When I was in the army (many, many years ago), I worked in a legal office.
I was a “legal specialist,” which is basically a legal clerk. Notice that I did not say, “law clerk,” because that is something entirely different. No, in general, I typed legal paperwork, ran around getting scores of signatures, and maintained my (required) mastery of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).
Although I was a member of the Judge Advocate’s Corps (JAG), I was assigned to a field unit and (without going through all of the bloody details), I was later assigned to a legal office which housed three of us. The idea was to centralize and streamline military legal paperwork, and despite sounding like a complete oxymoron, it actually worked.
One day, Tim, my partner in crime, finished his service time and went home. He was replaced by a guy named Tony. I didn’t like Tony from the start – he was 18 (compared to my 21), fresh out of the legal clerk school, and he made a ton of mistakes. And since I was his senior, I rode his back every chance I got.
Tony couldn’t do anything right. It was like I had to do my work and his. It was too much for me, and back then I had a huge problem with concealing my immediate thoughts. Let’s just say that if Tony had murdered me in my sleep, very few people would have voted to convict him.
After I yelled at him for some minor infraction one afternoon, my supervisor pulled me aside. In a quiet voice, she said something I’ll never forget: “You were new once, too.”
It was like I’d been hit in the face with a brick. I can’t explain why I’d been such a prick, but I was, and I was acting as if I was born with the knowledge and experience I possessed. Heck, I was acting as if I could walk on water. My supervisor was absolutely correct – I was new once, too – and I made mistakes, some of which were worse than anything Tony did. I can still remember having the wind sucked out of me, and I resolved to change. Right there. It may sound implausible, but right then and there, I stopped being an ass and started doing my job – which was to help Tony become a better legal specialist. Those five words left me filled with shame; more so because my supervisor never said another word to me on the subject – talk about a mic drop.
That moment changed my life. Tony and I became friends and remained so until the day I left – and he became the senior man in the office.
I reflect on this when I deal with others – especially students – who haven’t met my expectations. It reminds me that in most cases, teaching someone to do right is far more valuable than reprimanding them for doing wrong. It reminds me why patience is a virtue. It reminds me that I was young and inept once, and someone else took the time to show me the right way. And it might even prevent one from being murdered in their sleep.