My father enjoyed telling the story of how when I was young, despite going to a number of different teachers who didn’t know each other in several different elementary schools, each teacher wrote the same thing on my report card: “Robert pays too much attention to the people around him in class.” I could say I was bored. I could make a case they all kept repeating themselves and “honest to God I heard them the first time.” I could claim I was multi-tasking. But the truth is I am easily distracted. Several teachers said I needed everything repeated two times before I understood. It was Mr. Kingston in fifth grade who took me aside and said, “You’re doing fine, Robert,” for the first time. I told him I make a lot of mistakes and he said, “Compared to who?”
Compared to who? Forty-six years ago and I never forgot that, so at least I remembered something from Timber Point Elementary School. Still, I’ve packed on a plethora of mistakes since then.
A Russian nun once prayed for me for ten minutes at the Shrine of St Xenia. Then she gave me a piece of bread from the top of the sarcophagus and asked if I liked it. I wanted to say yes, I enjoyed her blessed bread, but my weak language skills kicked in and I told her, “I love you and lust for your black God.”
It is odd making mistakes in a foreign language. Oh, there’s more:
I wanted to ask a cab driver where a bathroom was but ended up saying I like to drink dark beer from a toilet.
I had already gulped what I thought was water when my esophagus discovered the burning effects of bad Vodka.
I told someone I thought was a waitress who turned out to be a prostitute what I thought was “yes I could use a few minute to think” which turned out to be “yes I’d absolutely love oral sex.”
I told a room full of students whom I needed to listen that they should all get their suitcases.
I pulled out a chair for a lady and told her to heel.
I asked for five sandwich rolls and walked out with fifty. No fish.
A friend of mine wearing his priest’s collar wanted to tell the waitress he would like some mayonnaise and ended up saying, “I love to masturbate.”
Some friends went to buy coffee. The world for sugar is “Suga” but the word for bitch is “Suka.” They returned exclaiming, “Don’t ask for sugar in your coffee in Russia, Dude; they’re assholes about it.”
I could go on but more or less by screwing up I learned to fit in, pick up the nuances of accent and syllables, which brought down prices at the flea market, brought out their best Georgian wine, and opened gates to closed graveyards and monasteries.
At the back of one church, in the rubble of what was and would eventually again be St Catherine’s Catholic Church, a woman stood looking for a priest I knew. She seemed confused and we talked a bit—slowly of course. Her mother had been the secretary of the church before the revolution seventy-five years earlier. She needed to see the father. In my weak Russian I determined the woman told me she had a huge cross to bear because of the horrors of communism for all those decades and wanted the priest to take the sins away from her, but when Fr. Frank appeared with sharper language skills than mine, his translation was somewhat more significant. She had outside with her the original cross for the church dating back hundreds of years, which her mother had taken when the Bolsheviks took control after World War One, and which her mother had buried in the yard at their dacha where it remained for seventy-five years. She thought it was time to return it.
Back at home and much more recently I showed my students how to present a paper using the guidelines from the Modern Language Association. I gave them copies, I presented another example on the outline, I asked them to open their books to the appropriate example in the text, and still forty percent of them did it completely wrong. Is that a mistake? Is that boredom? Distraction? Idiocy? I like to think they are overwhelmed and go home kicking themselves for doing something wrong that was so easy to get right, but I’m probably wrong. A few years ago I would have returned to a class like that and lectured them about how their priorities are screwed up; I would have told them that if they can’t get the easy stuff done they’ll never handle the challenges as they attempt to move up the collegiate ladder. I would have used the appropriate sarcasm with a touch of professorial belittling attitude.
But last January I was driving through the Pennsylvania countryside on my way to western New York on a Sunday morning when I heard a guest on a talk show quote St. Bernard of Clairvaux who said we need to learn to make excuses for other people.
We need to learn to make excuses for other people.
To drive the point home, a few days later a friend of mine posted a video of an impatient man leaving his house one morning pissed off at everyone on his way to the coffee shop and to work. At some point someone gives him glasses. The day rewinds and he leaves his house again, but this time the glasses allow him to see other people’s reasons for their actions and the world changes.
See other people’s reasons and the world changes.
Like the student who came in late because her husband is stationed in Iraq and she got to talk to him that afternoon. The one who left early has a dying father. The one who couldn’t get the presentation correct no matter how hard he tried has never been the same since returning from war. The one who stared at me the entire class without blinking an eye, then left, only to email me later an apology, that she wasn’t concentrating, that she had just learned her cousin was shown on television in Baghdad, dead and left swinging from a bridge. I teach in a different environment here in the military rich resort of Virginia Beach. We learn to make excuses for other people.
St. Francis de Sales said, “Never confuse your mistakes with your value.”
On the other hand, sometimes we really can be lazy assed bark-at-the-moon stupid. I do it all the time. Make no mistake about that.