I don’t quite recall what year I was in college when my Pappy taught me a valuable lesson that stuck in my mind.
I had a terror professor in English Literature. Despite her horrible reputation of being a dragon of a teacher, her class was full. Students in her class, like me, had no other choice – we were in a bucket of those who missed the more sought-after English professors. But surely, there were among us the courageous and masochistic lot who chose her precisely because of her reputation – a professor whose pointed gaze can pierce like a sword, whose scowl can turn Scrooge to a wimp, and whose words can bite through one’s bones. Yet one who made sure that her students learned, even in the heart-attack-inducing way. If there is someone whom I can equate her with, it would be John Houseman‘s character, Professor Kingsfield, in The Paper Chase. A professor who was not for the faint-hearted.
First day came. No one dared be absent on the first day of Professor Horrible’s class. I found myself seated on the last row, next to the last student at the entrance on the left corner of the room. I was, and still am, barely 5 feet tall. I could hardly make out Professor Horrible’s pate, much less her face. Not with all the napes and heads in front of me. Professor Horrible’s desk was on the opposite end of the room, diagonal from where I was seated.
On that first day, she decided to hold an impromptu recitation on a topic that I cannot remember. But I do recall that everyone was frozen, half of us looking down, half of us gazing with a longing expression outside the window, and a handful brave enough to face her.
She flipped our classcards one by one as if she were dealing poker cards and began asking questions. And I prayed to the high heavens that I will not be called.
She hollered a name. A girl whom I cannot see because she was seated right in front of Professor Horrible raised her hand, tentatively. Professor Horrible asked a question, tentative girl answered.
I resumed my prayer. Please don’t call me. Please don’t call me. But she did. Oh my goodness, she called my surname. I felt sweat build on my upper lip, my forehead, my underarms. All within the second I heard my name boom from her lips.
“What is your opinion about Miss X’s opinion?” or something like that.
Miss X was tiny, and she had answered Professor Horrible in what I heard was a whisper. I was equally tiny, was unable to see Miss X, much less lipread her. So I had to admit:
“Ma’am, I did not hear what she said. Would you mind repeating it?”
Silence. Deafening silence. Professor Horrible’s nose went on fire, her eyes blazed, and her fangs were ready to mangle me. She gave me a long, withering stare, and cut the silence with: “Next!”.
I could not sleep that night. At 15 or 16 years old, I encountered whom I felt was the most unpleasant person in the world I could meet, and I did not like the feeling. My stomach churned at the thought of having to face her again. I felt like dropping off the class altogether.
And so I told my Pappy. Everything. At the end of my one-sided story, he gave me one of the most valuable pieces of advice I picked from him in my lifetime.
“Why are you giving up? She’s no more human than you are. We often learn the greatest lessons from the most difficult people and situations. It is too early to give up. Believe me, she is the least among the unpleasant people you will meet in your lifetime, because I guarantee you 100% that there will be more and worse.”
So I stayed, grinned and bore the next 4 and a half or so months. But the pleasant surprise was that I earned my first victory in life. I got a grade above 2.0 at the end of the course.
I have, through the years, encountered innumerable challenging characters. Classmates, co-workers, bosses, clients. And every time I’d encounter one, I’d remember this particular lesson I learned from my Pappy. But I do choose my battles. Sometimes turning your back and walking away instead of facing the horrible creatures head-on is the only solution. Often you won’t even have that choice.