Trust me, I’m honest. My honesty is often seen as rudeness, which it often is.
One of the four Quaker testimonies is Truth (the others being Peace, Simplicity and Equality). That’s why I became a member after my transition, when I began to live an entirely honest life. But honesty is slippery and scary. And it is different from truth, which is objective if it is – truly – truth.
First of all, it is impossible to escape from our own subjectivity. So the most honest we can be is to state our own perceptions and thoughts. Don’t believe otherwise.
Secondly, honesty has consequences. When I was interviewed by my housemaster about goings-on at school, I told him the truth. The other students lied. They stayed at school and I was expelled. It felt devastating at the time, but everything turned out okay (another story for another day). And, ironically, it reinforced my belief in being honest.
As a management consultant, and especially when seconded to the Treasury, I developed a sophisticated relationship with honesty. I learnt to balance political integrity with political awareness, so that my word was trusted and – when I did ‘speak truth to power’ – I was listened to. I have worked with shameless liars and learnt to smile, look my clients in the eye and nod as the colleague next to me was lying his arse off. But I hated it and avoided outright lying wherever possible. After my transition, I developed a bad habit of being inappropriately honest. When reviewing a multi-billion pound investment programme, I told the client’s Finance Director that it felt like I’d jumped into a time machine and gone back ten years, as I was hearing the same petty squabbles that I’d heard a decade before. My boss was understandably furious.
I reinforce the value of honesty in my classroom (alongside kindness). And it seems to work well. When I taught Year 1, I made a great deal of it, in the hope that I was making a lasting impact on them. Last year, a number of my Year 5 pupils cheated in the obstacle race. I asked the class who’d been honest. Pupils nominated those who’d done badly in the race because they’d stuck to the rules. I gave each of the nominees a Tunnock’s Teacake, which became known as ‘honesty cakes’. This year, my Year 3 pupils point out to me if I’ve neglected to record their punishments (a deduction of three minutes from their golden time). When they do, I make a big deal of their honesty. They still incur the punishment but I use our reward system to recognise their decision. The pupils seem to be okay with this.
Coming back to my ‘firstly’, I’m also a liar. However honest I try to be, I can’t escape from the narrative I’ve woven around myself. There are truths I will probably never be able to face, but you don’t need to know that. As Jeanette Winterson said, “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.”