Compassion & The High Bar

Both of my parents are professors. Dad teaches economics, Mom grammer and English composition. Once a year, every year, throughout my childhood, a magical thing happened in my parents’ home. Mom- she of the homemade everything, would present at diner one night to the family- the largest box of chocolates ever made. This miraculous box of candy (an otherwise generally forbidden commidity in our health-conscious home), would last from the early part of December until sometime in the new year. The mysterious benefactor, it was explained, had been a student of Dad’s. The idea that my dad could affect someone enough to inspire that awesome annual tribute always stayed with me. I honestly don’t think I would have appreciated what Dad did for a living if that one student hadn’t shown me in such a dramatic (and child-friendly) way. My dad taught his first course the year before my birth. I’m 36. Mom and Dad retire this month.

I made a website for them. My sister and I can’t afford to throw them a surprise retirement party, but we talked them into hosting a modest gathering on their own and we’re both flying up to attend. I’m making a paper version of the website in a beautiful handmade album to present to them. That, at least, will be a surprise. The website houses 73 entries from former students. It includes at least one tribute from every graduating class since 1966 except for 5 and some are still coming in. I had no idea so many people would respond. I was also completely unprepared for how it would affect me.

When I was a single mother holding up the grocery line with my WIC coupons I used to swear to myself that if I ever made it out of poverty and fear I’d remember to show compassion to all those less fortunate. I would never stop smiling at a child when I noticed the naked space on her mother’s left hand. I’m a democrate, a feminist, a champion of the underprivileged. Compassion is one of my highest values and I’m strident about the responsiblities that attend the fortunate. I overtip. I give to charity. I slow down so the slow can catch up. My heart bleeds. I believe in the hopes of the huddled masses and love the poor and wretched. What cost is there to too much compassion? Can you possibly hurt anyone with empathy?

I’m beginning to think you can.

“[he] taught me a lot–a lot about economics, a lot about self discipline in my thinking and work habits, and contributed to my becoming a teacher. Like him, I’m proud to say that I am regarded as a strict but conscientious teacher from whom people learn a lot, because they are compelled to do their work carefully. He set high standards, imposed fair but demanding requirements. As a freshman in his microeconomics course, I first learned of the abilities I always held in reserve, but knew nothing about. I scaled to new heights of intellectual rigor and achievement and I’ve never lost it. I’m not sure I would have found it without him. I’m sure there are hundreds, if not thousands, who gained that from him. What a wonderful legacy for a college teacher. When I am grading and providing feedback, and striving to be fair to all students, I think of how he set the standard for fairness and objectivity and making us all play by the same rules. He helped us all get ready for life, to be professionals.

When I defended my senior thesis, of which I was very proud, and on which I worked hard, he taught me another lesson. He shellacked me pretty well with questions I couldn’t answer and hadn’t anticipated and taught me the difference between advocacy and research and between correlation and coincidence. Once again he showed me the importance of open inquiry and careful thinking. (I passed with honors, anyway, and I’m sure he helped see to that along with my thesis adviser!)

Anyway, Bill Whitesell is a man I respect greatly, and who I think of regularly in my work and when I try to have an impact on my students. I have also had the opportunity to affect several hundred people as they prepare for their careers, and have a chance also to serve in government with distinguished and capable people–largely because of the intellectual awakening that he and they helped me gain and because of the special gifts they each gave me in personal growth”
Written by a man who graduated when I was 5.

Then there’s this excerpt from a student who had Dad almost 20 years later:

“…to get an A, along with nice comments (the constructive criticism was standard), and a “thank you” from Professor Whitesell was huge. It was so huge that it stayed with me for a very long time. My eventual career path in corporate and financial public relations included lots and lots of writing — often speeches, quotes, presentations, or position papers for CEO’s and high-ranking executives to deliver on Wall Street, in front of Congress, or with members of the media. Sometimes, I was intimidated by the speaker for whom I was writing, sometimes I was intimidated by the intended audience, sometimes I was intimidated by the subject matter. Always in the back of my mind, though, was the knowledge that I had impressed Bill Whitesell. And, if I could impress Bill Whitesell, these folks would be a walk in the park. I’ve drawn on that confidence countless times, and it has been like the proverbial gift that keeps on giving.”

Everything that people have sent in tends more or less along these lines. Some are funny, some heartfelt, some short some very long, but they all point to Dad as very hard grader and a lovely person.

I keep thinking about the Flow book that blew my mind a while back. He talks about our contemporary drive to raise the self-esteem of children as being wrong headed. Not because self esteem isn’t important; it is. Self confidence is the best predictor for successful careers, marriages, and overall life satisfaction. He says self esteem comes, not from repeated successes, but from a few hard-won ones.

My daughter got so many merit badges from brownies that she ran out of vest space after two years. She would not have been able to tell you what any of them were for. She gets a trophy at the end of every soccer season regardless of how her team has done.

I wonder if we’re so eager to protect children from the idea that they have failled that they don’t realize it’s a possibility. Or, more likely, I wonder if most of us don’t wander about with a vague sense of dread that we might really be failures, only we’ve been protected from those tests that might tell us so.

What my Dad gave his students was the absolute knowledge that they had been tested. Over and over I hear the gratitude for having been pushed harder and further than they knew they could go by a man who believed in them and forced them to believe in themselves.

Of course I don’t get letters from the kids he failled. And for every person who remembers that they earned that rare Bill Whitesell A there are all those kids who make the A’s rare. For every A Dad gave there were several B’s, many C’s, quite a few D’s and some F’s. Every semester my dad failled kids who didn’t try hard enough, didn’t come to class often enough, or who just weren’t smart enough. And I feel sorry for those kids.

Of course those kids did fine and I’m not really worried about them. They blamed Dad, or they decided on a different major, or they developed better study habits. But some maybe internalized it, and knew themselves to be failures. I don’t know.

An economist’s daughter, I am, of course, familiar with a standard bell curve so called because it resembles the cross section of a bell. Create a graph. On the vertical axis write “people” on the horizontal write “success”. A few people will map far to the right on the success line. These are the students who write my dad. These are the people whose speeches get heard, whose money matters. The majority fall in the fat of the bell. Average successes. They make enough, are happy enough, raise their children well enough. By whatever criteria you evaluate success, the highest vertical of people will land here. If it’s a good bell curve, about as many people will land close to the axis as land far from it. We see them with their cardboard signs and shopping cards. Hamstrung by illness or abuse, damaged, clinging close to the zero point on our graph.

Under the dome of the bell the average are safe, but those on the margins steal from each other. I believe it is right that the wealthiest help support the poorest, but should the fastest be hobbled so the slow don’t feel bad? If the test is made easier so that every student who’s come to class can get his yellow belt, will I fail to see the next master? If we take education funding away from gifted and talented programs to fund programs for kids with ravaged home lives who must first learn basic social skills. Does admitting that compassion has a price make me heartless?

The bar is set at 12 feet. Only one person clears it. That person knows she is the best.
Set the bar at 10. Three people clear it. They all feel proud. The one person who could have cleared 12 feet never knows it.
Set the bar at 8. Half the people make it over. They don’t care too much that they did. Some feel like they might have been able to do more. Others feel like they’re not really good, just lucky. Everyone vaguely feels that they haven’t really been tested at all.
Set the bar at 6. Now almost everyone can clear it. No one cares. One girl who would have been among the three to clear 10 trips because she wasn’t paying attention.

The bar is set at 12 feet. Only one person clears it. The rest feel like failures, and hate the one. They decide the bar’s impossibly high, blame the bar and feel OK about themselves.
Set the bar at 10. Three people clear it, the others feel even worse. Can’t make even this.
Set the bar at 8. Half the people make it over. They don’t care too much that they did. Some feel like they might have been able to do more. Others feel like they’re not really good, just lucky. Everyone vaguely feels that they haven’t really been tested at all.
Set the bar at 6. Now almost everyone can clear it. No one cares. One girl who would have been among the three to clear 10 trips because she wasn’t paying attention.

I don’t know. Does someone always have to get left behind? Do you always sacrifice one end of the bell for the other?

I wish I could say with conviction: I have been tested and not found wanting.
I wish I could say: I’m the kind of person who can do things that are hard to do.

If you’re drowning, who do you want pool side:
me emoting with you, feeling your pain, empathizing with your fear, “oh darling, that must be so hard for you! You must be so afraid!”
Or some asshole shouting: “What’s the matter with you!?! Paddle you idiot! Swim! Quit that stupid flailing around and roll over onto your goddamn back and breathe!”

I think I want someone to kick my ass.

So like me, to want things I can’t give though. I’m better at compassion, at empathy. And while that feels good to give and get, I don’t know that its’ helpful. Does my compassion help people stay stuck. Would it be better, braver, to risk angering my friends by calling them to account. Would I be judgmental or heartless if I stopped giving comfort to those staying stuck? If I comfort my stuck friend, listen, empathize, am I getting in the way of the time where being stuck hurts so much they begin to move forward again? Am I willing to trade the short run popularity of being “supportive” for the long term thanks that may not come if you hold someone’s feet to the fire? Do I have the courage to tell my friend that I think he’s making a mistake, doing something immoral and dangerous, repeating mistakes and make him angry or do I standby until the next relationship blows up in his face and be that “good frined” who helps him pick up the pieces. Again.

Why is it everyone I really respect is a graduate of the school of hard knocks, and yet I’d lay down my life to prevent my children from ever having to enroll?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *