Self-Confidence III

[A]s a few strokes on the nose will make a puppy head shy, so a few rebuffs will make a boy shy all over. But whereas a puppy will cringe away or roll on its back, groveling, a little boy may cover his shyness with nonchalance, with bravado, or with secrecy. And once a boy has suffered rejection, he will find rejection even where it does not exist—or, worse, will draw it forth from people simply by expecting it.

— John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Today’s quote is the third in a three-part series on self confidence. Wednesday Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “A man can’t ride your back unless it’s bent.” Thursday Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No man can make you feel inferior without your consent.” These quotes are important to me because they underscore the fact that we are victims less often that we think. If I feel inferior, or intimidated it is because I have chosen to feel that way.

Steinbeck takes this idea one step further. He says, “And once a boy has suffered rejection, he will find rejection even where it does not exist—or, worse, will draw it forth from people simply by expecting it.” Can this be true? Can we actually invite people to reject us? . . . or harass us? or treat us in a way that makes us feel inferior?

For my first two years after college I taught high school in a small town in central Indiana. My student teaching the previous spring did me a disservice in a way. My sponsoring teacher was a twenty-year veteran who no doubt squelched any hint of discipline problems within minutes of the first class of each semester. By the time I joined his class (with eight weeks left until summer vacation) his students were models of concentration and good behavior.

When I started teaching in my own classroom the very next fall my students sensed a naive and inexperienced teacher and went for the kill. The discipline problems were rampant and persistent. Once classroom control got away from me there was no getting the students back. I tried a demerit system, a reward system, and sending the worst offenders to the principal’s office. All to no avail. My first year of teaching was the most emotionally draining and exhausting year of my life.

But something happened to me over the summer. A resolve set in. I refused to have another tortuous year like the one that I had just completed. Perhaps I was buoyed by my decision to leave teaching and return to graduate school at the end of the year. Whatever it was, my second year of teaching was a breeze. The discipline problems were non-existent.

I started each class with a basic statement to the students that I wasn’t going to put up with any crap. I didn’t have anything special to back up my proclamation. My reward and demerit system had been refined slightly and I still had the threat of sending a student to the principal’s office but my first year had taught me that these methods were insufficient to impart discipline. I simply declared that, despite what they had heard, I would not put up with anything less than their full attention and good behavior.

I do know there was something in my tone, in my resolve, that told them not to mess with me. I often think of the scene in Star Wars where Obi-Wan Kenobi says to the storm troopers, “These are not the droids you want.”

I also know that Steinbeck is right. If you expect rejection you will find it, even where it does not exist. Even worse, you may draw it forth from people simply by expecting it. Conversely, if you expect respect or attention, you will draw those forth as well. It may not be “The Force” but I believe that through subtle and subconscious clues we tell people how we expect to be treated and how we want them to behave — maybe not always, but it certainly is a good default position from which to start.


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