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The student failing to understand herself

Hilda,

I’ve been through the wringer myself. All understanding from me. Please do not feel self-conscious or out of step. In fact, you can always make a time to work through class things with me. We can get you through my class, but you will have to make the effort to contact me.

I have seen you draw in class, and that’s just fine with me. It seems to get you through and it seems to me you are also taking notes. And, Hilda, I can’t emphasize enough that I get it. I am not a teacher who takes the easy way with students. I demand a great deal, but I am also willing to give as much. I am a real believer that many teachers wind up clueless when they deal with students who don’t fit the mold—or those teachers who don’t do well with the extraordinary student are just plain lazy.

Because of that, my goal with many students is to instill a sense of self-worth and confidence. I don’t just say these things to make people feel good. So you can believe that I’m not blowing smoke when I tell you that you can do this.

You may have obstacles. But, frankly, I’m talented at absolutely nothing. The only reason I get anywhere is because of my ability to work hard and persist. Even in the face of failure, I have to do my best right to the very end. I ask the same of all my students.

Let me tell you on the job last year. Maybe you can see yourself in this, or you will see why I’m motivated the way I am, or both.

I’d been in the union hall for several weeks. Work was very slow, and no one was getting out on jobs. Then, one morning, the business agent came up to me and gave me the address to a company. I’d gotten that job because I was in the hall every morning at 6:30 a.m.

I am not the smartest, fastest, or most skilled ironworker. But when I set to something I work hard. This company I was to work for was a mechanical contractor that did a lot of work setting up machines, assembly lines, and conveyors in factories. The job I was going to work was in a factory not far from Kansas City, tearing out old conveyor lines and installing new ones. Most of the men on the job were millwrights—people who work exclusively assembling and fabricating machines. The needed ironworkers to take out what we tore out, and then to rig and bring in the new machinery. I was to work with the only full-time ironworker on that job.

That guy was an extraordinary ironworker—incredibly skilled at building the complicated steel structures that support the conveyors—beams and columns, catwalks, platforms for workers along the lines, stairs, handrails, etc. Very complex stuff with tons and tons of blueprints and mechanical drawings.

But he was the absolute worst person in the world to work with. For three weeks, I busted my ass moving heavy equipment so we could take the stuff out to a recycle bin with a fork lift. Miles and miles of walking everyday through cavernous factory buildings and warehouses. That guy sat on that forklift and rarely, if ever, said a word to me. He would watch me break my back moving things before he would give me a word or two that would be the key to getting it done faster and easier. He never gave me any direction and was one of the most passive-aggressive people I’ve met in my life. I felt stupid the entire time we worked together.

Then, one day, he came to me in the afternoon and told me that he was going to lay me off. He said that he was hoping I’d get it, that I would figure things out. But since I wasn’t, he needed to send me on my way. He said, at the same time, that he wanted me to contact him in another year or so when I had some more experience. Never in his working life had he seen someone with my work ethic. No one he’d worked with had more desire to work and do a good job.

Well, that’s all fine and good. But he’s the journeyman. He is supposed to be the instructor for apprentices like me. And he’s supposed to lay me off in the morning and have my check ready by noon. But he was, despite all his tough-guy exterior, a read coward. He didn’t want to have to work with me all day after he laid me off. He didn’t want to have to instruct, as journeymen are supposed to. He didn’t want to have to deal with someone who worked as hard as I did.

Let me tell you that when I left that afternoon, the other ironworkers who had joined us on the job stood in a line and shook my hand. They all said they wanted to work with me on jobs in the future. They admired my willingness to put everything I had into the job, my sense of humor, and my constantly cheerful demeanor (that sometimes was just being nice because I felt like such a turd all the time). It made my time there almost worth the pain.

My point and what I want to tell you is this: For three weeks, I walked around feeling like an idiot. I was embarrassed and ashamed. It took a long time for me to get out of my hole. But it was only when I realized I hadn’t done anything wrong. Then, and only after understanding that my failure was not something I did, was able to understand and forgive myself. In doing so, I was able to forgive that guy for being a jerk. He didn’t know any better, and I began to feel bad for him for it.

I hope you understand you have everything going for you and you have will that most people don’t. You will make it, but you have to understand that all the shame, embarrassment, lack of knowledge and skill are just steps to making you a good student. As I said, for some it’s easy. They breeze through and it’s no big deal for them. But some of us do not have all the blessings in the world. For us, it’s harder. But climbing over those obstacles can allow us to use our experience for the benefit of others.

So, Hilda, use this time to learn that lesson. It will do nothing to get you out of a depression, particularly because we often have no control over these things. But knowing it’s not something you did on purpose, that you haven’t given up, that you are willing to work hard, and that you really want to finish something—my class, for instance—can perhaps take some pressure off you and allow you to figure out, now or in the future, how your experience can benefit others.

I hope this helps. Be sure to ask for help. I can only offer, but you will have to pick up that ball.

I wish you all the best.

PatrickSeldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains

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