When I was in eighth grade I had this wonderful English teacher. Her name was Mrs. Barker. She was short, moderately stylish, and had thick silver hair. She wore bangles on her wrist. She said things like, “But, alas”. She mixed high art with witty Oscar Wilde quotes. She made me read “The Giver”. She made me understand the inherent battle between good and evil. In short, she had an impact. Which made it all the worse the day she ultimately disappointed me. On the last day of middle school, we were celebrating our accomplishment with a small ceremony. It was the first time I remember feeling like I truly accomplished something. Middle school is tough. But it’s even worse for a meek, chubby girl, who had braces and acne. But that day I was beaming with the many awards and accolades I had walked away from the ceremony with, including a prestigious writing award from Mrs. Barker herself. As I approached her and a small circle of my teachers I heard her say that for the first time in years, she was so happy to be getting rid of a group of kids. She went on to explain my class’ rude behaviors, our lack of common sense, even our inability to understand common themes in her classroom. I was crushed. I mean, in hindsight, I could have pinpointed the kids she was referring to, and I wasn’t one of them, but at that moment, we were all one. Having just thrown our invisible caps to the sky.
I’ve come to know that it’s simply part of the human condition that we should become ultimately disappointed by those we admire. Generally speaking, those are the people who possess a quality about them that we wish we had. Whether it is their talent, their ability to command a room, or their wicked sense of humor, we have all admired someone else in our lives and hoped for a portion of that “thing” in which they possess. The trouble comes, however, when we fail to see their flaws as well.
I think that is what is happening, for example, with our president. At the risk of making this post political, I will just say that if you think hard enough you can see why so many poor, uneducated people are drawn to him. They see in him what they wish for themselves. They see in him their American dream. Even if his policies do not benefit them, they can hold onto those seemingly tangible promises he dangles in front of them. Of course, as we know now, that sort of idolization has real world consequences. My idolation of Mrs. Barker was just a childhood crush of sorts. Luckily, she wasn’t in charge of the nuclear codes.
But it isn’t something we grow out of. I often encounter grown men and women idolizing action heroes, comic book villains, video game characters, even just regular old movie stars and the like. We all generally have those people we look up to and wish we could steal a bit of that thing, whatever it is, that makes them special; and that’s okay and pretty normal, as long as we recognize that every every single human being, has flaws. Yes, even the ones you admire. Because if you lose sight of that, there will undeniably come a day when you will be just as crushed as I was.
Mrs. Barker had flaws. For one, she spoke without regard to her surroundings (see above story), she also tended to shun away from helping the kids who may have needed her love and attention the most. She could have made a huge impact on a lot of kids that year, instead she focused her attention on the ones of us who “had it” or who “got it”. As far as teachers go, I have met much better ones since her, but I didn’t really grasp the impact this all had on me.
However, recently I discovered that admiration is an emotion that we feel for people who possess a skill or talent, while elevation is an emotion we place on those we think are morally righteous, and sometimes it is the same thing. That is to say, we often assume that because the person we admire is exceptional at something, they are also virtuous. That is what gets us into trouble.
I remember hearing stories about the famed baseball player George Brett when I was a kid. George Brett was one of the best players in the league and a true treasure to Kansas City, and he still is if you ask a lot of people. But over the years stories have surfaced about his drinking, his drug use, and more notably the way he treats his fans, even children, often times refusing an autograph a ball or take a photo with them. I’m sure it is crushing for a child to see this famous, once-talented player that they admire, refuse to shake their hand. Although he is skillful and talented, his moral compass is lacking. Yet for many years young boys (and some girls!) have tried their best to be like George Brett on the field. Their admiration of his skill has caused them to work harder, which is great. But their elevation of him as a moral compass was often times severely disappointing.
And yet, we just don’t learn. We get crushed time and again by the people we admire, but we still keep going. We keep finding new people to admire, we keep trying to better ourselves after their image. I think that is okay. I think. As long as we remember two important things: People are bound to disappoint us, and you are the only one who can make changes in your life, positive and/or negative.
It also might be a good reminder to know that, whether or not you want to be, you are probably someone’s role model. And little eyes (or big, adult eyes) are watching you. So don’t disappoint them.
PS… I forgive you Mrs. Barker. You just didn’t know.