Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Difficult People

Difficult People
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I think I called her an asshole at one point or another. Certainly not to her face, and probably not even out loud, but I’m quite convinced that I at very least muttered the word under my breath.

Mrs. Hughes seemed to revel in covering my high-school papers in red ink. The word “cover” may seem hyperbolic, but I assure you, I’m being quite factual on this point. I’d hand in a paper that I believed to be reasonably good. What she gave back, a few days later, looked like it had been through a war.

Sometimes the carnage began before she’d even read the paper. Early in high school, I made a cover page for an essay that had been assigned. (Truth be told, I gave the drawing on the cover substantially more care than the essay itself.) Upon handing in the assignment, Cheryl quickly tore off the page I had labored over so carefully, and returned it, saying something curt like, “unnecessary.”

At the time, I couldn’t quite understand why she was so cold and callous in her feedback. (I also puzzled over whether she might deplete the world’s supply of red ink while marking my essays.) I believed I was trying hard, and felt rather slighted by how she chewed up and spat out these essays. Why couldn’t she just be nice about it?

It Didn’t Stop There

By the end of the eleventh grade, I had largely decided to go to art school (or become an accountant, but that’s a story for another time). Prior to this, Cheryl encouraged a batch of students, including me, to take her Advanced Placement English program during our final year of high school. If memory serves, it was a bit of a pet project for her. The class would marry a block of Literature and English, while allowing for some latitude relating to the method of instruction.

As my desire to focus on visual art became clearer, I failed to see a good reason for taking this new English course. I also believed it would be unnecessarily demanding. I decided to drop the class, and made my way to the school’s office to request the change. My timing was bad (or rather good, in retrospect) as Cheryl spotted me asking one of the school’s administrators to remove me from the program. In actuality, there was little my teacher could have done to have stood in the way of this; nevertheless, she simply told me that I wasn’t allowed to leave the program. Something about the look she had, left me with the sense that it would be pointless to argue.

The same sort of thing happened on a few other occasions. Whether it was my effort to create a video yearbook for the school (which didn’t actually happen), to quitting the school newspaper, Cheryl was a pain in the ass. She simply wasn’t going to make it easy to quit, regardless of how challenging the task at hand might have felt.

Caring Presents Itself in Strange Ways

It seems to me that people often confuse caring with being difficult. A number of people I’ve worked with (and for) would lump my actions into the latter category. The perverse aspect of this is found in how inaccurate such beliefs are. Those who “give a shit” are willing to make things uncomfortable, in order to help others recognize the points that matter and, subsequently, learn from them.

Anyone can tell you your work is great, and a great many will, even if this isn’t the case. They’ll smile pleasantly, say flattering things, and let you feel good about yourself. Sure, we all need this sort of thing from time-to-time, but it can also be both selfish and damaging. It’s easy, and personally beneficial, to blow sunshine up people’s butts. In the long run, however, this sort of thing can be hazardous. Such misinformation screws with one’s bearings, leaving a false sense of one’s abilities. Once established, these misconceptions prove very hard to shake, thus placing a substantial barrier on one’s growth.

I often self-identify as an asshole; perhaps this is a bit of a defensive mechanism, or way of making light of how I know some view me. In actuality, I just hate the notion of lying to people. I’d rather seem like a jerk, and really help someone out—be they a friend, client, staff member, or new designer—than mislead them. I give strangers smiles and nods; I save tearing things apart for those I’m close to, because they are worth that level of care and attention.

Eventually, I Came Around

With time, I found myself enjoying Cheryl’s classes more, but it wasn’t until I started college that I really appreciated Cheryl’s commitment to teaching students like me. The fact that she was demanding of us made it easier to write. As a result of her efforts, I learned how to look critically at written language, and communication in general. Additionally, her rigorous feedback later resulted in the ability to write a college paper at the eleventh hour… and still fare acceptably (a nice skill to have).

As I’ve aged, I’ve come to realize how lazy we can be (I include myself in this indictment). We often look for shortcuts in order to get around rolling up our sleeves and just doing the actual work. I think Cheryl was one of those educators who just wouldn’t accept that sort of nonsense. She’d challenge her students to do their work properly, without the burden of any superfluous niceties.

When I look back, I think of the things that her toughness taught me: that you need to know what you’re going to say, before you start to say/write it; that details and syntax both matter, and change how things are perceived; that if you start something, you had better push on when things get challenging; and, that there’s no excuse for making crap. (All important lessons.)

Thank You for Being Tough

The things I learned from Cheryl’s tutelage informed a great many of my (now) daily activities. Through her English classes, I gained a deeper appreciation for written language, and how to organize thought; meanwhile, her Journalism class introduced me to the design tools I use today. It’s also worth noting that her focus on structure and attention to detail inform all the content we create at our agency today.

On my run home, last night, I thought about how I should pick up the phone and tell my high-school English teacher how much I had gained as a result of her efforts. This wasn’t the first time I’ve considered doing so; I’ve had the same thought many times over the past few years. Unfortunately, I’ve never called, as I’ve always felt a little odd about ringing someone out-of-the-blue after so long.

Although there are many teachers out there, I think you’re lucky to find one or two that really impact your life. Through her efforts, Cheryl certainly did so for me. This morning, I learned of her passing. It’s an awful shame that future students won’t have the benefit of experiencing her toughness.

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