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Friday, June 22, 2012

When Will I Ever Learn To "Shut Up"?

If you think you are beaten, you are.
If you think you dare not, you don’t.
If you’d like to win but you think you can’t,
It’s almost a cinch you won’t.

If you think you’ll lose, you’re lost,
For out of the world we find
Success begins with a fellow’s will -
It’s all in the state of mind.

If you think you’re outclassed, you are;
You’ve got to think high to rise;
You’ve got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win a prize.

Life’s battle doesn’t always go
To stronger or faster men;
But sooner or later the man who wins,
Is the one who thinks he can.


My father gave me a paper copy of these untitled lines when I was very young. I carried it for decades in my wallet until it became torn and tattered beyond recognition. Every now and then when I was feeling defeated after a sports contest, an attitude adjustment, or a tough setback in my life, I read the words. They gave me hope and comfort, but most of all, the poem gave me determination, will power, and a character trait often assumed excessive and overbearing by many: With my voice and my pen I refuse to "shut up."

At an early age, I had friends who trusted me to speak out about things that were on our minds. They elected me president of my class from my freshman through my senior year in high school. By no means was I the smartest or most talented person in my class, but I accepted their vote of confidence and made a continuous effort to listen to others and voice their constructive opinions.

My friends gave me an opportunity to think and to respond. They allowed me to become a person who understands that dialogue within a team can lead to ironing out problems and putting a “voice” to possible solutions. My friends allowed me to lose some battles while they still trusted me to represent many other concerns. They didn't allow me to speak out because they, themselves, were inarticulate or indifferent. They did so because it merely became my role. We each had “a part to play” in our changing school days of the late '60s.

After high school graduation in 1969, I took this responsibility of “speaking out” into a different arena. I became the director of the West End Tutoring Center. Still dripping wet behind the ears, a church in the West End of Portsmouth hired me for the position because I spoke my mind with clarity. (I was told this later by one of the board members.) In this position I was given the opportunity of operating a program that required good links of communication between needy grade school children and much more affluent high school tutors. I loved the work, and I learned then that the tutors needed and loved the kids as much as the kids needed and loved the tutors.

After attending college and achieving my undergraduate degree in Secondary English Education, I landed a job at Valley High School. Mr. James A. Young, my high school principal, was then superintendent and recommended me for the position. I thought about my love for the man who had put up with my “loud mouth” in high school and who had helped me learn how to formulate my ideas with better sense. After all, our time together had been the days of counterculture and revolution. Mr. Young helped me understand the tremendous worth of morals, values, and correction directly applied when needed. Having him recommend me for the position made me glow.

Sometime later during my first year of teaching (Which, by the way, is a terrifying but essential step on the road to forgetting theory and becoming a good teacher in practice), I talked with Mr. Young about his confidence in me -- a teen more interested in rock and roll, sports, and high school fun than being an exceptional student (I never dreamed as a teen that I would become a teacher.)

Mr. Young related a story to me about when I had stood up for beliefs when a coach had taken me into the principal's office for quitting a high school team. I listened in disbelief as Mr. Young said, “I agreed with you but understood the position of the coach. I've always admired you for speaking your mind and sticking to your guns.” I will never forget him sharing that with me.

In my years of teaching, I encouraged my classes to express themselves and become better equipped at using language to give them power – power in college writings, power in confidently believing their “hillbilly” voices are every bit as intellectual as any other, power to use their language skills to gain income and position. They knew I couldn't keep my mouth shut as their teacher, and I confessed this fault to them many times. I begged them to believe in themselves.

Many of these same students have become everything better than I became, and they continue to amaze me. I love to hear about their lives and their continued accomplishments. They are loving friends of mine, and they have learned far more than I ever have.

You see, I still talk too much about those things of which I am passionate. I tend to be loud and openly emotional. I have broken into other people's conversations, spoken out of turn, and stuck my foot in my large mouth far too many times to count. My hard head has been wrong, and many others have witnessed my stupid actions and deeds. I know I should learn to be quieter, and, ironically, I most respect those who like the character of lawyer Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird speak softly with a few wise words.

But “quiet” is not me. It is not my role on the team. I simply never shut up. I still often spill the wrong words, make a big mess, and then come back to modify my position with the help of a caring group of friendly teammates. I still try to modify these behaviors; however, my mouth and, sometimes, my pen feel useless unless I let my words escape. It's a habit close to 50 years in the making.

Today, I feel the urge to speak about a complicated story expressed to me by uncounted individuals. My voice is getting older, rather ragged and rough at times, yet I know some value exists in strident tones. A clamorous voice can wake people up, make them move, and cause them to consider “just what that racket is all about.” I can't shut up. It's a big part of what I am about. Sometimes it gets me into a lot of trouble and sometimes it seems to help. I will continue to seek refinement, but I'm just not too good at practicing it.

"First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak."
 -Epictetus, Greek philosopher
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