In tenth grade, my world geography teacher Mr. Holloman, a rather odd-looking man who wore brown shoes and brown pants with a brown belt came to my desk one day before class. He knelt down, leaned in close, and quietly said, “I’ve been thinking about this. You know what your problem is? You have created high standards for your life, and you think, do, and live by those high standards.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What’s wrong with having high standards to live by?”
“The problem,” he continued, “is that you expect other people to live by high standards, too. That’s always going to cause you a world of hurt and pain.”
I believe we retain certain fragments of life like this brief, unsolicited exchange because there’s something important in them that will serve us well to decipher. I still don’t have this one figured out, and trust me: it was a l-o-n-g time ago when I sat in the tenth grade World Geography class seat beside the window in that upper hall classroom.
The questions plague me to this day. I want a nice, tidy package, a story that comes with a ribbon of wisdom and epiphany and moral lesson. I long for this to be a life-changing, unexpected happening that set my life on a different course entirely. Maybe one of those important contracts I made in a former life that I forgot all about when I was born.
Mr. Holloman didn’t say that I expect others to live up to MY high standards – is that significant?
Is it good or bad that I don’t expect others to live up to my high standards but to develop their own high standards?
He said I expect others to have and live by their own high standards, and I still wonder: what’s wrong with that?
Goethe observed that people live up to your expectations of them, a touchstone that served me and my special needs students well. I recognized that each one of my sixteen fourth graders had significant learning and behavior challenges, but I still expected them to behave and perform according to certain high – and often individualized – standards. They could walk the short distance to the lunchroom without talking, for example. They could be kind to each other and look out for each other. They could tell the truth. They could be quiet while somebody else was talking. They could try to do the math, even when it wasn’t the part of their brain that lit up with joy and ease. Did I do them a disservice by harboring these expectations?
I had high standards and expectations for my chiclets, and I think I would’ve been less than a good mother had I left them to run willy-nilly and hope they developed some high standards to call their own . . . right?
I do, however, know that I have (on more than one occasion, I’m embarrassed to tell you) expected (or at least strongly hoped) (maybe even prayed) that Certain Others would live up to my standards and definitions of integrity, trustworthiness, reliability, self-sufficiency, and such. And quite frankly, it has definitely caused me pain when they didn’t. And when I’m especially tired, I’d go so far as to say that the world would be a better place if they did live up to my high standards. Is it wrong of me to impose my standards on others?
I know it’s human nature to make up stories to explain pretty near everything that becomes part of our life, but so far, I’ve got nothing on this other than the story of what happened. In our 42 years of togetherness, The Engineer has often cautioned me that on occasion I make too much of things, and while I’m usually not even in half agreement with him on that (though I do afford him the freedom to let his brain think such notions) (bless his heart), I reluctantly wonder if he might be right about this particular moment in time. Maybe I am making a mountain out of a molehill. All these years later, it’s about the best I’ve got.
a series of visual and non-representational descriptions
of what it’s like to have a conversation with Nancy