R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Take out T-C-P
(RESE? I never did understand that part of the song…)
You find occasional people you immediately respect. There are others who earn your respect over time. There are others you want to respect you. I’ve found that Respect Street is two-way, and usually I want the people I respect to respect me. The type of people we want to respect us changes with time. In school, it’s usually a peer. Further school, a teacher. Later: a boss, other co-workers, customers, pastors, relatives, and random strangers. We want to be respected for our knowledge, our skills, our talents.
We do weird things to try to earn respect. Some people boast, which I find to be the stupidest way in the world to try to earn respect. It’s so much better to let people find out you’re great (if you are) than to tell them. Even if you are great, your telling them takes away their opportunity to tell you that you are. And if you tell them you’re great and you’re not, well, you just look dumb, and you certainly aren’t earning any respect. I always think about people who study the martial arts when people boast. The kid who has taken four lessons comes out jumping around and attacking things and making the “hoo-AH” noises and talking about how he can beat people up. On the other hand, the master never says a word about his abilities. He doesn’t brag about how many boards he can break in a single punch or how quickly he can dispatch a gang of toughs. If the situation called for it, though, who do you want in your corner?
The desire for certain respects is fleeting. I no longer care if Jimmy from fourth grade respects me. I no longer care if Coach P. from high school respects me for my playing ability. I no longer care to have the respect of certain people that will only respect me if I do a certain thing or act a certain way.
However, there are respects that outlast specific time periods. You’ll meet a handful (or less) of people that you want to be respected by the rest of your life. You might not ever see them again, but you think about them every so often and you want to believe that if they heard news of you from someone, they would smile and nod respectfully.
I’ve got a short list. There are names on the list that I know I will never be able to earn back respect I’ve lost with them. (Like a currency, I spent the respect I had with them in one gesture or another like buying one of those cheap toys from a vending machine.) There are others I may never see again and will therefore never know my account balance with them.
There’s one person on my list that crosses through my mind at least once a week. She was my favorite teacher in college, and even though I didn’t ultimately end up with a degree in her particular field, I will never forget her. What was it about Miss W. that commands my respect, even all these years later? I haven’t seen her in 7+ years, but like I said, I think about her or talk about her at least once a week.
I skated through high school and continued on that course in college. It wasn’t as smooth in college, but if I was passing, I was happy. I started having classes that I actually had to study for, and I didn’t like it. English and literature classes came rather easily to me, and class discussions were usually enough for me to connect a particular author with a particular work. I liked to read, so the assignments weren’t drudgery, either. Tests weren’t hard when they dealt with facts, but I learned very early on with Miss W. that essays and composition projects would never again be what I had come to know.
There was something about her, see, that let her see right through me. There was something in her that saw something in me that I didn’t see. Though I would write technically correct essays, she wouldn’t let me get by with them. She challenged me (oftentimes in ways that might have seemed to an outside observer to be mean) to do better and told me she wasn’t going to let me slack off in her classes.
It might have been my appreciation for the subject matter, but I think it was more the way she dealt with me. Most teachers had enough students that they couldn’t necessarily pay close attention to one in the crowd – she had just as many students and she was always busy, but she always had time to talk to me and challenge me to be better. “You can do better than this.” I remember hearing that phrase from her more than once.
(An aside: Once in English Lit, she asked for a volunteer to read Robert Burns’ poem “To a Mouse.”I quickly volunteered with a nefarious plan in mind. Robert Burns is the most famous of Scottish poets, and I intended to read it with a Scottish accent as far as she’d let me get. Turns out, she let me read the whole way through. I fully expected to be stopped in mid-stanza, and when I wasn’t, I felt my face getting redder and redder and I felt more and more foolish. When I finished, she said “thank you” and intimated that she appreciated the reading in the spirit the poem was written in.)
I like to think that I take criticism well, but in truth, I usually bristle. I tend to think I know all the ins and outs and intricacies of what I am doing and that there is no possible way for the critic to know all of that, so their opinion doesn’t carry as much weight as they might like it to. For some reason, when Miss W. critiqued and suggested, though, I saw it and wanted to change. I wanted to be who she thought I could be. I pushed myself and did better in her classes.
(An aside: in American Lit, when we were studying Emily Dickinson, I raised my hand and casually remarked that a good majority of Emily’s most famous poems could be sung to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme song. She took it in stride, having come to expect these sorts of things from me. For the next few semesters, I would seek out someone taking that class and convince them to do the same thing when they got to the Emily Dickinson portion of the class. It was the third or fourth semester when I checked back with whatever cohort it was that I received the report, “I didn’t have a chance to say anything – she told us all about Gilligan’s Island when we started talking about Emily Dickinson.” That was one of the biggest smiles I ever had in my life.)
I took several classes from her over the course of my studies at college – about seven, I think. I tried to take any class I could from her. I loved every class except for Lit Crit -I couldn’t get the hang of it, and she cut me more slack in that class than she ever had. Somewhere along the way, she and I became friends. She became a trusted advisor in more than just English classes. I had more respect for her than anyone I had ever met, and in return, I wanted to earn her respect.
As I’ve mentioned a couple of times, I haven’t seen her in years. She’s Dr. W now. I’ve taken many twists and turns since then, and I’ve failed most people I’ve met in one way or another. I doubt very much I’ve done much since then that would earn any respect from her.
I have a good friend who called and asked my opinion on a specific Shakespeare play. I gave him my thoughts, but immediately followed it up with, “You know who would be a better person to ask? Miss W.” He said, “Yeah, I’ll write her an email.” “Tell her I said hi!” I said.
A day later, I received a forwarded email from my friend and I learned there’s something better than respect. Though I’ve known where she is and how to contact her, I’ve been hesitant to do so because of these feelings of failure on so many levels. In the email he forwarded to me, she said “Send me Mark’s telephone number – I need to reestablish contact with him. And tell him ‘love never fails’.”
That’s a quote from I Corinthians 13:8.
Respect is good, but love is better.