Published January 27, 2010
People can only know you as the person you showTHE OLYMPIAN
It's finals week at most high schools, and students are cramming like mad, myself included. But the most important lesson I learned this week had nothing to do with any textbook. The lesson began when I lingered a moment after class a few days ago, wide-eyed and innocent, wanting to talk to a teacher about switching into the more advanced level of her course for the second semester. At first her demeanor was simply stony and reluctant, but it seemed to me that she was holding back her reasoning, so I plopped down on the nearest uncomfortable stool and began prodding her toward unveiling what would turn out to be a rather uncomfortable truth. She just doesn’t like me. Or at the very least she doesn’t respect me enough to extend to me any benefit of the doubt as to what sort of coursework I could handle. It is crucial to understand that this predicament is not about academic ability (I do have an A in the lower-level course). It’s not even about work ethic. It’s about more personal failings. As our conversation progressed it became embarrassingly clear that we were discussing the same situation from wildly different frames of reference. I saw myself as a tenacious student seeking out additional challenges. She saw me as an irresponsible and mouthy 17-year-old whose presence in the advanced course would serve only to disrupt its amiably studious atmosphere. The character of my teacher herself makes this misunderstanding even more disturbing. She is the teacher that your grandmother would be, if your grandmother took all the peace and warmth she pours into baking cookies and threw it into imparting academic knowledge instead. Being late to her class is like throwing open the door to your grandmother’s house and interrupting her mid-sentence as she speaks with all the nicer grandchildren who bothered to show up on time. She turns and looks you sadly in the eye, but to your astonishment (and somehow, dismay) hands you a cookie anyway, because that’s the sort of person she is. I like this teacher and respect her a lot. It never in my most mortifying nightmares occurred to me that the feeling might not be mutual. Perhaps this is the 17-year-old psyche in its most raw form. My initial reaction was anger. But as I calmed down, I realized she was right. I can be irresponsible, and I can be mouthy, and the great misfortune was that in her class I had never really been anything else. I realized that I can’t assume she knows me merely because I know me. Other people can only know you as the person you show to them. I think that different circumstances draw out all sorts of colorful and even conflicting traits within the same person. Your at-work self may be different than your at-home self, or your pleasantly-tanning-on-vacation self may be different than your frustrated-with-the-waiter-who-doesn’t-understand- that-you-aren’t-shaking-the-ice-around-in-the-bottom-of-your-empty-glass-because-you-like-the-sound self. No one is the same all the time. It’s important to remember that there are other lives perpetually overlapping our own, just as full and rich and emotionally complex, and we can understand each other only through the faces we show during the moment or series of moments during which we are together. It is always revealing to consider what, if she were here right now and perhaps never again, our 11th-grade teacher would think of us. Emerson Hardebeck, junior class president at Timberline High School and an editor of Timberline’s student newspaper “The Blazer,” is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. He can be reached at email@example.com.