When you (finally) come to see what you don’t want to see

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 6, 2019

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One of the most important skills in life is to be open to see what you may not want to see. Sometimes you have to learn this lesson the hard way.

As I did.

I was the beneficiary in high school of some very fine teachers, two of whom in particular contributed to my growth as a student, Lucille Armstrong (history) and her husband, Stuart Armstrong (English), known to the students as Mr. and Mrs. A. Both of them took an interest in me, and they practiced “tough love.” (I still remember a lower grade on an English test from Mr. A because I misspelled “occurrence.”)

When I was filling out college applications my senior year, Mr. A asked me where I was applying. When I told him my stretch choice, Mr. A, sensing intuitively a teaching moment, said bluntly “You won’t make it.” What did you mean, I asked; that I wouldn’t get in or I wouldn’t succeed there? He said “both.”

His harsh comment evoked its intended response from me. Honestly, I remember being p—– off, and that is about as cleaned up a statement as I can make.  But because of my relatively younger age among my peers, Mr. A knew I had a maturity gap, and I did not fully understand the commitment it would take at my school of choice to excel if I was accepted. I could not see what was going to be coming my way.

I was accepted to that stretch school, and as Mr. A predicted, it took more than the first round of fall and spring semester tests to find any classroom success, and some grade beat-downs along the way. But after an awful lot of hard work, I finally turned the academic corner.

I went to see Mr. A when I was home for semester break. After exchanging pleasantries, I good-naturedly (I am cleaning this up a bit, too) reminded him he said I would not make it, that I had made it, and that I had even gotten a shout-out academically. And I told him that when I graduated, I would be back.

I largely regret this “I told you so” experience because it is evidence that I was still short on maturity. There is the ego part in me that is glad I went that day, but as it turned out it was my corresponding pride which would turn the last card in this.

When I was home for a holiday after college and law school, and tempered by tethered pride about that long-ago blunt challenge, I finally went to see Mr. A and Mrs. A.

With the benefit of hindsight, I told Mr. A my sense was that he had made a bet on me, and what he calculated would be my response when I grew up a bit, when he gave me his tough talk-challenge on that fall day. It was not a put down but a recognition of the importance to double-down for what was going to be a hard road if I got into the college of my choice.

Mr. A’s response was affirming, and genuine. As an exceptional teacher of many things, he was not surprised by this Lesson Learned rest of the story, of course.

Mrs. A’s response was hard to follow, and to make any sense of it. Mr. A stated gently that she got her words mixed up a bit now. She smiled, but she did not really understand what he was saying. During my period of stubborn and prideful delay, she had developed Alzheimer’s.

Mrs. A, one of the teachers who shaped me academically in real ways, would never know about the lawyer I had become and was becoming because I came too late. This was a casualty of my too-late tethered pride.

What I’ve learned about life on the way to the courthouse is this:

Whatever our age, we should value a healthy skepticism about what we think we know that just isn’t so. We benefit when we or others we have around us see clearly the potential impact of these sometimes deceptive emotions of ego, pride, or a too narrow perspective (immaturity/inexperience). These often obscuring sight lines can speed us towards poor choices if we fail to see what we may not be able (or choose) to see. If others have a more seasoned eye on a challenge and they give us a frank assessment as I got that fall day, it is not a bad thing.

In his New York Times best-selling book, “Principles,” Ray Dallo states it clearly: “Truth — or, more precisely, an accurate understanding of reality — is the essential foundation for any good outcome.” If you do not have a clear-eyed sense of how things really are, you are simply going to have a hard time of it. Many of us overestimate our strengths and fail to see objectively our weaknesses. Time, circumstances (and the competition) will quickly exploit your weaknesses if you do not understand them fully, whatever your profession.

The corollary lesson in this narrative is just as important: We are all a composite of many teachers of life’s lessons, and if we are lucky, we have teachers and mentors who challenge us to find the defining stretch to take us to the places our skills and hard work can take us. No one makes a life worth living on their own, after all.

It has been said that “Gratitude is the memory of the heart.” So it should be with us. And don’t you know that when you thank those who helped you along life’s way, they come to know that you made good on their early bet on you so long ago. Along the way they also take a ride in their mind’s eye on where you are going with their helping hand.

If you get there in time to tell them.

Mike Wells is a local lawyer in Forsyth County.