Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Value of Persistence

Persistence in Art
Photo by John Lynner Peterson
When I taught at Franklin County High School, Frankfort, Kentucky (my first job right out of college), I agreed to have my Advanced Drama class participate in a program the guidance counselor wanted to try with a small group. One activity consisted of affirming a positive characteristic that you saw in each class member--similar in nature to my departmental meeting story mentioned earlier. Since the counselor asked me to participate, my turn came to receive the affirmations from my students. Independent of each other, ten out of twelve identified in me some variation of persistence--stick-to-itiveness, never give up, up for the challenge, tenacity--you get the idea. In my mid-twenties then, my self-knowledge still developing, I gasped that the outside world, especially my students, knew this about me. I knew I persisted on tasks and why I felt I had developed this capacity. I didn’t know the trait paraded around so obviously that even teenagers recognized it. Once again, someone held up the mirror for me to see myself.
Upon reflection, I determined my development of persistence was probably--like most skills--part nature and part nurture. Life circumstances demanded persistence and, fortunately, I seemed biologically bent in that direction. But I also maintain if you value certain skills you can learn and polish the competence. Certainly some skills will come easily to some people. I recall a man who vowed to “plan more spontaneity into his life.” He might get there; it will just take him a bit longer than others.
In fact, those less naturally inclined toward a certain skill might even turn out a better “end product.” My voice teacher complained to me, “You have been gifted with a nice instrument so you expect everything about singing to come easily to you.” Others with less ability may work harder and get a better final product. There you have it. We can choose to be persistent or not in a given area. Perhaps if I had confided to my teacher about the conduit between singing and being sexually abused, she could have moved me beyond the crippling layers. Persistence sometimes needs to intersect with courage. I chose not to have courage in revealing myself to voice teachers.
On the occasion referenced earlier about terminating my half-sister Vivian’s parental rights, I had to mix courage with persistence. Mom and I decided we had to file suit after learning of abuse and neglect of Vivian’s daughter. Terminating parental rights, as it should, involves climbing steep legal mountains. At one point, we were due in Louisville for a hearing. We needed to make an early morning, ninety minute drive on extremely icy interstates, down to one lane each direction. Our presence, though not mandatory, would speak volumes about our commitment to the suit. Mom immediately suggested, “We just better stay home and pray.”
I was flabbergasted; grabbed my car keys and sassed back, “You stay home and pray. I’m showing my face in that courtroom today.” So I did.
Sometimes persistence benefits a bit from naïveté or just plain ignorance. Around eleven years of age, my neighbor and I played in her shed creating a clubhouse. The friend asked her dad to help by pounding a sixteen penny nail into the wall. He replied, “You can’t use a nail that big in that kind of wood. I’d wear out before I got it deep enough.” To which his daughter snapped, “Brenda did one already. Can’t you do the other one?”
That same naiveté was at the root of my persistence in talking my way out of traffic tickets several officers of the law wanted to write for me on occasion. Taking Mark and one of his friends to their gifted children’s program at the University of Kentucky, I noticed flashing lights behind me. I pulled over. The young friend in the back seat got nervous and scared. Mark assured him saying, “Don’t worry. I have never seen her NOT talk her way out of one of these.” Persistence pays dividends. I did not get the ticket and Mark’s little friend was impressed. (After so many flashing lights I finally have learned to monitor my driving habits.)
I suppose my natural bent toward persistence constitutes the most significant characteristic for surviving what life has dished out. Remember the old parable of the mule who fell into the well. After carefully assessing the situation, the farmer decided that neither the mule nor the well was worth saving so he hauled in dirt to bury the mule in the well. As the workers shoveled the dirt on the mule’s back, he shook it off and kept clambering up. Blow after blow his reaction continued. Shovel after shovel of dirt miraculously accomplished what the mule could never have done on his own. Battered, exhausted but triumphant the mule stepped over the wall of that well.
I didn’t choose with intent for persistence to be my motto for life but it has served me well.

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