You Da Chump

I have a confession to make. Well, several, actually, but let’s do one and declare victory for now, shall we? If I get going, the line at the confessional’s going to get really long, and the poor priest in the box could starve to death.

Today’s admission is about compliments. I don’t accept them well. I play something on one of my horns, someone gushes “That’s wonderful“, and I’m wondering how they could possibly have missed the seventeen gaffes I made in that piece of music. Someone tells me “You da Man“, and I’m wondering how come they can’t see my pink slip.

I’ve felt this about compliments for as long as I can remember. And I can remember for almost as long being told “Don’t tell them about your mistakes! That’s rejecting both the compliment and the person giving the compliment. Would you like being told ‘you’re too stupid to know what’s good’? Stuff your feelings down a hole, smile, say ‘thank you’, and move on.”

So I do. Sometimes. And feel uncomfortable about it. My feelings don’t like being stuffed down that hole. I’d make a terrible politician. Or used car seller.

It was a great relief, I confess (oops, that’s two), to read that C. S. Forester, author of the Horatio Hornblower tales, was no better at the compliment game than I am. In his book The Hornblower Companion (which, by the way, is one of the best narratives that I’ve read about the intersection between the person and the art of the writer), Forester relates that none of his finished works lived up to the expectations he had for them, that he hated having to reread anything he’d written, and, by the time he’d forced himself to read through the fifth proof of a completed novel, he was certain that no one with any semblance of wit would spend fifteen seconds with this drivel.

And his books were – still are – bestsellers. Where does that leave me…?

I’ll tell you where. In a quandary. No, that’s not the place where you break rocks, though sometimes I wonder if that’s all I’m really good for. No, not even that, given the state of my back at present.

It’s the place you’re at when you’re about to start teaching a class full of young people aspiring to win a place in your business, and you know what it takes to “make it”, you know that they don’t, yet.

And you can’t tell them without hurting their feelings.

Worse yet, you can’t tell them without hurting the bottom line of the institution that sold them the course!

Yes, this actually happened to me. Once upon a time, I gave a class grades (many of them failing grades) on the basis of their actual work. Work that I knew would never get them the phantom of a ghost of a chance of getting, or holding, a job in my field. And I was told, in so many words, never to do that again. To keep those grades, at all costs, high enough for all to pass. Or else the department would lose staff. There was a direct link between the numbers of bums in seats and the numbers of people hired to look after those bums.

It didn’t matter whether the bums had any business being in those seats.

It didn’t matter that they were being passed along, secure in their belief that they were winning a pass into a good job in the working world. Right up to the moment when they actually ran into the working world, and got told, in so many words, that they got nuthin’.

It didn’t matter that the university was being turned into a playground basketball court. Where the crowd shouts out to the players, “You da man! You da man! You da man!” Right up to the moment when they actually run up against real players in the pro leagues (this means you, Duke University): “You da chump!

The bread lines are full of “men” who were told how good they were until after it was too late. When they ran up against the real players and found out they got nuthin’.

Shortly after I had that discussion about bums in seats, I left the university (where I had already gotten tenure), vowing never again to take a full-time teaching job.

I confess (sorry, that’s three) to being much too aware of the gap between where I am and where I need to be to “make it” in music. Of being much too aware of the gap between where most students are, in terms of professional skills and personal habits, and where they need to be in order to achieve their stated aspirations. And I don’t see how I’m doing anybody any favors by concealing that difference.

Especially when that concealment is done in the name, not of the personal and professional development of students, but in the name of some institutional accountant’s stock options.

– O Ceallaigh
Copyright Β© 2007 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.


  1. i dont love it when people compliment me either
    but “stuff my feelings down a hole” ?
    i just skip that part and smile and say thanks…
    my feelings are intact
    and i can explain my position at a time when people may actually hear what i say…

    ive also noticed a difference in how you and i were brought up
    and how some folks today are bringin up kids…
    you and i were complimented when we worked hard, job well done and all that…
    i notice today kids get a compliment for getting out of bed in the morning
    or for showing up at football practice and sitting on the bench
    (some even get trophies)

    this is where my feelings come in…
    this hurts me
    that you and i were expected to do stuff right the first time
    do a great job everytime thereafter
    and continue to improve, forever…
    but lots of other folks can just show up and get a prize…

  2. Any higher educational institution that just passes students along and doesn’t care that they are actually prepared to work in the field they’re striving for is really short changing those students. They’re being very unfair to those students and the instructors should have the ability to let those students be aware what improvement they need to be able to work in whatever particular field. I work in a field where after college I had to take a state licensure test to be able to work. Now, I went to a very good program that very much focused on students being able to pass this licensure exam and passed it on my first try. But there are programs in said field that have very high incidences of students not being prepared at all for this test and failing it… multiple times. I can’t imagine the disappointment of going through that much college, doing all that work, to be so unprepared to work in the field you’ve strived for.

  3. OC? Don’t we ALL have a hard time accepting compliments? (well… okay… not all… I have met a few people who look at you like “duh! OF COURSE I’m fabulous!”)

    As for the higher educators… would that they ALL felt like you! It’s bad enough being brushed under the mat on the lower level… but when you’re PAYING for an education… you really should GET one!

  4. This explains why my eye doctor had no clue about my eye disease….probably passed along all through school and then gets complimented all the time because he is a doctor. (No offense to you OC).

  5. Wow, OC, I’m so glad you’re taking a hiatus from blogging. πŸ™‚

    I’m the worst compliment receiver. Everyone I know basically tells me: “And this is where you say thank you instead ‘Oh but…'”

  6. That academia situation is alive and well, unfortunately.

    As for the compliments….years ago I had that same problem. Until someone told me that it was my ‘false pride’, and that when someone complimented me, they were giving me a gift. And they asked if I would throw that gift back at them. So I just say “thank you” whether I’m deserving or not – and move on – believing that they mean well.

  7. Well, sis, we were raised by folk who wanted us to do better than they did, so that we wouldn’t relive worldwide economic depressions and global wars. We learn good, don’t we? 😦

    Brooke, if every degree were vetted by a professional association that demanded quality, and treated those institutions that don’t deliver quality graduates the same way techie bloggers treat companies that make whack hardware, we’d have a whole lot less of this “faux education” problem. We’d also have a lot fewer places in universities, and probably a whole pile of people screaming “Discrimination!!” at the professional associations.

    Trouble is, melli, most people who are paying for an education (or getting parents, companies, or taxpayers to do so) do NOT demand a quality education. Most of them demand an “experience”, mostly posh dorms to puke in after a binge, or to darken and hang out in day after week after month playing video games. If we WERE demanding quality, well, see comment to Brooke, above.

    lori, the average physician’s training is overwhelmingly, and amazingly so, based on rote learning. That kind of doctor’s trained to recognize a set of symptoms and respond according to “the book”. Anything that falls outside “the book” causes difficulty – unless the physician actually chooses to think, in which case the label “researcher” gets appended, and you find the practitioner making pennies in the dark halls of academe while the rote learners make megabucks in private practice.

    What hiatus, LBP? πŸ˜‰ Of course, the perfidy of Windows has taken away my vetter and editor …

    Yeah, Jackie, I know, I know …

    Everybody, I used to think I was alone in the world on the compliments thing, thinking that if others felt as I did, they were one hell of a lot better than I am at hiding it. I once heard Victorian British manners referred to as “the snows of British civility”. Always wondered what they did to keep that snow from flashing into steam. Must have been dry ice … πŸ˜‰

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