This is a story I’ve told before but sometimes, the first time you tell a story, it means one thing and when you tell it again, it means something else.
It’s not a big story, no adultery here, no orphaned children. It’s not about a mistake made that involved a lot of weeping.
It’s a small story with a lifelong lesson.
Once upon a time, there was a young woman who worked all day and into some nights tallying up census data and writing reports about the various plights of poor people. She did this work for a big organization whose mission it was to fight poverty and racism. She was game for this fight but in a hanging back way; her success was to have her report put into the boss’s hands and to watch from the back of a packed room as he folded over a page and read the next important fact.
Late one afternoon, she finished an especially detailed report that was to be used to testify in front of a legislative committee holding a public hearing and she went off down the hall to hand her gem over to her boss but his secretary said he was out of town. Then she went to his boss and he had left for the day. Then she went to the only boss she could find, a gruff and imperious man who considered the young woman a tourist, a spectator, better than most, maybe, but a figure skater in a hockey world.
She stood in front of his desk, piled wildly high with paper and books, articles clipped from the newspaper, coffee cups from days ago.
“I finished the report for the hearing tonight but no one is here to present it. Can you go?”
“No. I’m busy. You do it.”
“I can’t do it. I’ve never done anything like that before.”
He looked up at her, exasperated. “Go home. Wash your face, put on a clean shirt and go do it.” He looked back down. He was done with the young woman with her report.
So she went home and she washed her face and put on new make-up and wondered what it was about the shirt she had on that made him think she should put on a clean one. But she did what he said to do and picked out a different shirt, buttoned it up and tucked it into her skirt.
Then she went to the hearing where a couple of hundred people were crammed shoulder to shoulder in a big room made hotter by the television lights and when her name was called she went to the podium and told people what was in her report, going line by line so as not to forget something important that might change the outcome until she had gotten to the last page and then she folded up her report and backed away from the lights and the people applauded.
She sat down on a folding chair feeling as if she had suddenly become an adult, as if the tribal elders had made a small cut of significance on the back of her hand that would identify her wherever she went as someone who could do the things grown men could do. It changed everything.
The story’s lesson seems clear. The gruff boss’s indifference to the young woman’s fear gave her the chance to be brave. Being sympathetic, even looking at her a single minute longer, would diminish whatever slim line of confidence she had. Better to gamble on her.
See if she could play hockey.