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Kerrying On

Things are Going to Be Okay

It’s my first day at Fairhaven Junior High School and I learn that every single student in my homeroom (not counting me) had been registered at the elite, private, and very expensive grade school across town when they were still embryos. Then, starting at age five, for the next six years of their lives, they attended that private, elite, and very expensive school where they were showered with tutors, special programs, and brilliant classroom instruction.

I, in contrast, had attended a grade school located in the seedier part of town where the primary educational goal was to avoid serious felonies, and our pinnacle educational experience consisted of weaving potholders.

Years later, I learned that I had been thrown in with a bunch of brainiacs who (as part of an ongoing research project) were scheduled to stick together throughout their entire junior high school experience. My inclusion in this group had been due to a clerical error.

Consequently, on the first day of the 7th grade when Mr. Lewis, our new English teacher, barked, “Diagram this sentence!,” I knew I was in trouble. He pointed at a bunch of words he had written on the blackboard as a means of divining how much my brainiac classmates already knew.

“Is that a predicate nominative or a predicate adjective?” Tom McMurray inquired.

“Do you want us to follow the standard protocol or the Helsinki Variation?” Dorothy Newton asked.

“So that’s what a sentence looks like,” I quietly muttered.

So went my entire pre-college education. Every single day of school, I was reminded of how ill prepared and utterly stupid I was by classmates who, by their fourth birthdays, had been granted memberships to Mensa.

Years of constant humiliation passed until one day, I went off to college. I was finally thrown in with a more normal crowd where, with practice, I was able to come up with the occasional right answer. And then, just when I arrived at the point where I figured I wasn’t a total moron, I was admitted to a really challenging graduate school. Once again, I found myself surrounded by people who had been registered for private schools while they were embryos. Not the Fairhaven people, but the big-city version of those people; embryos with an attitude.

“How might you use the over-justification hypothesis to explain this phenomenon?” a fellow grad student asked me on day one.

“Is that the standard version or the Helsinki Variation?” another student chimed in.

Oh boy; four more years of humiliation.

Perhaps you shared a similar educational upbringing. For years, you’re the perennial student—always lectured, tutored, mentored, and (to make matters worse) one-upped by the smarty-pants at the head of the class. At least, that’s how it was for me.

I thought it would never end.

That is, until one day (totally by accident) I learned what it felt like to have people admire me, rather than snicker at my every comment.

In my case, my glimpse into a world filled with respect rather than disdain came in late 1979 just about the time my academic self-confidence was hitting its nadir.

Noting the low morale amongst grad students in general, our grad-school social coordinator decided to sponsor small-group parties. These gatherings were to be held at faculty members’ homes scattered throughout the city of Palo Alto. The party you were to attend was based on (and I’m not making this up) the first letter of your surname. My wife Louise and I were to attend the P-party. According to our invitation, we were supposed to wear costumes that represented P-things.

“What P-things?” I kept wondering until it finally struck me. My wife would go to the P-party as a patient and I’d be her personal physician. She would have psoriasis and pneumonia—the perfect P-problems.

When the day of the grand event finally arrived, I borrowed gear from the medical student who lived in the apartment next door. Under his instruction, I put on latex gloves, carried a stethoscope, and donned a complete set of scrubs—including pants, boots, jacket, and hat. I looked as if I had just stepped out of an OR.

This particular party took place long before the advent of GPS equipment or mobile phones. So later that evening, when Louise and I became totally lost on our way to the party, I pulled up to a restaurant and ran into the entry. I figured I could use the pay phone to call our hosts and ask for directions. Unfortunately, I didn’t have change for the phone and there was a long line at the cash register. This wasn’t going well.

Then it hit me. I didn’t have to wait in any stinkin’ line! Just look at me. I was a physician for crying out loud. Never mind the fact that I didn’t know how to put on a Band-Aid. At that moment I was somebody—and I had on rubber gloves to prove it!

“I need change for the pay phone!” I blurted to the restaurant patrons politely standing in line.

Everyone turned and stared at me.

“And I need it NOW!”

Moses held nothing over me. The sea of customers parted as I hustled my way to the counter where the hostess frantically fished out a dime from the cash drawer.

Okay, maybe I hadn’t thought this through. Now, a mere ten feet from the counter, I was on the pay phone asking the P-party host for directions and I had to make the call sound like a medical emergency. After all, I had just crashed the line.

“Don’t worry, I’ll have the heart there in a few minutes,” I blurted as I hung up the phone.

The ruse worked. Nobody questioned me. Never mind the fact that I was wearing gloves miles away from what apparently was going to be a home-style heart transplant. These minor inconsistencies were overshadowed by the fact that I was a physician—delivering a heart. And did I mention I was wearing scrubs?

I’ll never forget the looks of admiration afforded me by the restaurant patrons I had just hoodwinked. Had my scrubs come with a cape, I swear I would have leaped into the air and flown from the restaurant—so pumped was I from the unadulterated admiration beaming my way.

As it was, I turned on my heel, smiled broadly, and shouted:

“Thanks folks, you’ve just helped save a life!”

With these parting words, I exited the room with a confident flair I’ve never been able to duplicate since. I think one of my eyeteeth actually sparkled.

Everyone should have such a moment. Everyone should be given a glimpse into what it feels like to be totally and utterly admired—if for no other reason than to carry them through the dog days of schooling and apprenticeship.

Of course, the heady feeling I enjoyed that day was unearned and short-lived, but I did get a big laugh later that evening when I told my P-party grad-school friends what happened. We were each caught halfway between being a trainee and being a “somebody”—or at least a graduate—and were chomping at the bit. We wanted our turn at the front of the class. We wanted the looks of admiration.

And while I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone don surgery garb and crash lines to get a feel for absolute adoration, I can say that if you stick to your books, classes, and work assignments, the day will come when you will be the knowing one. You’re not likely to be the all-knowing one (that’s reserved for those Mensa folks), but some day you’ll be an expert of sorts and it will be well worth the effort.

I’ll never forget the day I finally stood in front of a class as an assistant professor. Thirty eager students were all looking at me. That’s right, me, the kid who couldn’t conjugate a sentence. Then I spoke and they listened. Some even took notes. And, of course, some asked questions.

“Is that explanation based on social cognitive theory?” a student from the back row inquired.

“Are you referring to the standard version or the Helsinki Variation?” I responded.

Things were going to be okay.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

12 thoughts on “Things are Going to Be Okay”

  1. Mr.P: One of your best (and amusing) columns. At the ripe young age of 86 (and still employed full time) I just received word that a paper of mine is a candidate for a prize paper at a particular professional society–I am walking on a cloud: a first time event in over 60 years of research.

  2. Mr. Patterson, I’ve been subscribed to Crucial Skills for a few years and I must admit, my job doesn’t allow me much time for reading the CS articles. I never however, miss one written by you. Your self-effacing style of writing is truly amazing. I could total relate to this article. You obviously have talent out the ying yang and your unique way of explaining communication issues is so understandable and readable, that I think you could serve a far larger audience than just the lucky folks who have found Crucial Skills. I’m probably showing my ignorance here, but do you currently write as a free-lance editorial-type person for national papers (Wall Street Journal, USA Today, etc…) or have you ever considered it? I personally think the rest of the country would benefit from your unique style of story telling.

  3. Literal LOL here! Especially about the “home-style heart transplant.” 😀

    I agree w/Perry above – you should publish to a wider audience if you don’t already. Your articles are humorous and heartwarming, and yes, there is still an audience for that!!

  4. It is hard to believe that you carried this sense of interiority for so long. Did you not consider the personal and academic successes you had thru the years – for example getting into graduate school in the first place?

    Glad you made it into the sunlight.

    From the other comments I get the impression perhaps It was all tongue in cheek!

    PS I, too, had a sense of academic inferiority but worked it out while an undergraduate.

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