When I was fourteen, I was possibly the worst babysitter ever. [See Exhibit A ]
So I don't know what I was thinking when I agreed to take on a nine-to-five, five-days-per-week, ALL SUMMER LONG babysitting job. The job was a favor to my aunt, a newly single parent of two little boys--my cousins David and Danny--who were eight and six.
My responsibilities included making sure the kids had breakfast, something easy like cereal or Poptarts, and lunch (sandwiches?). I was to keep the kids entertained and safe until my aunt came home from work. For this, she paid me the astronomical sum of fifty bucks per week.
I am pretty sure that my aunt envisioned me putzing around her home, playing games with the kids or running around with them outside, watching carefully as they rode their bikes or played catch in the yard. I am pretty sure she did not envision me sitting in front of the TV all day and telling the kids to shut up so I would watch General Hospital in peace.
Not surprisingly, the kids were not on board with my vision. They weren't big General Hospital fans, for example. They demanded my attention. They chattered a lot. They threw tantrums. They made giant messes in the living room. They wanted me to, um, interact with them occasionally.
By the end of Week One I was worn out by this thing called "babysitting" and regretting that I'd signed on for the job.
And then I discovered the magic of Zimbabwe.
I am not sure exactly how the game began, but I imagine that one day after cleaning up the Poptart crumbs in the kitchen, I parked myself in front of the TV to begin the day's TV-watching and the kids, hyped up on Poptart, were jumping around on the couch and yelling, and I lost it.
If you lived in Zimbabwe, I told them, you'd be in jail for jumping on the couch and yelling like that.
This stopped them cold. Zimbabwe? they said.
It's a country in Africa, I said. (I should mention here that I have no idea why the word Zimbabwe popped into my head. I knew absolutely nothing about the country except for the name, which sounded exotic and vaguely like a dictatorship to my ditzy 14 year old self.)
In Zimbabwe, I said to my little cousins, they have very strict laws and harsh punishments for those who disobey.
They were intrigued--and skeptical. That is not a real place, they said.
Oh, yes. It is, I told them. Go upstairs and get the globe from your room.
What are the laws in Zimbabwe? they wanted to know.
Well, I said, besides jumping on the couch and yelling, which will get you two years in jail, there's also a law about making any noise when someone is trying to watch General Hospital. That will get you four years.
And so it went on from there, day after day, me--during TV commercials--spinning out rules about cleaning up Poptart crumbs and picking up toys and making your own sandwiches and sitting quietly during The Price is Right. The punishments were harsh in Zimbabwe. Dungeon-like jail conditions for the most minor infractions.
Danny, the six year old, was enthralled by my stories, but David, the eight year old, peppered me endlessly with questions. Catching me out on inconsistencies and grilling me about the finer points of the Zimbabwean justice system. Did the country have courts? An extensive police force? Who was tallying up all of these law-breakings? How could all of the poor Zimbabwean people keep up with every rule? Was it written down somewhere? And anyway, he said, triumphantly, one day, WHO CARES ABOUT THE LAWS IN ZIMBABWE? WE DON'T LIVE IN ZIMBABWE!
It was over, and I knew it. My uninterrupted watching-of-General-Hospital-time was coming to an end.
the doorbell rang. The three of us peered out the window. It was two official-looking men, dressed in suits and ties, holding clipboards. I shushed the kids and opened the door. Something something about a survey, the men said, and I did the thing you're supposed to do when you are fourteen and a girl and you are alone in a house with an eight year old and a six year old. I told them my parents were upstairs sleeping.
The men left. I closed the door.
The kids looked at me expectantly. Who was that? they said.
I lowered my voice. People, I said... from Zimbabwe.
That night my aunt called my mother. They spoke for a few minutes and then my mother handed the phone to me.
What the hell is going on, Jody? my aunt said. My kids are afraid to go to sleep. They're telling me something about people from Zimbabwe?
Oh. That, I said. Well...
There is a moral to this story but I don't know what it is. That I had no real knowledge of the countries of the world? That I could spin a story? That I could manipulate people by my words? That I could scare the crap out of kids? That I had no business being in charge of young children?
You be the judge.
But in Zimbabwe, they'd give me three years in prison for my crimes.