Sucking It

August 19, 2011 Uncategorized 2 Comments

Sometimes I impress even me with the perfection of these post images...

Today at work, when a colleague handed me a draft of something and encouraged me, in a cocksure tone, to “suck on this,” I received further evidence that my life is a symphony with countless leitmotifs.

Allow me to explain.

To say that I was in my shell in elementary, middle, and high school is to understate just how profoundly immaterial I tried to be. Case in point, I didn’t make a real friend until 9th grade, with whom I bonded over, you guessed it, the “Maple Leaf Rag.” (Ragtime: 473, Childhood Traumas: 11)

By 12th grade, however, there were cracks in the shell. I had found the piano, found something I could identify with and be identified by (so bizarrely important in high school), and I found myself with more confidence, speaking up in class, making jokes, acting out. It turns out that I could be a bit of a class clown when I felt safe to do so, but the whole idea of joking around in class was so foreign to me that I made more than my fair share of cringe-worthy mistakes. Here is one.

Mr. Donaghue was extraordinarily young. He didn’t seem it at the time, as in my teenage mind anyone over 21 might as well remember defending Fort Sumter, but Mr. D couldn’t have been more than 23, fresh out of college and excited to be teaching. He was handsome, with a face that had traces of Emilio Estevez, and he was funny. A history teacher, he encouraged dialog every day, made the content interesting, led class debates, and otherwise facilitated one of my favorite classes of the year.

I felt comfortable. Encouraged to speak. Intellectually engaged. I liked Mr. Donaghue a great deal. Which is why I still cannot believe that I decided, while handing him a completed assignment one day, to encourage him to “suck on this.”

I said it with the cocksure bravado of a newly awakened teen – a stupid, ignorant, dumb teen – and his face, normally smiling and warm, went cold and stiff. A part of me fell, likely the part raised by my mother, sensing too late that I had crossed an invisible line. “Martin, you will not talk to me like that,” he said sternly. The students who overheard shifted uncomfortably in their seats. He never talked sternly, and I never talked to teachers like this, ever. Up until this point I had gotten in trouble at school two times: once for running home at lunch in 5th grade and once for walking the hall without a pass. I wasn’t exactly used to getting into trouble. “Don’t ever say that to me again. It’s not okay.” He took the paper. “Take a seat.”

I went back to my seat and fought down tears from my eyes. What had I meant by saying that? What could have possibly possessed me to say that?

Flash forward to today. My colleague hands me the document and says “suck on this,” and my first feeling is anger. A line was crossed. Here was an audible, public sign of disrespect, coming from an otherwise friendly peer. I said nothing of it – what was I going to do, chide them like a teenager? – but underneath my skin my blood boiled. How dare they talk to me like that? I thought. Who do they think they are?

After I calmed down somewhat – I’m not someone off of whom things roll easily, much as I wish to be – I percolated on it. You could argue that an adult should know better – and I agree, they should – but come on, most adults are just old high-school students with a Visa card. I had said the same words to a person I liked and whose company I enjoyed while delivering him a paper of which I was proud. The parallels to today were uncanny.

Except that I was a stupid 18-year-old and this was a professional who really should know better. I digress.

After some considerable percolation, here’s the place to which I came. I did not know, at 18, that Mr. Donaghue’s role as Teacher, and his success in that role, depended on his students respecting his position. I liked Mr. Donaghue, I respected him, but in my naïveté I failed to see the value of respecting his position. In a social setting, this is fine – who cares about your position at a movie or a game? But in school and, as I saw today, at work, the roles matter. They matter. The class could not function without Mr. Donaghue having the prerogatives and privileges of teacher-hood. He couldn’t meet his requirements, satisfy the expectations placed on him, or get us to where we needed to be without that respect.

It’s the same reason, to this day, I still call my mentor Tony Caramia “Mr. C” and not “Tony.” As long as I want to be his pupil, a respect for the roles is still important.

Likewise, I can’t function at my job without a respect for my position, no matter how friendly and well-meaning the peer. It just… doesn’t work. And so tomorrow, when I go in, I’m going to be in the full regalia of my role: dressed, pressed, shaved, clean, and focused. There will be no mistaking my expectations for how I will be talked to and treated.

And if they say anything like that again, I’m going to tell them exactly what I think they should go suck. Let’s call it Mr. Donaghue’s final lesson.

Somehow, I think he would approve.

2 Comments to “Sucking It”

  1. Dan
    I had a similar, though less traumatic, experience in 7th grade. I was always the "smart kid", goody two-shoes and all that - not quite teacher's pet (the voice of denial speaking), but I enjoyed my reputation and knowing that the teachers always thought of me as a good kid. In 7th grade I had a new teacher, Mr. Mavis, and within the first week I did something uncharacteristically mischievous and deviant (wish I remembered what it was) and he immediately pegged me as just another troublemaker. The actual transgression was immediately forgettable and left no lasting guilt, but the reality that I now unexpectedly and wholly undeservedly had garnered a "bad kid" reputation with this teacher (and you can never really erase a first impression) gave me a great sense of loss and regret. I'm sure that if your work colleague had known that the offending remark carried such significant emotional baggage, he would have definitely said it to you much earlier! ;)
  2. Ma
    I wonder if we've so erased old boundaries in the name of "your're no better than me" that resulting informality has crept inevitably to just plain rudeness that must be called out. "Don't talk to me like that" sounds like a smart retort. Of course, that means we have to accept we're now the teacher.

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