My father enjoyed telling the story of how when I was young, despite having a number of different teachers who didn’t know each other in several different elementary schools, each teacher wrote the same thing on my report card: “Robert pays too much attention to the people around him in class.” I could say I was bored. I could make a case they all kept repeating themselves, or I could insist, “Honest to God I heard them the first time.” I could claim I was multitasking. But the truth is I am easily distracted. Several teachers said I needed everything repeated twice before I understood. It was Mr. Kingston, however, in fifth grade who took me aside and said, “You’re doing fine, Robert,” for the first time. I told him I make a lot of mistakes and he said, “Yes. Me too.”
Almost fifty years ago and I never forgot that, so at least I remembered something from Timber Point Elementary School. Still, I’ve packed on a plethora of mistakes since then.
A Russian nun once prayed for me for ten minutes at the Shrine of St Xenia. Then she gave me a piece of bread from the top of the sarcophagus and asked if I liked it. I wanted to say yes, I enjoyed her blessed bread, but my weak language skills kicked in and I told her, “I love you and lust for your black God.”
It is odd making other people laugh at what you say in a foreign language. Oh, there’s more:
I wanted to ask a cab driver where a bathroom was but ended up saying I like to drink dark beer from a toilet.
I told someone I thought was a waitress who turned out to be a prostitute what I thought was, “Yes I could use a few minutes to think,” which turned out to be, “Yes, I’d absolutely love oral sex.”
I pulled out a chair for a lady and told her to heel.
I asked for five sandwich rolls and walked out with fifteen. No fish.
A friend of mine wearing his priest’s collar wanted to tell the waitress he would like some mayonnaise and ended up saying, “I love to masturbate.”
Some friends went to buy coffee. The world in Russian for sugar is “Suga” but the word for bitch is “Suka.” They returned exclaiming, “Don’t ask for sugar in your coffee in Russia, Dude; they’re assholes about it.”
I could go on but more or less by screwing up I learned to fit in, pick up the nuances of accent and syllables, which brought down prices at the flea market, brought out their best Georgian wine, and opened gates to closed graveyards and monasteries. There are many more screw-ups but I’ve conveniently forgotten most of them.
This one stayed with me. At the back of one church, in the rubble of what was and would eventually again be St Catherine’s Catholic Church in the heart of St. Petersburg, a woman stood looking for a priest I knew. She seemed confused and we talked a bit—slowly of course, her in patient Russian and shattered English. Her grandmother had been the secretary of the church before the revolution seventy-five years earlier. In my weak Russian skills I determined the woman told me she had a huge cross to bear because of the horrors of communism and wanted the priest to take the sins away from her. But when Fr. Frank appeared, his translation was somewhat more significant. She had outside with her the original cross for the church dating back hundreds of years, which her grandmother had taken when the Bolsheviks took control after World War One, and which her family had wrapped in cloth and buried in the yard at their dacha where it remained for seventy-five years. She thought it was time to return it. It hangs again above the altar at St. Catherine’s.
Back at home and much more recently I showed my students how to present a paper using the guidelines from the Modern Language Association. I gave them copies, I presented another example on the outline, I asked them to open their books to the appropriate example in the text, and still forty percent of them did it completely wrong. Is that a mistake? Is that boredom? Distraction? Idiocy? I like to think they are overwhelmed and go home kicking themselves for doing something wrong that was so easy to get right, but I’m probably wrong. Not long ago I would have returned to a class like that and lectured them about how their priorities are screwed up; I would have told them that if they can’t get the easy stuff done they’ll never handle the challenges as they attempt to move up the collegiate ladder. I would have used the appropriate sarcasm with a touch of attitude. But I recently altered my approach to, well, everything, and instead went back to class and said, “Simple mistakes, folks. Easily fixed. You’re doing fine. Let’s have another shot at it.”
Last year I was driving through the Pennsylvania countryside on my way to western New York on a Sunday morning when I heard a guest on a talk show quote St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who said we need to learn to make excuses for other people.
We need to learn to make excuses for other people. I turned off the radio and let that simmer inside for a while.
Sometimes if we see other people’s reasons for things, our world changes.
No professor likes students who come in late, or do a project completely wrong, or seem to be in their own little world. Still, I had one student who came in late because her husband is stationed in Iraq and she got to talk to him that afternoon. Another left early when she found out her father was dying. I remember clearly the one who couldn’t get the presentation correct no matter how hard he tried, but he has never been the same since returning from war. And the one that gives me pause still is the woman who stared at me the entire class without blinking an eye, then left, only to email me later an apology, that she wasn’t concentrating, that she had just learned her cousin was shown on television in Baghdad, dead and left swinging from a bridge.
I teach in a different environment here in the military rich resort of Virginia Beach. We learn to make excuses for other people because so many of these people don’t have excuses, they have interrupted lives. Their mistakes aren’t so much mistakes as they are simply, unfortunately, lessons set aside for later.
St. Francis de Sales said, “Never confuse your mistakes with your value.”
I am still learning to separate the two, mistakes and value. Maybe that’s why I spend so much time in nature—there are no mistakes there; value is an abstract concept. It’s the only place where it is necessary to just sit back and let it all be.
I hope others learn to make excuses for me. Every once in a while I whisper to myself “You’re doing fine, Robert,” like a fifth grade teacher might. But my language skills are not as sharp as they used to be, and I know I’m paying way too much attention to the people around me, but that’s okay. It helps me keep still, like a clear morning before sunrise when the water is calm and the promise of the day that I woke up to is still forgiving.