“No one these days can tolerate losing.”
-Mark Helprin, “Monday”
High school teachers–and most people, I suppose–hear a lot of lies. Did you finish your reading? “Yes.” What did you think of it? “Pretty much the same thing George just said.” Where’s your paper? “I left it at home,” “My wi-fi wasn’t working,” “My printer wasn’t working,” “My computer wasn’t working,” “My modem, printer, and computer have all joined the digital rebellion, and honestly I think we should take cover.” Sometimes I could smile and turn it aside, but sometimes the deception hurt. A few years ago, a student came by to tell me how much they were struggling. They talked for a long time. They cried. They said they knew they’d been missing things in my class. I hurt, seeing their hurt, and in the end I was as lenient as I could be in helping them forward. Six months later I learned that student had given the same speech to several other teachers that day, and then bragged to friends about how easy it was to manipulate us. The facts they’d given me were true. The hurt, I think, was true. But they’d stretched all those strings out and played a tune on them, and gotten me to give exactly what they wanted.
I went into the next semester trying to be all strict. I’d trusted someone and gotten played, so now it was time to be rigid and unflinching. Right? After two weeks, it occurred to me that the student I’d felt betrayed by had already graduated. The people in front of me were new. It felt wrong to be pushing my mistrust at them. As I thought about how wrong it felt, I realized my new Iron Heart campaign wasn’t about rightness at all. It was just about anger. I felt cheated. I felt like I’d lost. I didn’t want to be a loser. Which, I suppose, might be exactly the kind of motivation that pushed my student to lie.
I want to keep giving people the benefit of the doubt. I want to look closely and see what I can of what’s going on, but then (as much as possible) I want to trust those who walk through my door. That’s not because I believe they won’t cheat me. The numbers, it seems, suggest that some will. Reading Helprin, I’m not sure I mind that so much. Sitting here, writing this, I don’t even mind that one student. How hurt must they have been to present their pain like that? Perhaps my leniency didn’t help them, and if that’s true, I wish I’d found something that would have, though I’m not sure what response from me–yelling? A failing grade?–that would have been. Mostly I wish them well.
Cool water helps soothe a burned hand. Picking up the coal of I lost, and should never lose adds another burn.
Maybe the trick isn’t to avoid being cheated. Maybe the trick is not to mind being cheated, when you are, because you will be. Maybe the trick is to look closely and then offer trust, a gift, to the people who come into your life, and not to mind so much when your gift isn’t what someone else is ready to pick up. That doesn’t mean we don’t respond to how others treat us. That doesn’t mean we go blindly walking off the cliff we saw. It might mean we move instead of freezing in place. It might mean we listen to the calls we hear, not because all of them mean exactly what they say, but because we each are a voice in the darkness, and it’s good to meet each other.