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For the week of Feb. 16 through Feb. 22, 2000

Lesson of the ants: I can do it

Commentary by JoELLEN COLLINS

It’s often difficult to know when one is merely daydreaming about unrealistic goals or employing positive energy towards a future event. We know we need to accept reality and risk thundering disappointment if expectations are too high, yet I can still hear my mother saying that there is no such word as "can’t." She taught me that, within reasonable limits, we can obtain almost anything for which we strive.

In my home there were two expressions that were anathema: one was the dreaded "can’t." When I was especially vexed at being scolded, I remember shouting "CAN’T, CAN’T, CAN’T!" at my mother, thinking this was the equivalent of a curse word. Today I might substitute a different kind of four-letter word, but the force of the expression could never be as damaging as that "C" epithet. (Parenthetically, the other expression was "Shut up!" My parents considered telling someone not to speak in those terms the height of rudeness.)

So I was raised with the cliché that I could "climb any mountain." As an adult, I know that is not true. I long ago learned that my intelligence has limits, that I was rather stubbornly "klutzy," and that I don’t look like French actress Catherine Deneuve, even though sometimes people flattered me that I bore a faint resemblance to her. No, I accept my limitations. But then again, I know if I dwell on my faults or the grim realities of the marketplace, or don’t ever try to do something fresh or challenging, then I am truly bound to realize only minimal rewards for my narrow expectations.

Years ago I taught at a school where we were required to record our students’ IQ’s in our grade books. Miss Wilbur, my supervisor for my first few years of teaching, would often check my roll book to see if the scores were there and if I had been assigning enough homework. However, as obedient as I was to the requirements of my job, I tried never to look at those figures again, because I didn’t want the expectations they imposed.

I could see the low IQ next to the name of one student and perhaps not imagine his potential; likewise, I could inflate the grades of those students with very high IQs by somehow ascribing them qualities they may not have really possessed. I learned that if I treated each class as a blank slate, it was better.

For a period of time I even had my students leave their names off papers because I didn’t want to read one paper with my image and the prior grades of the teenager looming behind it. I finally abandoned that practice when I became aware of handwriting, style and other clues to authorship. But the principle was a good one. If I expect the best from students I have a much better chance of getting it than if I load them down with preconceptions and burdensome histories.

Today when I am striving for something, I often assess the true chance of getting it and then weigh my abilities against the odds. For example, people tell me the chances of selling a book are highly remote. I certainly know that and have rejection slips to prove it. However, that does not stop me from trying, because I have decided that the process of writing is itself rewarding and because I also believe that I certainly can’t sell any book if I don’t write it first. Now I am fortunate to have recently acquired an agent, which increases my chances of publishing, but still people tell me it’s impossible. It may be, but I’ll keep on trying until the time comes when the effort is counterproductive.

I try to reword statements such as "If I sell the book" with "When I sell the book." I still engage in negative rhetoric from time to time: "I won’t get the job," "I’m doomed to failed relationships," "I’m too old to…." and so forth. But when my friends scold me for this defeatist attitude, I think they are right. It’s better to have some dreams and risk disappointment than to give up before trying.

When I lived in Thailand, I often felt daunted by the challenges of adapting to a different culture. In my modest Thai home, my small cooking surface, a Bunsen burner atop a child’s school desk, was constantly besieged by ants and other insects who would march up the legs and devour anything left there if I turned my back for just a minute. I almost gave up the struggle and one day told my Thai friends, "I CAN’T cook anymore."

The next afternoon, my neighbor arrived with four small plastic bowls, resembling small angel food cake pans. He put the four desk legs through the holes in the middle of the bowls, filled the surrounding small moats with water, and the problem was solved. I just had to learn to empty out the dead-ant water every morning. I also put some bowls under my bed legs and eliminated the scourge of itchy insects crawling up at night.

So the next time I say I CAN'T or tell myself that my expectations are too high, I think I’ll just pull out the photo of that tiny kitchen space in Thailand.


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