Lord of the Esteem

This story began more than a decade ago and only ended recently. As with many tales, it begins and ends in the same place – with me having no choice but to acknowledge my own snowflakiness and subversive douchebaggery.

Our hero sits in his senior English class in the dark days – times in which the rap-metal was praised, and JNCOs were not only being sold, but accepted as ‘cool.’ The dawn of the millennium was a hopeless time, devoid of reason or direction. Most of society appeared to be aimlessly wandering, still bewildered by these new numbers on the calendar. We had just been given a research paper to write, and my chosen topic had already been claimed – how C.S. Lewis drew from Christian mythology while writing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe series.

I was a bit bummed about this, but my teacher suggested that I take a similar approach with Tolkien, Norse mythology, and Lord of the Rings. Odin, Freya, Dwarves, and Hobbits seemed more interesting anyhow, so I was quick to commit to the topic. After all, I had read The Hobbit several years earlier and was happy to have an excuse to read the Rings trilogy.

Spoiler alert: I’ve still not read any of The Lord of the Rings.

I checked out the Lord of the Rings trilogy from the library and started reading, quickly realizing that I had no hope of finishing them all and completing the paper on time. The movies weren’t out yet, so there were no obvious shortcuts available to me. So I did what any self-respecting asshole would do – I went to a better library and started doing research to bypass this whole reading a series of books nonsense.

Tons of research on the subject of Tolkien and Norse Mythology already existed, and since a research paper has to be based on research, this made my task substantially easier. I gathered these books, read parts of them and outlined my paper accordingly.

Random aside: A scary amount of research is done this way, all while the people writing it get to adopt the ‘expert role.’ It’s called a role for a reason, we are playing it in the same way that an actor plays the role of a doctor. It’s pretty disrespectful to people who are actually experts, but that’s how most of us go about being experts now that we have the internet.

I found that I was really good at putting together information in this way (and in college learned that I could make really successful arguments in similar fashion). This leads me to believe that I seriously missed the boat on switching my major to statistics and landing a more lucrative career in meta-analysis.

In truth, I still don’t feel like this was a terrible thing to do, since I did put a lot of time into researching and writing the paper. The most dishonest thing about it were the inclusion of quotes from the book that supported my research, which were already used to support that research. It appeared I had read the books, so that was good enough for me.

My teacher thought it was well-done and I got something like a 98 on the paper. The only feedback was that I might have included more supporting evidence from the book.

Tarantino-style jump to a decade later, and there I am using this story as an anecdote while talking about education in my book. Again, this isn’t a terrible thing to do. We’ll get there – this is kind of a slow build.

In a fit of excitement, I tracked this teacher down on facebook and let her know that I had written a book. She was one of, if not the single best teacher I had in high school. She probably would be right to take a good deal of credit for my ability to write a book at all. I wanted her to know that I had done something. Even a decade and change later, I wanted to make her feel proud of my accomplishment. She was extremely happy for me and ordered a copy sometime after that.

Weeks later I received a package from Barnes and Noble containing the collected Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I hadn’t ordered it and was confused for a few days before my teacher sent a facebook message asking if I had gotten any packages recently.

This initiated a conversation that made me feel like a colossal asshole. She was hurt by my anecdote in the book, enough that years after the fact, I could tell she was angry that I had deceived her. I saw from her perspective that I was a model student – one that she didn’t have to watch closely, and I had essentially rubbed it in her face that I took advantage of her trust.

I still don’t know exactly what I was thinking.

When I wrote the paper, I assumed that it didn’t matter if I read the books since that would take a lot of time and effort. While writing my book, I assumed the inclusion of the anecdote was amusing and light-hearted. When I had the initial exchange with my teacher, I assumed she would find the story at least mildly funny as well. This is a very self-centered way of thinking, which never occurred to me until she let me know that this knowledge hurt her.

At that point, I did the most snowflakey thing I could – I quickly justified it to myself and felt like she was looking at it wrong. I thought that it was endearing that I could recall this singular instance of dishonesty from high school – there were countless other examples, but this is the only one I could recall. In my (very skewed) perspective, it was borderline complimentary that I cared enough about this teacher and her class that I remembered it.

I don’t think I could make that line of thinking douchier if I tried.

The moral of the story is that I am a snowflake. I always was, and even after writing an anti-self-esteem manifesto, I continue to be a snowflake. It is part of my generational identity and a seemingly inescapable part of who I am.

At the beginning of this story I felt above the rules of my assignment. In the middle I felt like my story was more important than the feelings of others, so much so that it never occurred to me that pointing it out to this person might hurt their feelings. At the end I was able to bend logic so profoundly that I thought I was being nice the whole time.

Fortunately, I was able to reign in this runaway train of thought before I convinced myself it was true. I was able to use that handy empathy thing we are supposed to have as humans, and understood my teacher’s perspective. What I had done had the potential to hurt her feelings, and I was not prepared for that outcome because I was blinded by my own self-importance.

Backing away from the alter I had constructed for myself (out of self-esteem no less) helped to keep my impulses and self-worth in check. Most of us would do well to step back and look around from time to time.

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