Dumb Luck

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During the first semester of my senior year in high school, I took an Advanced Placement (AP) English course.  I’d always been good in English; having learned to read and write even before I entered kindergarten.  Reading and writing were two means to deal with the intense shyness that plagued my youth.  I’d always earned A’s in English classes, even going back to grade school.  Until that AP class.  I ended up with a B+, which – to me – was depressing.  Towards the end of the course, the teacher urged me to take a regular English class for my final semester; saying something about the next AP English course dealing with poetry, which “takes it to a whole new level.”  Translation: you’re too big of a dumb ass to handle it.  Her and I hadn’t really connected anyway, which had made me feel ostracized.  In retrospect, she reminds me Hillary Clinton; you could tell she’d lead a really hard life, but still have off fake smiles to get through the day.

For that final half of my senior year, I took a “regular” English class (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean) and ended up with an A+.  I’d had that particular teacher (another Hillary Clinton predecessor) before and didn’t have any problems with her.  But another student in that class did.  As the spring semester wound down, and all of us seniors became more eager to leave, that one student was in peril.  The teacher had openly informed him (and everyone else) that he might not pass, which meant he wouldn’t be able to graduate on time.  One day she loudly proclaimed that she was going through all of his previous coursework to see if she’d made any mistakes in grading.  I could see the mortified look on his normally gregarious face.  It was a good thing he was seated at the very back of the room.  The rest of us remained silent.  When the class ended that day, the teacher told him to stay.

I encountered him in a boys’ restroom later and asked him “if everything was okay.”  He said yes; that he’d just barely passed the course and would be able to graduate as scheduled.  I told him it was “chicken shit” that the teacher had publicly humiliated him and virtually announced to everybody that he was a potential failure.  A couple of other guys in that class happened to show up and overheard our conversation.  They agreed with me.  That one guy (I can’t remember his name) then mentioned something I thought was odd at the time.  He said he’d always had trouble with reading and writing; that letters and words sometimes looked “mixed up” to him.  Thinking about that now makes me realize he was probably dyslexic; a neurological condition that impacts people (usually males) at a young age.

I’ve known other boys and young men who had trouble reading and writing and remember the open ridicule they’d face at the hands of teachers and other students.  Calling out someone in public like that and telling them they’re about to fail is cruel and unethical.  But people do it anyway.  It happens all the time in schools – and in the workforce.  It’s a form of bullying.

In the summer of 2009, the supervisors at my job decided upon a new tactic to educate associates en masse should we encounter a work-related problem.  They would email everyone at once and try to get a resolution as quickly as possible.  The genesis was time constraints.  They didn’t want to deal with telling people one by one how to handle a troublesome issue.  The plan bombed as soon as it was implemented; thanks to yours truly.

I had a question about something, so the supervisor, Monica*, emailed everyone (copying our project manager, Dave*, and her own assistant, Diana*) about it.  She initially didn’t mention that it was me who had started the inquiry.  Monica gave us all an hour to figure it out.  When I thought I’d gotten it, I asked Diana who merely responded with a shrug.  “Oh, so you’re gonna play this chicken shit little game, too, huh?” I said.

“It’s not a game,” she muttered.

“It’s also not a game when you ridicule someone publicly.  Go back to sleep.”  I left her office, which she shared with Monica and another supervisor.

Moments later Monica sent out another group email telling everyone that I need help with this problem – to which I replied (only to Monica, Dave, Diana and the other supervisor): “I don’t know who came up with this idea, but it’s one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen.”

Dave wasn’t on site that day, and Monica reacted with her usual dismissive demeanor when I finally confronted her.  “Well, we didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” she said, still staring at her monitor.  The comment had prompted a barely-audible chuckled from Diana.

“Oh, no!” I replied.  “I don’t have feelings for you or anyone else in this dump.  None of you are worth that much trouble, so don’t impress yourselves too goddamned much.”

She still wouldn’t look at me and started talking to Diana.

I reached behind and slammed the office door with enough force to cause the wall to vibrate.  It startled the other supervisor.  “Do I have your attention now?” I said to Monica.

Her and I had engaged in verbal battles before.  That wasn’t the first time she’d called me out publicly.  I’d confronted her afterwards, and she said she’d say whatever she wanted whenever she wanted.  I informed my then-supervisor, Robert*, telling him Monica and I “had words.”

Monica had the habit of ridiculing people in public.  I recall another nasty situation about two years earlier than the group email stunt where she’d loudly gone off on a woman about the standard operating procedures (SOP) manual.  People on the other side of the office – with stacks of metal shelves and a slew of paper-laden boxes between us – could hear her.  Robert called Dave who was in another location.  I don’t know what exactly happened next, but a security official showed up several minutes later.  By the end of that year, Robert left the company.  Speaking with another colleague, James*, months later, I learned Robert had had it with Monica.  He had apparently been unable to reason with her on any level and – unwilling to tolerate it – found another job.

James (who remains a good friend to this day), a female colleague, Andrea*, and I then all fell under the group supervised by Monica.  For Andrea, it was a veritable death sentence.  Israelis and Palestinians get along better than those two did.  I chalked it up initially to the usual drama that erupts between people in the workplace.  But the two women literally despised one another.  The following year Andrea took a leave of absence – and never came back.

A few months after the group email mess Monica got her comeuppance.  Late one Friday afternoon she’d marched up to the office of our company’s liaison to the government agency with which we contracted (our client in other words) and unleashed a verbal tirade.  The incident started the liaison, an older woman who was bound to a motorized scooter.  That other company supervisor happened to accompany Monica; unaware, as she later told me, that Monica would “go off like that.”

A security official happened to overhear the exchange and promptly ordered Monica and the other supervisor to leave the office.  Someone then called Dave who was at a client site a few miles away.  He hurried to downtown Dallas in evening rush-hour traffic – which often moves slower than fat people walking through a cactus field – and ultimately walked Monica out of the building.  She was gone.  The rest of us didn’t find out until the following Monday morning, when Dave called us into a meeting.  “If you have any questions, get with me privately,” he added.

The only question James and I had was whether or not they had to escort Monica out in handcuffs or a straight-jacket.  It was somewhat of a relief.  The big, evil, loud-ass witch had evaporated from our lives.

I hate to see anyone to lose their job.  Most anyone.  Some people just beg for it in a way, either through their own incompetence or because of brutish behavior.

If I try to count the times someone ridiculed me during my school years, I’d have to break out a calculator.  If I try to do the same with work-related fiascos, the stories would include more than a few arguments.  Not long after landing in the corporate world, I discovered that schoolyard bullies and cranky teachers reappear in corner offices with designated titles and self-righteous dispositions.

I’m a firm believer, though, in that what goes around comes around.  The proverbial karma is a bitch theory.

In early 1990, I had a temporary job at a financial company’s lock box division.  One of the assistant supervisors was an older woman who seemed to relish pointing out the mistakes of everyone in the unit.  At weekly meetings she’d call out people’s names like a headmistress admonishing disobedient school children.  The tactic was supposed to enlighten and help educate the group, thus guarding against future costly errors.  It had the opposite effect.  Aside from generating extreme animosity against the woman, it impacted morale.  Then, salvation arrived in the most unlikely of circumstances.  That woman made an error, a really egregious error that cost the company some money.  It was a serious offense.  The unit manager, an older man with a seesaw personality, gathered everyone around to announce publicly the nature of the mistake.  In a perverse form of emotional rioting, the entire crowd – including me – reacted with unabashed joy.  The old hag got a healthy dose of her own self-righteousness.  Hurts, doesn’t it, I thought, to be shamed and humiliated in front of everybody.  A few weeks later I found a job at a bank, just as the assignment was scheduled to end.

Humiliating someone publicly just doesn’t turn out well in either school or work.  Cooperation and private consultations may sound like bleeding-heart liberal ideology, but it’s much more of a productive approach in both business and education.  Think about it.  How many times have you been part of a group where members constantly bickered, and everything still came out wonderfully?  Wonderfully, that is, without any break in the hostilities.  I never have.  Competition and debates are inevitable – and good.  Good most of the time.  People will disagree and argue.  But, unless they eventually come to some sort of understanding, nothing positive will come of it.  We only have to look at the centuries-old battle between Israelis and Palestinians to see what a lack of solid communication and mutual agreement can do to a society.

It may have taken me decades before I finally completed my college education, but I’m no idiot and I’m no fool.  If anything, I’ve been naïve in believing that people can work together all of the time.

Another thing I’ve learned – perhaps, the most critical lesson of all – is that hard work isn’t equal to luck or good fortune.  It really is difficult and generally pays off – whether in an actual workplace or in your own personal endeavors.  I haven’t achieved success yet with my fictional writing career.  But I’ll never give up on it because that’s pretty much all I’ve ever wanted to do with myself and I know I’m good at it.  And I’m good because I really enjoy the craft of reading.

Regardless, I don’t need the approval of haggard English teachers or cantankerous managers to succeed in anything.

*Name changed.

 

Image courtesy of Marc Phares / Epic Studios.

8 Comments

Filed under Essays

8 responses to “Dumb Luck

  1. When I was in school, it was still the norm for the teacher to read off people’s test scores out loud. Why would anyone ever think that was okay? The kids who scored poorly were embarrassed, and the kids that scored well were mocked. Too bad the antics still occur in the grown-up world.

  2. Like Carrie, when I was in school our test scores were read aloud in the classroom. It was never a good day. There were times you hoped you didn’t do well simply because that went over better than the alternative, at least in my crowd.

    You are right my friend, hard work does eventually pay off though sometimes it is hard to see.

    • I don’t recall that ever happening in either grade or high school. But I remember some teachers making examples of students. I fell victim to that crap a few times. Since I suffered from extreme shyness as a kid, it was especially painful.

  3. It’s sad, isn’t it, that the world is this way. If we spent half as much time practicing compassion as we do at being cruel, the world would be such a nicer place.

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