Monday, October 27, 2008


A teacher acquaintance of mine recently had a run-in with a parent whose child had failed to turn in an assignment.

When the teacher contacted the parent to express disappointment that the assignment had not been completed - despite detailed advance written communication and instructions - that parent’s response was to get upset. How dare Mrs. Teachy-Pants humiliate little Johnny by telephoning his mother...right in front of him? Why, think of the damage to his precious self-esteem! Intolerable!

I listened to the tale with a sort of bemused wonderment. Ah, self-esteem. Parents these days seem to think children have a right to feel good about themselves.

Bull. Shit.

That warm fuzzy feeling of elevated self-worth is a privilege, not a right. Like respect, it is something that must be earned every day.

Sometimes a little humiliation can be a good thing, especially when it’s unpleasant enough to keep someone from repeatedly doing Stupid Shit. And, applied in occasional doses as needed to the young, humiliation can help a person learn proper behavior in a society of Human Beings. It tends to keep that big, puffy ol’ Wad of Self-Esteem tamped down where it won’t get out of control.

It worked with me.

Rewind the Videocassete o’ Life to sometime in the fall of 1958, when I was a newly-minted first grader. Every day, our teacher would give us a homework assignment, which we would then write down in our little composition book. We were then to take the book home, do the homework, and bring the book back to school.

This wasn’t integral calculus, mind you. It was work appropriate to six- or seven-year-old children. Adding numbers together. Spelling. Basic stuff...and nothing that took hours.

Well, it didn’t take long for Mr. Smart-Brains (Yours Truly) to figure out that the teacher didn’t actually look at that composition book to see whether we had done our assignments. She took it (I supposed at the time) on faith that we would do as we were told. And I, being completely and totally without Personal Honor at the time, reasoned that if the teacher did not check the books, there was no point in my pissing away precious Play-Time by actually doing the assignments. And so for about a month, I coasted.

Life was sweet.

And then one day, my mother collared me where I had been playing with the neighbor kids. “Show me your composition book!” she thundered.

Well, it didn’t take me long to figure out that I had, in fact, not managed to commit the Perfect Crime after all. For the teacher, relaxed and laissez-faire though she may have seemed, was no dummy. She could see that when the other kids wrote in their books, they were three-quarters through to the end...whereas I, Mr. Smart-Brains, was only a few pages in. The phone call to my mother was not long in coming after that.

Was I punished? I honestly do not recollect.

Was I humiliated? Absolutely...and I remember that feeling to this very day, a half-century later.

Self-esteem? Well, I didn’t know what that was, but if it was the feeling that I was a Good Person who had Done the Right Things, it was mighty thin on the ground.

But it was the last time I tried to pull a stunt like that in school.

Self esteem? We all want it...and as someone who spends a lot of time in search of Bloggy Self-Aggrandizement (don’t we all, Esteemed Ones?), I know how desirable it is. But, like many desirable things in life - thick steaks, expensive wines and spirits, the company of beautiful women, palatial dwellings, and the like - people are not queued up to hand it over to you. Ya gotta earn it...every single day.

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