I know, I know: I’m remarkably gifted. I have a peculiar talent for saying just the wrong thing at any given opportunity, to the degree that some might think I’d developed a fondness for the flavor of my own toes. I just say what I think, and it’s often not the most politic or informed approach to do so.The upside of the equation is that I have no power or influence, so most of the time there is little danger or harm in my being quite so thoughtless and flippant. Most of the time there isn’t anyone who will take offense or any business that will be tanked by my foolish unedited blundering. Much of the time, it’s as obvious as the dumb things I say that no damage will come of it.Still, I know how much power one tiny little word or deed gone astray can have. So I keep trying, knowing that there may be those who think themselves even smaller, weaker and less significant than me and who can be vulnerable to the slightest scratch from an unvarnished remark. If I get lucky, being slow to reveal my dull wits and blunt feelings will become my real trademark and even if no one knows it to thank me I will be able to feel grateful myself for having sidestepped a pointless unkindness. It’s worth a try.Good thing everyone’s so generally forgiving, in the meantime.
We love to gossip and tell tales behind each other’s backs, don’t we. Of course, the public attitude is generally to decry such inhumane and ungracious behavior and to vilify those who allow themselves to be caught acting on it. Even those of us who shamelessly mock others for being unlike us don’t really like to admit we engage in such naughtiness. In fact, many of us are quite adept at picking on people for being precisely like we are and doing exactly the same sort of, well, picking.
It may just be that we need to reevaluate the whole way we approach such things. Being in conversation and community doesn’t mean we have to spend our energies on acting like those stereotypical meddlers we like to decry, which is of course precisely what we’re doing in decrying them. How much better to spend our energies and attentions together on positive and good things, like finding common ground, sharing what we admire and respect about each other and learning fine and meaningful and joyful things from and with each other. That leaves little room for interfering with other people’s ways of doing, being and living. We can sit around chattering and nattering with impunity when the intent is to be kind and thoughtful, and without worry when we’re not creating any sort of reasons for anyone else to be critiquing us either.
Improbable as it all may seem, we all know from experience that there are good and happy and positive things to be discussed and done and that there can be just as much pleasure in them as in exercising our Schadenfreude instead.
When I was teaching, I thought it useful to devote a bit of the informational materials I handed out at the beginning of every term to basic issues of classroom decorum. The idea that so-called common courtesy has to be taught, not just to children but to all ages, is no less ridiculous than understanding constant the need for training and refreshing what is called common knowledge or common sense. Generations have passed since people saw a need to comment on or complain about the uncommonness of all of these virtues.
More significantly, as a teacher I knew that if I didn’t encourage, if not demand, attention to such virtues in my classroom there was little hope of any other sort of learning happening in there. I’m old-fashioned that way. The silly thing is probably that it was only after leaving teaching that I thought very clearly about how much these attitudes mattered in any and every kind of cooperative venture, not only in the classroom but in the boardroom, the living room, and certainly in the places where politics, religion, health care, social activities and civic progress are in progress. At least, if we want actual progress to occur.
THE BIG OL’ HOW-TO LIST
for getting along with Kathryn
I Come to class unless you are dead.
II Show up on time. Lectures don’t always begin on the dot of the class-starting time, but if a deadline is stated as “beginning of class, 18 March” and you arrive one minute late, technically I can tell you that you missed the deadline and so your project is rejected. Flunked. That’s harsh. But trust me, it’s fair. Besides, it’s a safe bet that if the lecture does start on time and you miss part of it, I’m not going to be terribly enthusiastic about repeating myself and your classmates who have just heard the stuff will definitely not be amused to have it reiterated. Be in place, cell phone and watch alarms and headsets off and fully participating in class, and we’ll all get along famously. Hurray for good manners!
III Bring all assigned materials and have them in ready-to-use position when class starts. Written tests, especially pop quizzes, are uncommon in my classes (they do exist), but notes and written critiques can be required at any time. Be ready. Write down everything, and date it. Even if I don’t say you have to. Then you have documentation of what I told you (and when) if I should change plans inexplicably or you have a question. Also, it makes you look attentive and enthusiastic whether you are or not.
IV Flattery will get you places. Forget that baloney about it getting you nowhere. You lose nothing by Making Nice with people and attempting to impress them with your admirable and outstanding qualities; they might even enjoy buying into the whole idea. It’s an excellent tool for impressing others, this making them think you find them worthwhile and fabulous. Conversely, the quickest way to turn a potential ally into a pain in the neck is to belittle, ignore, challenge the primacy of, argue with or antagonize her. Diplomacy and tact mean that you can frankly say, “I disagree,” or “what do you think of _____,” and get a respectful hearing. We are only human (if we’re lucky).
V By the way, if your death prevents your attending class, call and let me know in advance.
VI If you have big plans, talk to me. It’s possible that your previous experience with and knowledge of this topic mean you can quickly “test out” of the class requirements and go forward into a more challenging and personally fulfilling independent project. If so, let’s work together to get maximum use out of your time and energies.
VII If you feel out of your depth, it’s okay to swim over to the shallow end and meet with me privately by appointment. Probably all you need is a bit of individual coaching beyond what’s available or comfortable in class time. Of course, if you’ll kindly risk asking the question in class, there are always others who benefit by having their identical question answered, and probably your learning it together will make it simpler.
VIII Ignorance shouldn’t embarrass you. Holding on to ignorance should. You’re in class, presumably,because you don’t know Everything yet, same as the rest of us. So ask your “stupid question,” please. Real stupidity is avoiding or refusing to try or doing something wrong because fear of lowering yourself prevented your asking the question that would’ve resolved the problem.
IX Be patient. Spend the time. Attempt the highest levels of craftsmanship and professionalism. Pay attention to the tiniest detail.
X Be bold and adventurous. Climb out of ruts. Seek a new perspective on the familiar and become familiar with the alien. Look for connections. Expect the infinite.