I’m having some trouble writing this one, so bear with me.
I was 16 and in High School when I fell in love for the first time. People sometimes ask me – based on my current attitude towards the matter – whether I’ve ever really been in love. I have.
She was troubled at the time. By all indications she’s better, now; she’s a schoolteacher, she’s married, she has what looks like a storybook happy normal life. But back in High School she went through a rough patch. I’ll give her a pseudonym for this entry – let’s call her Anne.
One weekend we were on the phone. I don’t remember at what point in our short, tumultuous, on-again-off-again relationship this actually was, but I think we were in one of our “not dating” periods – but what I remember clearly was that there was a long pause and the sound of pills. When she came back I asked her what she had done, and she started trying to say goodbye to me.
I had met her younger sister – a girl who I believe was 13 at the time – once or twice, and I figured that she would be the one in the house most likely to listen to me and take me seriously, so I demanded to talk to her. Her mom might have just hung up on me, I feared, although I might have been judging her too harshly because of the things Anne used to tell me about their relationship at the time. So I threatened to call an ambulance to their house myself if Anne didn’t put her little sister on the phone.
If you’ve never had to tell a thirteen-year-old girl that her older sister just tried to kill herself and that she had to call an ambulance and save her sister’s life, I don’t really recommend it. It was awkward. I told her to call me back when she got off the phone with 911.
Over the course of the night my heart took up residence in my throat. The ambulance came and took Anne to the hospital where they pumped her stomach. In all likelihood whatever she took wouldn’t have actually killed her – just made her life extraordinarily unpleasant for a few days – but whatever the disaster would have been, it was averted. Anne wasn’t at school that Monday.
Now I told you that story for several reasons, one of which is to tell you this story:
One Monday I was sitting in the hall at my school. I was in a spot where I often sat, and where my friends often sat when I was not around. I was talking to one of my friends about what had happened that weekend – I don’t remember if I even told my parents, but I needed to talk to someone who I felt would understand – when a teacher came by and told us that we couldn’t sit there.
I had always sat there. I had no idea who this teacher was. I asked him if he could show me his school ID so I knew that he was legit.
It was a dick move, to be sure, and it definitely pissed him off to have some punk teenager mouth off to him. He told me to meet him after school in the principal’s office if I wanted to find out who he was. Then he left and I continued to sit in my spot, only my friend told me that he was the Dean of the Math Department. Oops.
Later, in the principal’s office, my head was a little clearer, and I apologized for what I had done. I explained about the weekend and told him that I was just having a bad day. He had wanted to write to the colleges I had applied to (which I didn’t have anyway, which is another story) and tell them not to accept me, but instead he let me off with a warning that has stuck with me more than anything anyone else ever told me in High School.
He said, “We are judged by our worst days.”
Most of the time when people drop maxims on me I just ignore them. I’m not down with conventional wisdom because the world is so fucked up sometimes that it seems unreasonable to assume that the rules people expect each other to live by actually lead to good outcomes.
But this one struck me as actually wise and actually applicable to a wide variety of situations. It tells you that just having a bad day doesn’t give you license to behave badly. It tells you that in the eyes of many people, all the good you do can be erased by one bad thing. It tells you that living 364 totally normal days without bothering anyone doesn’t mean much when you’re on trial for something you did on day 365.
Is it fair? Maybe not. I tend to be about as nonjudgmental as humanly possible and I try to overlook people’s mistakes if I think that they’re otherwise decent human beings. But fair or not, it’s often the reality.
I’ve now written and discarded two difference sets of conclusions. One was related to how I try not to judge my students too harshly because I have no idea what is going on in their lives. The other was related to how I try to always remember that my students may have life experiences that adults tend to assume children don’t have.
The truth is, I can’t say for sure why I had the sudden urge to relate these two intertwined stories from my teenage years. In all likelihood it’s because I’m around teenagers so much now. Whatever the case, the post just sort of felt like it needed to be written, and I don’t pretend that I have a rational reason for everything I do.
So take from it what you will.