The Laggard

Near the end of the first semester of my second year in grade eleven, during which time I was seventeen, discouraged, and not faring particularly well, my parents came home from an interview with my history teacher, in just his second year of teaching at the time.

“He told us you’re no ball of fire,” my mother said.

“He said you’re something of a laggard,” my father said.

A laggard!

There’s no question I was floundering in his class.  But rather than explaining for my parents what I was doing wrong, suggesting how I might do better, or proposing how he might more effectively help me, he resorted to affixing me with a label.

Laggard!

I was angry with that teacher for a long time.  And I was stung by the disappointment in my parents’ eyes.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Seventeen years later, at the age of thirty-four, I was a first-year principal in the same school district.  At a principals’ association meeting during the winter semester, I was with a number of colleagues in the men’s room, washing up after our business meeting.  As we stood at the urinals and wash-basins, one of our number told an off-colour joke, the details of which I forget.  But it involved people of colour, and was not flattering to them.  Several people laughed heartily.

As the laughter abated, and before someone else could tell another joke, one veteran principal—small in stature, fiery by nature—angrily tore a wad of paper towel from the dispenser.

“I’m sorry!” he snapped as he slammed the paper into the wastebasket.  “I make it a practice never to laugh at racist jokes!”

In the ensuing, abashed silence, I stared at myself in the mirror over the sink—glad I had not been one of those who’d laughed, somewhat ashamed I had not spoken up as my colleague had.

Pausing at the door, the man added, “I’m not saying all of you are racist.  But somebody told that joke, and a lot of you laughed!”

racism4

I approached him near the bar a few moments later, introduced myself, and thanked him.

“For what?” he said, looking up at me, his eyes a piercing blue.

“For what you said in the men’s room,” I answered.  “I wish I’d had the courage to say that.”

“Did you laugh at the joke, son?” he asked.

“No.”

“Well, that’s good,” he said.  “Can I buy you a beer?”

We stood off to one side, no one else apparently eager to engage with him just then.  And in his short, sharp manner of speaking, he proceeded to help me learn some valuable lessons.

“It never makes things better when you accuse people of being racists,” he said.  “Never helps!  Doesn’t help to accuse them of being misogynists, either, or xenophobes.  Accusations only lead to denials.”

I nodded and sipped.

“Labels are easy to deny,” he continued.  “Labelling never works!  But you know what’s harder to deny?”

“What?” I asked.

“When you describe people’s behaviour to them.  When you tell them what you’ve seen them doing.  They’ll recognize it.  And telling them what you’ve heard them saying.  They’ll remember their own words.  And maybe, just maybe, they’ll start to realize what they’re doing or saying is inappropriate.”

“Like referencing the laughter in the men’s room,” I said.

“Exactly!”

I waited, hoping for more.

“It’s the same thing I encourage my teachers to do,” he said.  “Don’t label your students! Describe their strengths and needs, describe their accomplishments and shortcomings.  Describe for them the things they need to do in order to succeedBy doing that, you’ll know better how to help each of them take the next step.  Labelling kids never helps.  Labelling anybody never helps!”

We were called to dinner about then, and went off to our respective tables.  I encountered him many more times over the years, of course, but I never forgot the things he said on that first occasion.  He was the first man I ever knew who didn’t just profess to be anti-racist; he demonstrated his true colours through his actions and words.  And he did it fearlessly.  To use a common phrase, he walked the talk.

I’ve been thinking about him over these past couple of weeks of racial turmoil, here in Canada and especially south of the border, wondering what advice he’d have for me.  As I watch TV and read news accounts online, I’m struck by the ferocity of the back-and-forth arguments and name-calling between those accusing others of racism and those others denying it.

Racist!  Terrorist!  Fascist!  Leftist!  Boogaloo!  Antifa! 

I search, often in vain, for factual descriptions of what is actually happening—what people are doing, how people are behaving—so that I might determine for myself how they could take a next step toward reconciliation.

And I applaud those who propose concrete steps toward that end, most of which will require a good deal of time and hard work to achieve.  To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., the ultimate measure of people is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy.

inclusion2

My principal colleague was one such person.  He believed that leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.  He believed that good teachers tell; average teachers explain; superior teachers demonstrate; and great teachers inspire.

He certainly inspired me.

Accusations and labelling never work.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

A coda:  At the age of forty-nine, thirty-two years after that history teacher labelled me a laggard, I met him again.  He was retiring from the classroom, and I—by then CEO of the school district for which he now worked—was presiding at a ceremony to honour our retiring employees.  I shook hands with every one of them, most of whom did not know me personally, of course.  But that teacher remembered.

“I guess I was wrong about you,” he had the temerity to say, more sheepish than apologetic.

Being only human, I had to stifle that long-ago, seventeen-year-old boy within me, who wanted to reply, “Thirty-five years and still a classroom teacher, eh?  Who’s the laggard now?”  Vengeful.

Instead, I said, “Thirty-five years as a classroom teacher!  You’ve certainly affected a lot of kids over all that time.”  Serene.

“For better or worse,” he said, smiling at his own wit.

“Indeed!” I said, and moved on.

Don’t Confuse Me!

Our high-rise community participated in a neighbourhood garage sale recently, and we were all asked to donate items to the cause.  Several residents worked very hard to collect, label, and affix prices to the assorted contributions.

Most people donated cheerfully, but one elderly man offered his two cents’ worth about the enterprise when he, somewhat grudgingly, dropped off his items.

“It’s not right, y’know,” he said.  “Rich folks selling stuff to raise money for themselves.”

grumpy old man

The volunteer who accepted his goods might have wondered why he was donating, given his point of view.  But rather than question it, she chose to explain the endeavour.

“Actually, the money raised from the sale is going to a number of good causes,” she said.   “It will buy wood for the woodworking club to make toys for kids at Christmas; it will buy paint for the artists’ club to paint them; it will buy wool for the knitters’ group to make mittens, hats, and sweaters for kids; and a cash contribution will be made to the local battered-women’s shelter.”

“Oh,” was all he said before shuffling away, unmollified.  Presented with the facts—details that contradicted his preconceived notions—he had no comeback.  There were no further questions, no requests for additional information, no expression of greater understanding.  Nothing.

As a witness to this exchange, I couldn’t help but compare it to the same phenomenon we see in the broader public sphere.  How many of us, convinced of the legitimacy of opinions we may have formed on any subject, are resistant to evidence that proves us wrong?

“I think…” we might say, as preface to a harangue on some subject or other.  “In my opinion…” we may begin, before embarking on a diatribe of some sort.  “Everybody knows…” we might say, before expounding on whatever is the topic at hand.

And when we do, we are usually sincere and convinced in our viewpoint.  Even if that viewpoint is based on little reflection, born of a subjective opinion, or informed by a group mentality.

There is an election taking place right now in the USA, the country to the south of us, a presidential contest that is rapidly (if not already) attaining farcical status.  As an interested onlooker, I am astounded by the shallowness of the debate over issues, the venality of the personal attacks, and the ignorance of large swaths of the electorate.

Lest I be accused of self-righteousness, let me concede that elections in our own country are not models of decorum and honour.  But, so far as I can determine, we have never had a candidate for the highest office in the land who appealed, deliberately and recklessly, to the basest elements of our populace.

There is a burgeoning movement in the USA, labelled the alt-right, which festers mostly in the social-media universe.  Although loosely-organized (if at all), its proponents focus on a number of major themes, among them:  race, gender, immigration, self-reliance and individualism, and small-government.  Their major grievance appears to be a sense of disentitlement, a belief that they’re losing their historic, God-given rights to a post-modernist, liberal elite.

Their vociferous body-politic includes racists and white-supremacists, misogynists, homophobes, anti-Semites, and xenophobes.  A large segment of their ranks consists of disaffected white men (and perhaps the women over whom they exercise control)—an alienation founded in the shrinking of the middle-class, disappearing jobs and income, a perceived increase in crime and terrorism, and an assault on their ‘inalienable rights’.  They want someone to restore what they have lost.

Trump hat

The alt-right movement, for the most part, has aligned itself behind Donald Trump, a billionaire candidate, who has at various times claimed that:

  • the current president was not born an American, and may in fact be Muslim;
  • Hispanic immigrants from Mexico are criminals and rapists, expelled from their own country;
  • thousands of Muslim-Americans cheered as they watched the Twin Towers fall on 9/11;
  • an American-born judge of Mexican heritage is not qualified to sit on the bench because of his ethnicity; and
  • most white homicide victims in the USA are killed by African-Americans.

Major media organizations have looked into these statements—and myriad others of the same ilk—and debunked them as lies, citing credible data to support their findings.  Nevertheless, alt-righters continue to believe them and repeat them, relying on their gut-level intuition rather than evidence.

“Don’t confuse me with facts!” they appear to be saying.

These deluded devotees remind me of the elderly gentleman who brought donations to our neighbourhood garage sale—unconvinced by the truth, unlikely to change his mind, determined to remain in a state of blissful, self-righteous ignorance.

It’s true, I suppose, that all of us could be seduced by a particular version of the truth that resonates with us, whether personal, political, religious, or simply comforting.  But to any of us who find ourselves in that situation, I have one piece of advice—

Don’t believe everything you think!