us with Science. So our program today is about not believing what is right in front of you. When you're on the other side of that, when you can see what other people are refusing to see, what do you do? What's your move?

Well, Chana Joffe-Walt talked to a woman in that situation about how she came to see what others couldn't and about what she did with that knowledge. Quick heads up that this story talks about research into sexual assault.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I knew one thing about her when I first called.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Tell me your name and, I guess, your name and what you are most famous for.

Mary Koss

My name is Mary Koss. I feel like an athlete who had their biggest success when they were very young, and then spent the rest of their life trying to do important things, but never achieving the initial level of recognition.

Chana Joffe-Walt

OK, so she's not going to mention the one thing she's known for. I will, but give me a minute. I want you to hear the way she discovered it. She was at a new job, 27 years old. She was a brand new professor, Psychology Department, 1976.

Mary Koss

On my first day at Kent State University in Ohio, I'm walking in a double door. So I'm going in one side, and there's a man rushing out of the other door. He stops me, because he recognizes that I'm the new hire. And he said, I just got a grant turned down, and they turned it down because I'm a man. So I want you to put your name on it, and we'll resubmit it, and we'll get funded.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Wait a second. Is there a hello, who are you, my name is, first?

Mary Koss

No. No. I had, frankly, no idea of who he was. So I had the presence of mind to say, well, I probably should read the grant before I put my name on it.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So she read it. And when she read it--

Mary Koss

I thought, oh, wow. The grant proposal was that graduate student women would dress up in a back room in different sizes of padded bras, and then they would go out and interact with a male student who did not know that they weren't just a regular student.

And then afterwards, this male student would be given a questionnaire and asked to make ratings, among which were, how rapable did you find this woman? How likely would she be to have sex with you? And if she were raped, how culpable would she be? Then, of course--

Chana Joffe-Walt

What?

Mary Koss

Of course, you know, these same grad students--

Chana Joffe-Walt

What?

Mary Koss

went-- would go back in the room, and then the next student would get the same grad student coming out in a gigantic padded bra. And then, I suppose, that they were going to have some conditions where they came out bound to have no breasts at all.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I love that what Mary is thinking about at this point in the story is what the control group would be for this experiment. Moving forward, I just want to note the difference between me, a squawky non-scientist, jaw dropping at this premise, and Mary Koss, who is now a veteran scientist, who apparently no longer wastes any energy on indignation.

I wanted to dwell for a few moments in the absurdity of someone thinking to study the rapability of grad students wearing padded bras. Mary, instead, began making a reasoned argument against it. Federally-funded scientific research, she says, should have policy implications.

Mary Koss

And the only policy implication I can see in this is that the federal government would have to make available funds for minimizer bras.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Wait. That's the problem with it? It's not that you're asking male students how rapable their fellow female students are?

Mary Koss

At the time, what I found most offensive was that he was looking for the causes of rape in breast size.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah, why not butts or hips?

Mary Koss

[LAUGHING] I know. Maybe today, if I thought about it more deeply, I'd find other aspects of it extremely troubling. I mean, it certainly does--

Chana Joffe-Walt

There's plenty. There's a lot to pick from in this particular example.

Mary Koss

Yeah. Even that long ago, I thought, well, rape victims aren't responsible for what happens to them, rapists are.

Chana Joffe-Walt

But Mary Koss was on the market for a research project herself. She read through this one, and there was one question that she was interested in.

Mary Koss

When I looked at his proposal, and it said, "--and we'll also do a survey of college students to see how much rape is going on among them," that was a totally unique idea. So I thought, that's the great opportunity in this application. It's not the padded bra part. Lose the padded bras, and let's work on the survey part.

Chana Joffe-Walt

She moved forward on the survey part, without her male colleague. Mary Koss would ask college students about their experiences with sex and sexual violence. Up to that point, there had been virtually no academic studies of sexual aggression.

Federal crime statistics did actually measure incidents of rape, but Mary says the survey asked, essentially, have you been raped? So few women said yes that researchers would conclude that rape is rare or, quote, "clearly an infrequent crime." The whole approach didn't make sense to Mary.

Mary Koss

You don't ask somebody, are you an alcoholic? Well, first of all, who would want to be an alcoholic? They'd say no. Second of all, alcoholic's a medical diagnosis, so they don't know what the criteria for being an alcoholic are. For those reasons, you translate it into behavioral terms like, how many drinks do you have in a day? I decided to do that same thing with asking questions about sexual victimization and perpetration.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Have you had someone use force or threaten to harm you to have sexual intercourse when you didn't want to? Have you had a man penetrate you against your will? Mary Koss will readily admit now that these are very straight and 1970s gendered questions. She looked at how rape is defined legally and built her questions around it. She'd ask women, have you had this experience? What about this?

Mary Koss

They would turn around and say, yes, that happened to me. But no, I've never been raped.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So when women actually would describe what happened, their experiences would often line up with the legal definition of rape. But when you'd ask them, were you raped, they would say no.

Mary Koss

Exactly.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So it's sort of like if somebody asks you, were you robbed, and you say, no, I wasn't robbed. And then if you say, did someone come to your house and take all your things without your permission? They'd say, oh, yes, that did happen?

Mary Koss

Exactly. Exactly. And then if you said to them, was that robbery or larceny? And they'd say, oh, I have no idea. All I know is my stuff is gone. I realized there has to be something called the unacknowledged rape victim-- somebody who has been raped, as defined under the law, but does not use that term, did not perceive her experience that way.

Chana Joffe-Walt

In the late '70s and early '80s, when Mary Koss was conducting her survey, when her colleague was proposing putting students in padded bras, the popular understanding of rape was this-- rape is something that happens in a back alley with a stranger. Someone jumps out of a bush, or breaks into your house, or hides in your car.

If you were deeply unlucky-- and, I guess, if your boobs were too big-- you could be targeted by a rapist. A rapist was a person you do not know-- a monster, criminal. Rape was not something that happened with your boyfriend, or your relative, or a crush, or a friend, or a guy at a party.

The experiences Mary was hearing from women in her survey lined up with the criminal definition. They would describe being physically forced to have sex with a boyfriend, being blackout drunk, being coerced, being on a date. And the majority of these women--

Mary Koss

Found it to be a bad experience, found it to be one of the worst experiences of their lives. They just didn't call it rape.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Mary Koss finished her survey, sat with her results, stared at them, ran the numbers again. Mary found that one in four female respondents had an experience that met the legal definition of rape or attempted rape-- one in four.

Several year later, in 1987, she repeated the survey-- a national survey this time, not just her campus, but 32 college campuses, more than 6,000 undergraduate students. Same finding-- one in four. As reporter Robin Warshaw wrote at the time, Mary Koss had revealed that rape was more common than left-handedness, or heart attacks, alcoholism. Mary had revealed something that was so far from the reality we'd been living in, she found she needed new words. She started calling this acquaintance rape, or hidden rape.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Hidden rape, like hidden from the very people who it happened to.

Mary Koss

It was hidden from the very people it happened to. And because it was hidden from them, it had to be hidden from the rest of society, too.

Chana Joffe-Walt

The term for this that caught on was date rape. This is the thing I knew about Mary Koss, that she's the person that came up with the concept of date rape, who measured it-- one in four. This is what she achieved early in her career that she will forever be known by and is tired of talking about.

Mary's not what I expected, for a groundbreaking 20th century social scientist. She's punchy. She's fun to talk to.

I was in New York talking to her. She was in her home in Arizona with a recording engineer. And the recording engineer kept being worried about how animated Mary would get when she talked, that she was moving around too much, making noise. And Mary starts just sort of gently trolling the engineer to me.

Sound Engineer

I'm so sorry.

Mary Koss

I--

Sound Engineer

It's so sensitive.

Mary Koss

I just got the instructions that I can't touch myself.

[LAUGHTER]

And I wasn't planning to do that in any big way, but--

[LAUGHTER]

Sound Engineer

No, it's OK. It's like, every little movement--

Chana Joffe-Walt

Mary is so comfortable talking to people about things most people find difficult to talk about that, back when she published her big findings, back in the 1980s, she was not at all expecting what happened next-- the backlash. People questioned her. They questioned her terms. They invented new terms. Date rape became rape hype.

This response was a cover story in The New York Times Magazine, "How Rape Hype Betrays Feminism," New York Magazine, "Crying Rape," The Atlantic Monthly, "Feminism's Identity Crisis." Newsweek asked, "Sexual Correctness, Has It Gone Too Far?" Mary Koss says one show booked her to talk about her research and surprised her with Hugh Hefner and Playboy bunnies to debate with her.

Mary Koss

It's a drumbeat. Everyone was repeating the same things. It's the researcher calling these rape, not the person.

Chana Joffe-Walt

They're basically saying, you're making it up.

Mary Koss

Exactly. And it just incensed me. The reality of my work was being discounted. I was being disbelieved. I was being blamed as a bad researcher.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Did you draw the parallel between what was happening to you and what happens to rape victims?

Mary Koss

No. I had-- I haven't thought about it that way up until this moment, actually.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Did you doubt yourself?

Mary Koss

No.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Lots of people were looking at Mary Koss' data and not believing what was right in front of their eyes. But there was a reason for all the backlash. Mary Koss' research was getting attention. It was catching on.

In the years following her studies, there was a real cultural shift. The term date rape became ubiquitous. College campuses launched education programs on sexual assault. Students organized Take Back the Night events. Rape prevention programs started up. Women's shelters were opened. Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, a major federal response to rape and domestic abuse. Mary Koss testified before Congress.

And today, right now, we all think of rape differently because of Mary Koss. And she watched that shift take place over decades. And as she did, Mary waited for the numbers to go down. There's now a whole field of research on sexual assault. And Mary told me a couple of years ago, she thought, I should check in on the latest data.

Mary Koss

I was not expecting the results, because the rate of reporting to police is identical to what it was 40 years ago. Do more women realize they've been raped today? Well, you would certainly think so, wouldn't you? But the answer to that is, no, more women don't.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Oh.

Mary Koss

And I just felt, as a scientist and as a wannabe do-gooder, why weren't we making things better?

Chana Joffe-Walt

I found this remarkable. I first reached out to Mary Koss early in the MeToo movement, in 2018, because at the time, I was interviewing lots of women who were reading the news and reassessing their own experiences, asking themselves, that thing that happened, was that rape? Assault? They told me, I never thought of it that way. I didn't have a word to describe it.

And I heard this multiple times, I never called it rape, which is literally the title of a book about Mary Koss' work from 1988, I Never Called It Rape, a book that was published 34 years ago. Even though Mary Koss helped change the way society as a whole sees rape on this large scale, that didn't change the way individual people saw what happened to them.

The numbers Mary Koss came up with have been replicated multiple times over the years by her, by other researchers. Sometimes it's one in four, sometimes one in five. Mary spent most of her career hoping that if we change the way victims understood rape, there would be less rape. But lately, her focus has changed.

Mary now believes we will not see any change until perpetrators understand what they are doing as rape. But getting perpetrators to identify their behavior, that's so much harder. Mary says, you can see in surveys, even in person one-on-one, men will say--

Mary Koss

I don't know why I'm here. I've been accused of raping somebody. I have no idea why. You can open the Arizona statutes. You can point them to the Chapter 14 offenses, which are sexual assault.

You can underline the one that talks about taking advantage of someone when they're incapacitated from alcohol and unable to consent or stop what's happening. And their face just goes white, because they had no idea. But now, you're showing them a law book that says that they raped somebody. They could take a polygraph test, and they could pass it because they honestly don't believe that what they did was wrong.

Chana Joffe-Walt

How is it possible that we cannot know things for so long? The very first question I asked Mary Koss, what is she famous for, Mary didn't care for that question, which is fair. It's not a great question.

But I think I get now why this was an especially tedious one for her. Mary Koss is known for discovering something decades ago that we still don't know. She was able to see so much of what was hidden from the rest of us, but this, our ability to not know things, is the one thing she missed.

Ira Glass

Chana Joffe-Walt, she's one of the producers of our show. Coming up, kids going to school in what used to be a big hardware store. And there's one subject, when it comes up, the kids cannot face. They only pretend to agree with their teacher. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "My Lying Eyes," stories of people staring at the truth, but it's hard to take in for all kinds of reasons.

Act Two: How the Other Side Leaves 

Ira Glass

We've arrived at Act 2 of our program. Act 2, How the Other Side Leaves.

So according to a recent UN estimate, something like 5 and 1/2 million people have already fled Ukraine. For a while, a bunch of them were ending up in Tijuana, Mexico, at the border, trying to get into the United States with, of course, people from lots of other countries, who also would like to get into the United States. They're there because they couldn't get visas to fly directly into the United States, and Mexico didn't require a visa.

Anyway, the situation has changed some since the Ukrainians first showed up at the border. But in some important ways, it has not changed at all. We sent James Spring down there in the second week of April. James has done a bunch of stories for us from the border. He's no stranger to the situation down there, and yet he still had a hard time believing what he was seeing. Here he is.

James Spring

I've spent a lot of time at migrant shelters in Tijuana, and I've never seen anything like this. You can tell the difference a block away. The day I visited, it was all so orderly.

This Ukrainian shelter is housed in a shiny, 4-acre sports complex called the Unidad Deportivo Benito Juarez. Security is tight, Mexican cops are posted on the corner, and Americans in lime green safety vests are directing traffic. A packed school bus heads off to deliver a load of Ukrainians to the border crossing.

At the front gate, security directs me to a sign-in desk. There's a big whiteboard with shift schedules. Everybody seems to have specific jobs. There's even a media coordinator.

Volunteer

You're waiting to get escorted in?

James Spring

Yeah.

Volunteer

You're press? OK.

James Spring

I'm given a 15-minute slot to be escorted around the shelter with a volunteer. He sets a timer on his phone. We walk.

Inside the complex, it's clean. And there are tons of American volunteers and just resources-- easy-up stations with cooked food, and information sheets, and people helping to get refugees in line to board the next bus. The Ukrainians don't really want to talk with me, which I get.

James Spring

Thank you, though.

They've put on some hellish miles here at the end of a hellish month.

Volunteer

Do you guys speak English?

James Spring

They're mostly slumped in folding chairs or propped up against their wheeled suitcases. The person who organized all of this is a tall, young guy who's wearing black jeans, and a white t-shirt, and a cap with an American flag on it. His name is Vlad. He's 24. He's from Ukraine, but he lives in San Diego where he runs a Christian ministry.

Vlad

I never been in Mexico before. It's my first time. I've been here three weeks already, and my plan was to be here--

James Spring

When he arrived, there was no official infrastructure to help the Ukrainians, so Vlad put one together himself. He was able to tap into a network of other churches in the US that wanted to help, and they made contact with officials in Tijuana. The city donated the use of the sports complex and provided some beds. Everything else comes from churches and private donations.

Vlad

The Mexican government said it's the best what they've seen, ever, like how we're working with refugees. Because, as you can see, it's clean. We have volunteers here. We have good kitchen here. And as you know, they open for us Chaparral Border only for Ukrainian refugees. So only Ukrainian can come to this authorized bus and go through the border. And the CBP officer is processing them there.

James Spring

The day I was there, Vlad said there'd be between 500 and 800 refugees moving through this shelter. They have a whole system. Each Ukrainian refugee is assigned a number. They scan a QR code for an app that tracks their place in line, and their progress is logged by volunteers at every stop along their final journey to the US. It's like if a factory and a military operation had a baby.

Normally, it had been taking a day and a half to process the Ukrainians through the shelter and into the US. But on this day, it's only taking about eight hours total-- eight hours. It strikes me hard that there are some migrants not very far away from where we're standing who've been waiting-- let's just say longer-- for their shot at being able to step onto American soil.

The next day, I went to a different migrant shelter not far away, Agape Mision Mundial. It's also a church-based shelter in Tijuana. It has about the same number of people as the Ukrainian one, but these are migrants mainly from Central America and Mexico, a few from Haiti. I wanted to visit Agape to see what they knew about what was happening at the sports complex with the Ukrainians, if they had any thoughts or feelings about it.

Agape is up a dirt road. It's right between a junkyard and a cemetery. And it's not very big, maybe the size of like two Olive Garden restaurants. And I'll just come out and say it. The place has a very different vibe than the Ukrainian compound.

James Spring

Gracias.

A young Mexican girl opens the gate to let me in. It's all pretty loosey goosey. And it's dense with people, like the same number of people as at the Ukrainian shelter, but in a much smaller space. I ask if I can speak with somebody in charge, and I'm directed to a Honduran migrant named Antonio.

I ask him if I need to sign in or anything. Nope. I ask him, do you have security here? He says, yes, me and the pastor. And sometimes, there's a guy named Ulises, another migrant. Antonio goes to fetch the pastor for me.

People crowd a narrow corridor that leads past a bunch of open doorways to some rooms that just, like-- look, the entire place is just rough. Beyond the rooms, there are a lot of tents in the yard. It's lunchtime, and there are people cooking stuff all over the place-- gas camping stoves inside rooms. And out in the yard, there are open wood fires underneath a plastic tarp roof.

Pastor Albert

They cook their own food, and they have-- well, not refrigerators, just--

James Spring

Pastor Albert is from Puerto Rico. 25 years ago, he started Agape as a church and rehab center, but he turned it into a shelter. Agape is not supported by a network of churches.

The government donates some food every month. But other than that, donations are pretty rare. The migrants have to mostly buy everything that they need for themselves. Some have jobs. Some get money from relatives in the states.

People don't move out of the shelter very quickly. In the last month, only one person from Agape, a migrant named Danny, was legally processed into the US after staying there for most of a year. I asked Pastor Albert if he's been to the Ukrainian shelter. Turns out that he has. He volunteered there. He knows all about it and how the Ukrainians were being processed into the United States in just a few days. I tell him that the previous day, the processing time was only eight hours.

Pastor Albert

Oh, so now it's express, very express.

James Spring

Does that irritate you a little bit?

Pastor Albert

Well, basically, it looks all over like discrimination. Discrimination. Don't get me wrong, I'm 100% for the United States to allow the Ukrainians to enter. I know they've been through a lot. I know they have suffered a lot. And I know that they're saying, OK, they're entering as refugees, because they're suffering a war.

Now, what I don't understand is, well, when organized crime and drug cartel declare a war on civilians, declares war on that city and says, every 13-year-old has to be part of our cartel, and they're going to go on the front lines to shoot and fight against the other cartel, if you don't agree to it, you got three days to leave the city. I have immigrants here that that's what they're going through.

But the UN, United States, don't consider that as war against civilians. It only applies if it's one government against another government in war for you to enter as a refugee. That doesn't make sense.

James Spring

The US government sees the Ukrainian refugees through a different lens than they do the Latin American migrants. The people at the border from Central America and Mexico are mostly seeking asylum with a pathway to citizenship, a way to live permanently in the United States. The Ukrainians, though, they just need a place to wait out the war.

They're being accepted into the US through a process called humanitarian parole, which allows them to stay for up to 12 months. For over two years, US officials closed the border to nearly all immigration because of COVID, but then they found a way around it for the Ukrainians. As Pastor Albert summarizes it, I guess white people aren't contagious.

I'd really been hoping to bring Pastor Albert along with me back to the Ukrainians' compound to get his first impressions. But since he'd already seen it and is too busy anyway, he suggests that I take one of the migrants instead, see what they think of it. He introduces me to a young woman, named Mayra, from Michoacán in Mexico.

While she's waiting to request asylum in the US, she teaches school to kids in the shelter. She seems enthusiastic about the idea of seeing the Ukrainian shelter. She says to the pastor--

Mayra

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

James Spring

"So go with him?"

Pastor Albert

Si.

Mayra

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

James Spring

I'll get my jacket, she says. Mayra arranges to leave her son with a relative and is back in a minute flat with a coat and a backpack. I ask her about the Ukrainians and what she's heard about their shelter.

Mayra

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

James Spring

Not much, she says. I hear they get a lot of support, but really not much more than that. I'd like to see it. She seems genuinely curious. OK, I say.

James Spring

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

We'll do it.

James Spring

Vamos.

Mayra

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

James Spring

Mayra says that she's been at the Agape shelter for seven months. She's really invested in the kids she's teaching, wants to instill good values in them. She starts her classes really early, at 7:00 AM. Are you serious, I say? She thinks it's good for them.

Mayra

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

James Spring

I like to be very punctual, she says. I tell my students, as a teacher, I have to set an example for you. If I want you to get up early, then I have to get up early myself. The saying goes, God helps those who rise early.

Mayra

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

James Spring

"We have to be optimists." Her optimism seems particularly profound, given everything that's happened to her. She was a schoolteacher back in Michoacán, too, but her family also owned avocado farms and avocado packing facilities.

When the cartels arrived and started to demand more and more protection money, Mayra's family couldn't afford it. Three of her uncles were kidnapped, never to be seen again. The cartel had made it clear that the next time they came, if her family didn't pay up, they'd kill everyone. So she and two dozen of her relatives-- cousins, kids, aunts-- all fled here together to Tijuana.

The cartel continues to send threats, audio messages on WhatsApp. Mayra plays a couple of them for me. One of them says, we know where you are now in Tijuana. We're going to fuck up your whole family if you don't cooperate.

It's 11 minutes to the other shelter. We drive along the border wall to get there.

James Spring

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Mayra

Uh-huh.

James Spring

Here's the entrance, I say.

James Spring

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

What do you think?

Mayra

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

James Spring

Really nice, actually, she says. Really nice.

Mayra

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

James Spring

"Seriously, I don't believe it. Can they send me here?"

James Spring

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

How's your Ukrainian, I say?

Mayra

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

James Spring

Well, she says, I'm not that dark skinned, like maybe she could blend in. It's a joke.

Mayra

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

James Spring

And the sports complex, she says, do they use it just for them? Or is it like-- and then she just says, I can't believe it. Our assigned press escort appears. She's a Ukrainian-American volunteer from a church in California. She seems smart and capable. It's the same deal as yesterday-- 15 minutes for the tour.

Volunteer

Yeah. So they have a kid's center. For little kids inside, they have little toys, and Legos, and stuff like that. There's a coloring station for the older kids. And then there's--

James Spring

The woman points out this little area for the Ukrainians' dogs with some kennels. I translate what she's saying to Mayra, who's pretty wide-eyed now.

Mayra

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

Oh, that too, she says. Cool, as if to say, how nice for them. Mayra asks, where'd all the supplies come from? Donations, the guide says.

Mayra

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

James Spring

And everything over here, those are all donations, she asks?

Volunteer

Yes. So this is all donations. If anybody needs any clothes, there's shoes, I think. There's toys behind. There's strollers for kids, car seats, anything that's needed.

James Spring

All of these things might come in really handy for people who are staying in a place for a long time. But of course, that's not the case with the people coming through this shelter. I ask how much time it's taking today for the Ukrainian refugees to be processed into the US.

Volunteer

It's been pretty quick. If they come in in the morning, they're usually gone by nighttime. But there's been times where it takes at least 24 hours.

James Spring

So right now, people are not even really having to sleep in here, because they're moving so quickly.

Volunteer

Right. Because you don't know. Your number can get called at any time. So you can go to sleep. We've had people that their number got called, and they look at the board, and they're like, oh, my number, I missed it. Then they have to catch the next bus. It's OK if they miss it, but somebody else gets filled into their spot.

James Spring

I translate this to Mayra.

Mayra

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

James Spring

Oh, well, she says, what can I say? I guess we'll talk, she says.

The fact that the Ukrainians are getting processed so quickly and under humanitarian parole, that's tough for her. She tried to get her dad into the US under humanitarian parole. He had severe diabetes. His leg had been amputated. It was getting worse, and no medical interventions in Mexico were helping. The humanitarian parole claim was denied. Mayra's father died in the Agape shelter in November.

James Spring

Thank you, so much. I really appreciate your time today.

Volunteer

No problem.

James Spring

Mayra and I walked toward the exit, past the chafing dishes of food, past the cases of bottled water, past the walls of clothing and blankets sealed in clear plastic bags, past the smiling American guards at the front gate.

James Spring

Thank you, guys.

Security Guard

Yes, sir. Appreciate it.

James Spring

Outside, I point out that the Mexican cops are still posted at the corner, keeping watch.

Mayra

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

James Spring

What? Really, she says? They get that, too? And people shoot at us from outside the shelter, actual gunfire, and the police are almost never around. How sad.

She's not exaggerating. In September, a gun battle outside Agape sent a hail of bullets into the shelter, into a room where children were staying. In December, there were published news reports of armed men threatening shelter migrants.

Mayra

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

James Spring

Mayra says, the way that woman said that they have families waiting for them in the US, well, we do, too. We also have family waiting for us over there, and it's the same. They had to leave their country, we also had to leave or, really, we're forced to leave.

It's sad, she says. Honestly, it's sad. And it makes me really angry to see it. I'm seeing the comparison. They have chairs, beds, when there are people in our shelter who've been living there for months, sleeping on the ground.

I sleep in a little bunk. I don't even have a mattress. It's just the bare wood. There are people who've been there 10 months, just waiting for a reply from the government. And they don't have the resources. They don't have them.

I've seen so few people, so, so few bringing even a single donation to the shelter. Or, for example, these kids have so many supplies-- Crayons, notebooks, Play-Doh, these learning materials. And our kids, who are here for months, don't have these supplies.

And those who are only here for eight hours, they have everything here, everything, everything, all the comforts. They even have the internet. They bring them cooked food. They have everything. The truth is, they don't need it.

Honestly here, I see how literally they don't even open the things they bring them. I think they don't even open it. They don't need it. They're people who simply pass through, and they give them everything. Why?

It made me want to cry, she says. Maybe I'll find me a Ukrainian man and say, let's go. Then she says, ah, but everyone comes with their family anyway.

James Spring

No.

No, I tell her. A lot of them are single.

Mayra

Si?

James Spring

Mm-hmm.

Mayra

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

James Spring

Well, then why didn't you introduce me to one, she says? It'd be like my pass, my ticket in.

James Spring

OK.

Mayra

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

James Spring

Let's leave before I start to cry, she says, [LAUGHS], before I get angry.

It's not that Mayra doesn't understand what the Ukrainians are going through. She does. It's just that now she's seen that the whole world came together so quickly, and so efficiently, so willingly, to try to help, and they haven't done that for her and for so many others like her. She wishes that people wanted to, because, clearly, they can do a lot when they want to.

Ira Glass

James Spring. Since James was in Tijuana the second week of April, the situation has changed for Ukrainians there. The United States announced that they will no longer be processing Ukrainians at that border, so the shelter that James visited, it's closed.

In the place of all that, the Biden administration has introduced an even faster, easier process for Ukrainians to enter the United States. It's called Uniting for Ukraine. Refugees from Ukraine can now get a visa to fly directly into the United States. When the shelter for Ukrainians closed in Tijuana, leftover donations and supplies were given away to other migrant shelters and churches in the area.

Act Three: We Did Start the Fire

Ira Glass

Act 3, We Did Start the Fire. So this last story is about some kids and a lesson in school, a lesson that their teacher was having some real difficulty getting across, even though it was connected to something that the kids had witnessed with their own eyes. Katie Worth first reported this story for the PBS series, Frontline, and The GroundTruth Project. She got to know these kids and explains.

Katie Worth

I'd like to introduce you to a seventh grader named Kyson Wilson. Normally, I'd describe him for you, but I'll let him do it.

Kyson Wilson

I look like a little kid, super small. Don't look like I've grown up that much at all. I'm still like a little baby, I think, to myself. I hate my voice, how it sounds. And then everybody is so much taller than me, so it makes me feel small.

Katie Worth

Do you think that's going to change?

Kyson Wilson

Yeah, I think it'll change soon, and I can't wait.

Katie Worth

Kyson's favorite subjects are science and math.

Katie Worth

You had a quiz yesterday, right?

Kyson Wilson

Yes, we did.

Katie Worth

How did you do?

Kyson Wilson

I got every single question right. I'm the only one that did, I think.

Katie Worth

The school Kyson goes to is not his normal school, not anyone's normal school, in fact. Let me explain how he got here. On the morning of November 8, 2018, Kyson and his mom, Kelsey Wilson, were at home in the Sierra Foothills of Northern California, getting ready to start their day.

But then Kelsey's husband, who'd already left for work, texted a photo of a fire. It was moving their direction, fast. They needed to evacuate, which Kyson was not happy about.

Kyson Wilson

So I was asking her, mom, take me to school. I need to keep my perfect attendance.

Kelsey Wilson

And I was like, you know what? I'm really sorry about ruining your perfect attendance. I don't think it's a good idea to take you over there.

Katie Worth

This is Kelsey.

Kelsey Wilson

And then we started packing.

Kyson Wilson

So we packed a lot of stuff. And when we left, it was pitch black.

Katie Worth

Pitch black, because smoke had blotted out the sun. That morning, the most destructive fire in California history, the Camp Fire, had caught near their home in Paradise, California. The whole city evacuated down the same few roads out of the hills, so they were stuck in traffic, which was terrifying. At one point, both sides of the road they were edging down were in flames.

Kelsey lost contact with her husband, who was taking a different road out of town. For a few frightening hours, they wondered if he was dead. Their house, like nearly every building in Paradise, burned down.

Like a lot of other folks, Kyson and his family resettled in the city at the bottom of the hill, Chico, six people crammed into a 29-foot trailer. The middle school that got set up for the Paradise kids was not a school at all. It was a big-box hardware store that had gone out of business. Kyson gave me a little tour.

Katie Worth

Where do you eat lunch?

Kyson Wilson

We eat lunch at the cash registers.

Katie Worth

PE was now in the garden center. The library, Aisle 16, housewares. Principal's office, electrical. And the classrooms--

Kyson Wilson

So the classrooms used to be super small aisles, like, if you went to Walmart, just regular aisles. And our desks used to be shelves.

Katie Worth

Kyson says his teachers tried lecturing from one end of the aisle, or the other, or somewhere in the middle. It didn't really work.

Kyson Wilson

The teachers did not like going down these small, skinny aisles.

Katie Worth

So the school eventually took down some of the aisle dividers to make double-wide aisles, added desks and whiteboards, which helped them feel a little more like real classrooms. But it's loud in a way no real school would ever be. The noise of all these kids bounces off the metal roof and back down.

It's also cold-- 59 degrees. Everyone's in coats. They've been heating the store with propane. But one day, someone smelled gas. The fire department showed up, and lots of the kids freaked out.

Some went catatonic, others called their parents to pick them up. The smell brought them back to the day they'd evacuated Paradise and hearing the sound of propane gas tanks exploding one after another as they fled. After that, the administration just left the heat off.

As it happened, I'd actually shopped in this hardware store before it became a school. I'm from Chico. The day of the fire, my aunt had to evacuate. And I'm also a climate reporter. For the last year, I'd been reporting on what kids are taught about climate change in school. When I found out there was a group of kids who could arguably be called climate refugees set up in a hardware store in my hometown and about to learn about global warming in science class, I had to come home and check it out.

Kyson Wilson

We're learning carbon cycle this week, which was pretty interesting.

Katie Worth

Again, here's Kyson.

Kyson Wilson

The carbon is going up and up, and it's getting warmer and warmer. And everybody is just using too much carbon in the world.

Katie Worth

There's strong science connecting climate change to the fire these kids survived, but I wondered if they would see it that way. Paradise is pretty red. Only about half the people in our county think global warming is real, that humans are causing climate change. So I wanted to see how that would play out in this classroom.

Marc Kessler

All right, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you, for coming in and getting yourself ready. I really appreciate that.

Katie Worth

This is Marc Kessler, the science teacher. Kessler has a gentle affect one would expect of a flower farmer, which is what he was before he became a science teacher. He's been worried about climate change since the '90s, was one of the first to put solar panels on his roof. Around school, he was known as Mr. Tesla.

Kessler's approach to teaching climate is really hands-on. One morning, I watched him do a lesson where he had each student pick three spots anywhere on the globe and look up how the average temperatures in those places had changed over the decades.

Marc Kessler

You can go anywhere in the world you want. And then you're going to list whether they're increasing, decreasing, or staying the same.

Katie Worth

The kids eventually realized that the temperatures in most places have been going up. So what's one possible consequence of temperatures going up? Well, wildfires.

Marc Kessler

This is area in an average year burned by wildfire. They're thinking that it could go way up.

Student 1

That is so not OK.

Marc Kessler

Yeah, which is not great.

Student 2

That hasn't happened to us already.

Katie Worth

Yeah, because that hasn't happened to us already, jokes one of his students. To some of the kids, the connection between climate and the Camp Fire seemed clear. It was like Kessler was gently guiding them to a better understanding of what they had all just lived through.

But not everyone was buying it. This became clear one morning when Kessler asked his class to write out three ways climate change might impact California in the next 50 years. And one of his students, a freckled kid with dimples named Nakowa, says this.

Nakowa Kelley

You mean this is like global warming stuff? My parents says it's not true.

Katie Worth

He says, you mean this global warming stuff? My parents say it's not true.

Marc Kessler

Ah, so you're getting mixed messages. I know that must be a little challenging.

Katie Worth

Kessler pauses for a second, waiting for the class' attention. One kid tells Nakowa that his parents are just wrong. Kessler refers back to the charts he'd shown the kids earlier.

Marc Kessler

Well, what I try to do is just present you with the data. So we're just looking at NASA data and interpreting as best we can.

Katie Worth

Kessler told me later, he uses data from NASA because, even in a polarized America, most people trust NASA. But I don't think the mention of NASA was persuading Nakowa, because he just started quoting his parents.

Nakowa Kelley

They said if it gets hotter, why does it still-- why this year has there been snow in places?

Katie Worth

They said, if it gets hotter, why does it still-- why this year has there been snow in places it hasn't snowed before, Nakowa says? Mr. Kessler just listens. He doesn't argue with Nakowa.

Marc Kessler

Thank you, Nakowa, for sharing. So sometimes, we will learn things that might conflict with what you're hearing somewhere else.

Katie Worth

Kessler reminds them that science is about looking at the evidence and interpreting it. His philosophy is to not tell them what to think.

Marc Kessler

It's just discovery. That's what science is.

Katie Worth

Nakowa still looks confused.

Nakowa Kelley

I don't know who to believe anymore.

Katie Worth

I don't know who to believe anymore, he says.

Katie Worth

So do you know that that's what the boys have been learning?

Nancy Kelley

Mm-hmm, yes.

Katie Worth

Have you guys been talking about it?

Nancy Kelley

We have. We talk about it, because we do not believe it.

Katie Worth

This is Nakowa's mom, Nancy Kelley. I went to visit them after school the next day. After their house burned, the Kelleys, just like the Wilson family you heard earlier, had to squeeze into cramped quarters-- two parents, three teenage boys, two Boston terriers, an African gray parrot in a one-bedroom apartment.

That's where we were. Nakowa sat on the floor. His mom sat on one side of me on the couch, and his dad, Tom, on the other. Tom is a super friendly guy who just does not buy into the idea that humans have caused the climate to change.

Tom Kelley

Science, as far as disaster, our Earth is heading towards this disaster, we're killing ourselves-- that's been around since I was in school. I mean, the soup of the day is climate change.

Katie Worth

Tom tells me he recently heard the former president of the Canadian wing of Greenpeace say that fossil fuels have actually been good for the planet.

Katie Worth

Where do you get your information about it?

Tom Kelley

Oh, you pick it up wherever you can pick it up. The ex-president of Greenpeace from Canada, I think that was in a Fox News story. So that's the kind of places we get it from.

Katie Worth

It's true. The former president of Greenpeace Canada is one of the rare cases of an environmentalist turned climate denier. He's been invited onto Fox News multiple times. Throughout this conversation, Nakowa was fidgeting, listening to every word we said.

Tom Kelley

The real question is, can you get both sides at school? Is he just going to get the pro? Or are they going to present the con just as eagerly as they present the pro, so that there can be a discussion back and forth? I doubt that happens.

I imagine the teacher telling them, this is the way it is, backed by NASA, whatever it is. And then that's the only thing they hear. Did they ever teach you any views opposing climate change? Or was it just, this is climate change, and this is the proof? Or did they say, no, there are some very good people who disagree with this, and this is what they're saying? Did they say that?

Nakowa Kelley

No. Mostly, what they show us is the numbers. They just show us the charts with all the data on it.

Katie Worth

For the record, climate change is as settled as science gets. The evidence that humans are warming the Earth is as strong as the evidence that cigarettes cause cancer. And for that matter, the research connecting climate change and fires like the one in Paradise is also sound.

California has always had fires, but the hot, dry conditions that can turn them into mega-fires is on the rise. California had just had five record hot years in a row, and it's also been getting drier in the summer and the fall. That fall, it hadn't rained in Paradise in nearly six months. So when the Camp Fire ignited that November morning, it had no trouble becoming the deadliest, most destructive fire in California history.

Inside the hardware store school, I'd been watching how the science teacher, Marc Kessler, tried to delicately guide his students to an understanding of the issue. He didn't use the phrase climate change right away, didn't deliver any screeds against the fossil fuel industry. He'd been strategic about it.

What I hadn't expected was that, meanwhile, parents like Tom and Nancy were deploying their own strategy. They weren't telling their kids to pipe up or contradict the teachers, like Nakowa had done. They didn't want him to get singled out. Better to play the long game.

Tom Kelley

I believe the opportunity for discussion is past. Its now you believe and we love you, or you don't believe and we hate you. And unfortunately, because of the hate politics surrounding it, we tell him, don't say this to your teachers.

Just find out what you need to learn in the books, and put it down on the test. Don't get into the controversial freedom-of-speech thing where you're going to be hated, and marked, and stuff like that. And unfortunately, that's the reality of our schools today.

Katie Worth

I wondered about Kyson, the kid who loved science class. Kyson's parents are also climate skeptics. They also don't see climate change as connected to their fire. And they also don't want their kid to say any of that in class. Here's Kyson's dad, Brian.

Brian Wilson

I know, Kyson, we've talked to him about stuff like that. And he'll do the work that he needs to do. You have to do the work in the class, and you have to get the grade. It doesn't mean you have to believe in it.

Katie Worth

So the fire, plus Mr. Kessler's lesson on climate change, had put kids like Kyson in an awkward spot. He's in seventh grade. He loves science. He told me on the first day I met him that he'd learned in Mr. Kessler's class that the carbon in the atmosphere was going up and up, and we needed to do something about it. But after I talked to his parents and he talked to his parents, we spoke again.

Katie Worth

So it sounds like your parents think one thing, and then you're kind of hearing something different from Mr. Kessler?

Kyson Wilson

Yeah. It's weird because, at school, it's a big thing, and we could do something to stop it. But then at home, our parents tell us something different. So we don't know what to do. We don't know what to believe and not believe.

Katie Worth

If you're a kid, who do you listen to on this existential issue? If you trust one set of adults, this issue already radically altered the course of your life. And if you trust another set of adults, it's all just a hoax perpetrated by people with an agenda.

Katie Worth

What do you believe?

Kyson Wilson

I believe both, kind of.

Katie Worth

What caused the fire?

Kyson Wilson

I heard it's a power line that went down, and it started to make a big fire.

Katie Worth

Do you remember Mr. Kessler saying that climate change could lead to higher risk of fires?

Kyson Wilson

Yeah, I do remember that. So I guess it could be really important, because that's kind of what happened. But it happened because of a power line, not a climate change. So that's that.

Katie Worth

It's like Kyson was trying to find some way that they might all be right-- his parents and his teacher, three adults he really looked up to.

Kyson is part of a whole generation born into a world that's already being defined by climate change, but also born into a world awash with misinformation about it. And that means it's possible to learn about climate change in school, to have your whole town burned down in a climate-fueled catastrophe, to see the flames with your own eyes, and still not feel sure about it.

Ira Glass

Katie Worth, she's the author of the book, Miseducation, How Climate Change is Taught in America.

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Aviva DeKornfeld. The people who put together today's show includes Chris Benderev, Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Michal Comite, Andrea López-Cruzado, Chana Joffe-Walt, Seth Lind, Michelle Navarro, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Laura Starecheski, Lilly Sullivan, Jessica Soriano, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu.

Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman. Our senior editor is David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor is Emanuele Berry. Special thanks today to Allison Green, Stephanie Jenkins, Margaret Cargioli of Immigrant Defenders, Mark Steedman, Park Williams, Sophie McKibben, Anna Martin, Sarah Ventre, Austin Fast, David Drexler, and the Paradise Unified School District.

Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 750 episodes for absolutely free. Also, there's videos. There's lists of favorite programs, if you're looking for something to listen to. There's tons of other stuff there. Again, ThisAmericanLife.org.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. Recently, he's been helping his niece and nephew with their second-grade homework. So sweet. He's so good with them, until they finish up. And then I don't know, his tone--

Kyson Wilson

I got every single question right. I'm the only one that did, I think.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

(SINGING) 'Cause you can't pull the wool over my eyes. Oh, no. You can't pull the wool over my eyes.