Scylla & Charybdis

April 22nd, 2011 § 21 comments

Sometimes a random comment stays with you forever. When I was in high school, a guidance counselor said something with me that has stuck in my mind for more than 20 years. I think I had lost a student council election and was discussing it with this advisor. I am actually not sure what the triggering event was, but I vividly remember her words to me: There are people that you like, and there are people that you respect. You are the kind of person that people will respect, but they will never like.

Setting aside the ridiculous (and destructive) way of simplifying the world into these two camps, what effect did this counselor’s words have on me?

This interaction started a time of introspection and self-examination. I felt for a number of years that I needed to choose: did I want to be liked or respected? Which is more important? Did I have the self-confidence and awareness to eschew the lure of peer pressure and popularity? Should I solely strive to engender respect instead?

I spent a while in college trying to figure it out. I literally “tried on” different combinations of being easygoing (likable) with allowing my stronger, perhaps more abrasive side to emerge.

Somewhere along the way, I found my voice in the classroom– first as a student, and later as an instructor. I think that’s where I first felt comfortable with who I was. I gathered confidence as time went on. Looking back on it, I think I learned the art of self-expression in the classroom. I realized the importance of being able to articulate opinions in a way that is diplomatic; by doing this, one could be liked and respected.

Somehow, in my independence and natural process of maturing, I realized that the counselor was wrong. Her heuristic for analyzing the world was absolutely incorrect. Though it doesn’t necessarily happen that way, you can be liked and respected. It is not a Pareto-optimal choice you must make (where choosing one necessarily comes at the expense of the other).

I have spent much of my adult life trying to prove that woman wrong. In hindsight, her statement was probably more a reflection of her own psychological insecurities than an assessment of mine. I certainly have my own internal struggles, but I’m not about to let words from 20 years ago plague me. In the end, I think I have found a balance. I hope I have.1

  1. one of the things that is so fascinating about this type of comment is that I am sure this woman neither remembers me nor the comment. Educators should be aware of the effect their “offhand” comments may have []

§ 21 Responses to Scylla & Charybdis"

  • Joe W says:

    Thought-provoking post, Lisa. I think a lot of us spend our time feeling like we’ve tipped over onto one side of the line or other, to the extent that it becomes too easy to believe that it has to be an either/or choice. Doesn’t help to have a person in authority tell you the same, of course…..

  • Three of us talking to my guidance counselor.
    She said to one of my friends: “One day we’ll be paying to see you act!”
    To the other friend: “One day we’ll be paying to read your writing!”
    To me: blank stare.

  • The guidance counselor’s statement was probably a casual remark that she immediately forgot. Maybe she even thought she was being helpful. It says a lot about your character that you ruminated over it for so long, then made it a powerful force for driving yourself to achieve. That is really quite remarkable. Another young person might have been crushed forever, and another might have brushed the remark off. Adults who work closely with young people must always be aware of the profound effect their words might have. Clearly your guidance counselor should have been doing something else. Kudos to you for the way you used this incident in your life.

  • Lindsey says:

    First of all, I’m truly shocked at the careless and destructive comment by your guidance counselor. In my view, and obviously I don’t actually know anything about the field (which has never stopped me from having an opinion), that is not any kind of productive guidance. Good. God. Also, btw, I don’t agree, at all.
    Thanks for sharing this story, and may we all be more careful with our words.

  • rachel says:

    love AND respect you, and both were immediate!

  • Pamela Carlson says:

    One of my HS teachers liked to goad his students–challenge them to see if they would battle back or not. I learned at my 10-year reunion that one football player he had dismissed as “all muscle no brain” –our town was VERY into HS football, so this was bucking the trend of football star worship– had become a HS English teacher to prove a point to Mr. Conrotto. Sometimes words have an effect the speaker never imagined.

    Your counselor was, of course, incorrect. Respect you? Yes. Like you? Yes yes yes. <3

  • Chris Alexander says:

    The high school years are ones I would not return to for all the Raisinets in the world. The things people said, or my perceptions of what they thought, have shaped me in ways I’m not entirely proud of. I love that you turned your formidable brain on that counselor’s unhelpful comment and made something positive out of it. xo

  • claudine says:

    I had a stupid counselor once too. This is also why I disagree with “words will never hurt me.”

    My fear is some other adult giving one of my children this kind of “advice.”

  • auntie_jenn says:

    this goes to show that bullying isn’t limited to kids. her comment to you obviously had an impact on your self-esteem. major kudos to you for being the better person and putting it behind you.

  • It’s amazing what power someone like a high school guidance counselor can have. I still harbor a minor resentment about mine, who knew me quite well, for never steering me in the direction of art or cooking school. Yours made an incredibly rude and hurtful comment. I’m glad you turned sour grapes into wine.

  • casoly says:

    I believe you certainly have. There are many times when I think, ah – to be a kid again. Mostly though, I enjoy the wisdom and self-knowledge that comes from being an adult. This is clearly one of those for you. :o) xox

  • Hillary says:

    I never looked to our HS guidance counselor for advice, but my parents said a few things that have stuck with me. They love me dearly, and they are wonderful people, don’t get me wrong, but here are the phrases I can still hear:

    Mom: You’re not pretty like the other girls, you’re UNUSUAL looking.

    Dad: You’re not going away to college. You’ll go to Montgomery College for 2 years and maybe Maryland after that. That’s what your brother and sister did, that’s what you’ll do.

    Yikes. I rejected my father’s words and did go away to college, but it was emblematic of the limitations my father believed were set for us. Not “you can do anything, you can be anything,” but rather, “this is who we are.”

    As for my mom’s words, well, I’m not sure I’ve totally set those aside! I am unusual looking!

  • My 8th grade homeroom teacher made a pronouncement in front of the class. I don’t remember what was happening or what I might have done to provoke her, but I do remember what she said. “You are the kind of person people are going to really like or really hate. Guess how I feel?” I was humiliated, of course, but I also remember realizing that I know longer had any respect for her. She’d shown herself to be small. Still, the comment stayed with me for years. At that age especially, you tend to believe the negative things you hear or think about yourself a lot more than you believe the positive.

  • Tricia Munson says:

    One day, the health teacher at a school where I was teaching had a heart attack in class and 911 was called. When the teacher became conscious while the EMT was working on him, he looked into the face of the EMT and realized he was a former student. The EMT told the teacher as they put him on a gurney to take him to the hospital that it was a good thing that he did not hold hold any grudges against the teacher for all of the demeaning things he had said to him as a student. And then the EMT added, and I just saved your life.

  • MS says:

    Love this post — sounds like it hits a nerve with just about everyone who reads it.

    I had a difficult counselor who often made cutting remarks, not dissimilar to the ones yours made. I was lucky enough at the time to know she was going through some difficult family circumstances, and I could put her words into perspective (close knit school; bedroom community, etc.)

    I went to high school in California. But years later, in a supreme twist of fate, I discovered the counselor had gone to an all-girls Catholic high school on Long Island with my (now ex) mother-in-law. Who, perhaps not-so-ironically, made the same kind of comments to me all throughout my marriage to her son.

    Maybe it was the nuns?

  • Jen says:

    Wow Lisa! I wish I could say I was surprised but too many people with authority are not fit for the job, parents included as some others pointed out. I love you and respect you. You are funny and brilliant. I am so happy they made you stronger and the other impact they had, which is how thoughtful and caring you are with your own words. You know the impact of them and you choose your words so wisely.

  • Kyle says:

    For as long as I could remember I wanted to grow up to be an astronaut. My father still has a drawing I did of myself on the moon from when I was about five. In sixth grade, my teacher asked what my dream job was. I told her astronaut. She took one hard look at me. My growth spurt had come early and it was obvious I was going to be around six feet tall. She told me that I could never make it because of my height. That you had to be short in order to fit in the shuttles for long periods. I didn’t find out she was lying for many years. Now, at age 23, I’ve just figured out what to do with my life. The pain that teacher left me in lasted a long time and made it almost impossible for me to figure out what I wanted from life.

  • Laura says:

    It annoys me when people who don’t really know you, like guidance counselors or even grandparents (mine are big on this), try to tell you what to do or not do with your life. Parents are guilty of this, too…

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