Monday, April 30, 2007

This Above All. . .to Thine Own Self

One of the most often memorized speeches from a Shakespeare play is Polonius' speech in Hamlet, when he is sending his son, Laertes, off to college. In Act I, scene 3, he has a long speech (as are many of Polonius' speeches) which ends thus:

Many have quoted those lines, preceding them with "As Shakespeare says. . ." English major that I am, I want to say (and sometimes do)--well, actually Shakespeare puts that speech in the mouth of Polonius who happens to be an inflated self-important windbag, who is usually wrong. Conversation stopper, that!

The subject of this blog is ADVICE. Hence, the reference to and use of Polonius. Advice stays with us, if it is sound and comes from someone we respect. I offer two of the best pieces of advice I ever got. And, as you read, perhaps you can reflect on the best advice you have ever gotten.


One time, my father and I were talking--this conversation occurred in the basement of the parsonage at the Cleona (Pennsylvania) Church my dad happened to be pastor of at the time. I don't know what exactly prompted it, but I suspect it was my impending marriage. My father said that he believes the secret to a happy marriage is that each partner is always giving 51% in the marriage, while the other partner is giving 49%. Now, think about that. If each is giving 51% they are both giving more than half to make the marriage successful. He didn't just give that advice--he must have lived it as well. When my mother died 17 years ago, they had been happily married for 48 and a half years. In fact, my dad rued the fact that they did not reach their 50th anniversary. (My dad has since remarried, and can continue to put into practice his secret of a happy marriage.)


When I graduated from college, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I had a degree in English Literature, but no specific thought in mind as to career. So, I did what any thinking college graduate does who doesn't have a clue about the future--I went to grad school. While I was there, I wrote a letter to one of my all-time favorite profs at my alma mater and said "if there is anything I can do to repay you for being such a great professor, let me know." Imagine my surprise (and delight) when he wrote back to say--we have an opening in the English department; one of the professors is going on sabbatical. Can you fill in for a year? Could I ever! That year turned into 8 years of college teaching.

Before I began teaching, I asked him what advice he would give a new teacher. He said--never be afraid to talk above your students' knowledge level and never be afraid to say "I don't know." Each of those little tidbits sounds so simple. Talking over students' heads? Almost counter-intuitive. But, he went on to explain that if you only ever teach to the level a student has already mastered, the student never grows. So teaching above them (occasionally) forces them to stretch and grow academically. And the advice to say "I don't know" was also counter-intuitive. Aren't professors supposed to know EVERYTHING. Well, I was quite relieved, because as a really new teacher and someone who just a year before had been a student myself, I knew I didn't know a whole lot.

A few years after I had stopped teaching at that college, I got a letter from a former student. She was full of praise remembering my teaching. One thing, she said, really stood out for her--that I would acknowledge that I didn't know everything, and that I was willing to see a point a student made by saying "I never thought of it that way." She remarked how refreshing it was to have a professor who allowed as how students could be the source of wisdom.

Well, enough of my meandering. What good advice have you received along your way?


Pam said...

I've had a lot of good advive but can't think of anything off hand.
What you shared works well.

Loved the tidbit about Polonius, coming here is always very interesting.

Anonymous said...

I don’t remember the conversation, daughter DEAR. But thank you for the compliment. I have come to realize here closer to the nether end of life that it feels as though I am taking more and giving less, I.e. to me it so feels. Whereas to the other person it feels the opposite. I’m not sure how to trasnslate that into percentages. My brain’s too tired tonight. Love, Father “C”

Beth said...

I learned something new here, too..thanks!

Best advice, I think: My dad told me once that life was a series of hills and valleys. He encouraged me to ride the mountains hard and fast, because the valley would be next - and to remember, while in the valley, that time would bring me back up again.

I've never forgotten, and I've learned over the years that he was right...

Ginnie said...

The best advice I've ever heard is: "The only person I can change is myself". I've found that since I've given up trying to "control" other people my life (and theirs !) has improved immensely. I wish I'd learned it earlier in life.

Cathy said...

Petty embarrassing to have to admit that I didn't realize who Polonius WAS until I watched Mel Gibson's 'Hamlet'. Ah well - better late than never.

This is a great post and really made me think. Funny - the first thing that pops into mind was my Dad as I sat in the car beside him - holding my infant son - obsessing about his well-being and my father staring over the steering wheel saying "Cathy, babies are born to live." Wow. It still gives me goose bumps. Thanks, Dad.

Anvilcloud said...

I have taught a bit of high school English, including some Shakepeare, but I haven't done Hamlet for about 45 years. If memory does serve, however, I believe that I first learned the word, duplicitous, from Polonius — not directly from him, you understand. Is my memory working correctly or not? It's okay to say no if I've got it wrong. :)

Pam said...

You are right, that parrot would do the trick!

KGMom said...

Pam--many of us have good advice along the way without being able to recall it precisely.
Father C--I am sure I have had conversations with my children that they recall that I do not. Thanks for the good advice you have given me.
Beth--your dad's advice is great for the ups & downs of life--and life surely has both!
Ginnie--so true. Too many people try to control others & NOT themselves.
Cathy--what a great way for your dad to help you get past the terror of holding new life.
Anvilcloud--I did a word check through HAMLET & do not find the word "duplicitous" but it certainly describes the way those around Hamlet act toward him, especially Claudius.

Mary said...

Whenever I was annoyed as a young girl I put blame on the attitudes of those around me. It took years of my Mom repeating, "Your attitude belongs to you and you are the only one who can turn that frown upside down." Years later, I repeated the same words to my daughter. She gets it and so do I.

Great post, even though I've never been wild about Shakespeare.

I also enjoyed reading of your first teaching job and the rewards that came with it!

Ruth said...

Great post and comments. Lots of blogger wisdom out there.

Anonymous said...

So many of us from time to time need to be able to say "I don't know". Wonderful post and that was so nice for that one student to write that letter!

dmmgmfm said...

My dad has given me a lot of good advice. Some I've followed and some I've not but wished I had. How lucky we are to have them in our lives.

Great post!

KGMom said...

My responses--round 2
Mary--isn't it amazing how we find ourselves repeating our own parents' wisdom--we pass it along to our children (who may someday pass it along to theirs!)
Ruth--I agree on the wonderful wisdom of all--it's what keeps me reading yours & other blogs.
Mon@rch--now you can see why I enjoy reading you so much; you are teaching me a great amount of what I don't know.
Laurie--I hope you have enjoyed being with your dad in your most recent visit, even if you don't take all his advice.

Climenheise said...

I had the same sources for advice as you. I think of words from Dad: "You can do more than one thing at a time." That was in response to my professed inability to do so. I remember he observed that driving a standard shift car always requires multi-tasking: so you can do it!

I think of words from Mom: "So this has happened [whatever the bad thing of the moment was]. You can act miserable, or you can act cheerful. It's up to you." Sort of a, "you can't control what happens to you, but you can control your response."

To thine own self be true? if it means, "keep your own personal integrity", the fact that Polonius said it does not negate it. Shakespeare can speak truth even through a pompous old fool. (I had to add the adjectives to keep from referring to the fool who speaks the truth because he is a fool.) If it means, "Do your own thing": well, we have enough people trying to be unique, and ending up just like each other.

Thanks for the thoughts: interesting memories of people we love and have learned so much from.

KGMom said...

Daryl--indeed we did have the same sources of advice. I don't recall Mother giving advice in statements--her life was its own advice.
On Polonius--actually, he can be viewed as a somewhat endearing character in this scene. He is a father seeing his son off, pumping him full of advice. The problem is Polonius can't take his own advice. Having just taught Hamlet again a semester ago, I am all brushed up on character observations.

Anonymous said...

There you go again Donna -- making me think about life - pushing me to ponder on things --I have no words of wisdom - the older I get the less I know or the less I am really sure of now. I guess the most important bit of advice I do know is to tell someone just what they mean to you while you still can. Life is short and true friends are few in the end. I did however find some wonderful links in all the above comments - WOW - I have found some really great sites listed above!!! Thanks.

LauraHinNJ said...

My father's favorite line was, "Keep your options open."