11 February 2014

How to Look Like an Idiot with Dignity

“I’m just trying to get through life without looking stupid. It’s not going too well.” — Brian Regan

This story’s about me looking like an idiot.

One instance, anyway. But there are many.

I was working my way through a master’s program, and this was my first semester teaching freshman English. One of our best days was when we did a rhetorical analysis of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” The students loved it. And so did I.

Our classroom was next to a theater, and it happened to have an upright piano in one corner, which we usually ignored, but during the Hallelujah lecture I happened to mention that I knew how to play that very song on the piano. Begging ensued. And to calm them down, I promised them I’d play the song for them on the final day.

I also took that opportunity to remind all of them that the department had a firm policy: If you miss the final, you fail the class. “So don’t schedule your Christmas breaks early!”

Our class was in the afternoon. But the finals schedule is always different. I believe our final was scheduled for 7:30am.

I awoke that fateful morning to the sound of my phone ringing.

You can imagine the string of words that paraded through my mind—the same ones that would go through your mind if you awoke to your students calling to say they’re waiting to take their final. First I just put a hand on my forehead.

I didn’t answer the call, which was the cowardly thing to do. Next I debated whether to rush to the school or not. I decided on the easy way out again: I texted my student and told him to tell the class they’d all receive 100% on the final, and that I, myself, had failed it. Now there’s a funny concept.

This was an embarrassing moment, obviously. But it, along with countless similar moments, taught me a few important important ideas:
1. I’m not nearly as cool as I like to think I am. And no matter how hard I try, I’m always going to make silly, stupid, human mistakes. And, you know what? That’s okay. Because it helps me to be more humble.
2. In spite of good intentions, things go wrong, and I’m not the only one. Knowing how high I shoot and how low I hit reminds me that other people need to be cut some slack too—at least as much slack as I cut myself. Maybe more.
3. I tried to teach this to my little brother the other day: “You’re going to look stupid sometimes, and there’s no way around it. You might as well get used to it.” I’ve found that coming to grips with this fact (that I’m going to look stupid sometimes) has helped me roll with the punches. Knowing they can’t be avoided makes them easier to deal with.
As a way of apologizing for my delinquency (although they weren’t too upset about getting full credit), I recorded a video of me playing “Hallelujah” and sent it out to my class. The audio’s not great—I needed a mic—but I still like it because of what it represents:

Sometimes it’s okay to not be awesome.

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