Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"Not Entirely Right, Not Entirely Wrong"

When I went to High School, it was not unusual for a teacher of one subject to “double up” and teach another subject, to earn themselves some extra cash. The problem was, though they were trained to teach their primary subject, they seemed ill prepared for the responsibilities of the other.
My gym teacher, Mr. Logue – which is his real name, what the heck, he can’t do anything to me now – also taught us history. Judging from his tentativeness conducting his history class, Mr. Logue was clearly not as comfortable discussing the intricacies of the British North America Act as he was about making me shinny up the rope.
(Which I could never do.)
Being a sensitive child, I picked up on Mr. Logue’s insecurity. And being insecure, Mr. Logue picked up on my assessment. I knew that because, after that year’s “Parent-Teacher Night”, my mother returned home and reported,

“Your history teacher says you look at him like you think he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
That was correct. Mr. Logue ran his class with the confidence of a man who had gone home to prepare for the next day’s assignment, only to discover he had forgotten his history textbook at school.
(Think: George W. as president.)
I am no “Poker Face.” My response was transparent, that transparent response being, “This guy’s a disaster.”
But so what? So what if he told us the Battle of 1812 was fought in 1813, or some other glaring inaccuracy. What difference does it make? None. That’s the comforting thing about history. It already happened. Error has no consequences. There’s no
“I’m here to fight the war.”
“That was last year.”
It’s over. Move on to the Treaty of Ghent.
In other situations, however, the issue of a teacher “doubling” in an area for which he is only marginally qualified is considerably more problematic.
Which brings me to Mr. Coulthard. Also his real name. This is interesting. People in my career whose mistakes cost me millions of dollars – I’ve protected their anonymity. These guys, I’m throwing to the wolves.
Mr. Coulthard was a qualified history teacher. And a pretty good one, as I recall. But his financial situation decreed that he expand his purview. So he was also a “Guidance Counselor.” (Maybe you call it “Career Counselor.”)
At some point during our final year of High School, which was, in fact, Grade Thirteen – an additional year of High School discomfort my Americans contemporaries were relieved of experiencing – we were required to sit in some cubbyhole office and listen to a person who barely knew us evaluate our prospects for the future.
I am pretty old, but to this day, I can still recall Mr. Coulthard’s career-directing advice:
“You don’t like people, Pomerantz. You should be an accountant.”
Mr. Coulthard’s declaration severely shook me up. To that point, I had given no thought whatsoever of becoming an accountant. But in that moment of uncertainty, it seemed clear that that’s where I was headed. I remember going home that night, and nervously joking to my brother,
“Maybe “accountant” is the right job for me. I can “account. “A-one, a-two, a-three…”
You make lame jokes when you’re scared to death. An “Authority Figure’s” pronouncement had rocked me to my roots. Those guys had power. You know like in Russia, they pluck an eight year-old girl out of dance class, and say, “You stand on toes real nice. We are sending you to Ballerina Academy”? What if Coulthard signed some paper, and I was designated against my will to “Accountancy Training School”?
I was eighteen years old. And I’d been handed a death sentence with actuarial charts.
Understand I have no problem with the profession. If you want to be an accountant, be an accountant.
Just don’t make me be one!
Notice something interesting here. My problem with Mr. Coulthard’s declaration relates entirely to the career ghetto he had consigned me to. There was another part of his assertion that rolled right off my back:
“You don’t like people.”
I had no trouble hearing that part. Because on that issue, Mr. Coulthard was not entirely off the mark.
If you don’t like people, there are all kinds of jobs you can do.
You can be a monk, the kind that’s vowed to silence, and devotes his life to genetic experiments involving various types of beans.
You can be a farmer, toiling in the fields, separated from humanity, speaking only to his recalcitrant oxen.
You can be a prospector, conversing with his mule, and when that becomes tiresome, his shovel.
You can be a diamond cutter.
“Hey, how ‘bout dem…”
“Shhh! I’m cutting a diamond.”
Working with animals and inanimate objects. There are a myriad of options out there for the “Don’t like people” people.
Yuh duzzn’t have to be an accountant.
(Who, in reality, may actually like people)
Let me clarify at this point. It’s not that I really don’t like people. It’s that I’m generally uncomfortable around them.
And I mean both kinds.
There are men who feel comfortable around men. And men who feel comfortable around women.
Not really either.
And that’s the only two kinds they make.
Mr. Couthard was, in fact, correct in his evaluation, though off the mark with his career advice.
I enjoy working on my own.
Look what I’m doing now.


TH said...

Love this post, but I had no idea about a Grade 13? Really? Anywho, I an '85 HS grad, so I had them as Guidance Counselor too.

(BTW, in a round-about way I follow your blog because I live and occassionally act in Massachusetts and especially because I saw Ken Levine followed you too and I love great stories - cheer!)

PG said...

Are you forgetting that in those days, there were only four career paths available to smart Jewish boys who didn't have a family business to fall back on? If you weren't a candidate for medical or dental school, you had to opt for either law or accountancy.
Nothing to discuss.
I guess Mr. C. didn't detect the dazzling potential you later exhibited for the law!

Reena said...

Love your blog. And wow I had no idea about grade 13. Thank god, I didn't have to go through any career counseling session.. it sure sounds unnerving.. :)