God Bless You Mrs. Robinson

Below is an email I sent to all Benefitfocus associates

To all the people who have ever been underestimated.

Ever been riding along in your car and that perfect song came on? You crank it up and your heart speeds up, you get a bit of a rush of emotion and you can see through time and space? Music does that to me somehow. Today that happened, and I was instantly connected to my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Robinson.

God Bless Mrs. Robinson. She was a nice enough lady. I forget how old I was in 4th grade, maybe 9 or 10? Mrs. Robinson seemed like she was 80. She probably was not. She had grey hair and metal glasses with a chain that draped around her neck. She moved slow, smiled a lot and was more of a “helper” than a “teacher”. By that I mean she seemed to be there to help us along rather than instruct us. It seemed to me that she was in the wrong place; that someone was doing her a favor by allowing her to stay. I’m sure I never articulated it clearly at the time, but I always wanted to tell the principal that she was not teaching us anything. I liked her, I just don’t think I learned anything for a year. She was too slow. That is how I remember it.

That was at Port Orange Elementary School in Port Orange, FL, just across the Intracoastal Waterway from Daytona Beach. It was an old school. The main building was two stories, had big windows, big doors, wide hallways, no air conditioning and a bunch of “portables” to house the classes that would not fit in the main building. Mrs. Robinson’s class was upstairs in the main building. It had a fan. It was dark, probably because they kept the lights off due to the heat. Across the hall from her room was an old “mimeograph” machine—one of those old copier things with fax machine-like paper and purple-blue ink. You cranked it by hand. I got to do it once.

Mrs. Robinson would remember it differently. I was the opposite of her. I was too fast. Not fast in learning, but fast in moving around. I could not sit still. I always felt like my legs were going to explode off my body when they made us sit still in class. My hair was wild. There was no way my mom could comb my hair. It was not worth the fight. Just let me go. I hated sitting in class. I wanted to be on the field. My favorite day of the year was field day. Jump over some pole and get a ribbon, what could be better? I did not care about grades. I felt like the whole system was stupid. Why not teach us to count outside with birds or something? What was all this sitting still? But Mrs. Robinson wanted to stay inside. She wanted to sit still. She wanted us to sit still. Sitting still and writing things on paper were her things. Running around and breaking stuff were my things. I never felt that she did not like me. She was nice, but she did not understand me at all, nor I her.

So on my mid-year report card she wrote the fateful words that have stuck with me to this day. She wrote a personal message to my mother. It was this: “Dear Ms. Jenkins, it is unfortunate that I have to inform you that Shawn does not have what it takes to make it through the 4th grade. I have tried everything, but he just does not have what is needed to be successful. There is nothing more that I can do.”

Now, before you feel sorry for Shawn in this story, consider my mother; a single mom working for 100% commission in real estate sales. She had stress. She had a wild kid. She had no money. And now she had a teacher who gave up on her son and declared him incompetent to graduate the 4th grade. That had to be a rough night for my mom. She was used to the letters home about my inability to sit still, pay attention or focus. She got notified when I was sent to the principal for a spanking. That happened often. But to be told that it was over, the towel was thrown in and there was nothing more to do - where does a mom go from there?

As for me, I was born with an instinct that deflects negative criticism about myself. If someone looks at me and tells me I cannot do it, I get this immediate rush of adrenaline and deep desire to prove them wrong. In 4th grade, I was not that developed in my ability to laugh off people who did not believe in me, but I don’t really remember being that depressed by Mrs. Robinson’s comments. Rather, her written words have sort of grown with me over time. They are a part of me. This I cannot explain. I can only acknowledge.

God Bless you, Mrs. Robinson. You did not see what God saw in me. I don’t hold that against you. You did not see what was possible from this lump of coal. You did not see the diamond. You had a job to do. I was in your way. Rather than use you as an excuse, I choose to use you as motivation. Rather than remember the bad, I press harder and turn that coal into a precious stone. You and I will forever be linked in my mind, Mrs. Robinson. You’ll be with me when I ring the bell and when I raise the toast as I celebrate with my associates. Here’s to you.

And here’s to you, my fellow associates. To all of you who have ever had another human look at you and determine you were not capable or unworthy; be it your age, your gender, the color of your skin, your education (or lack thereof), your family, your past or your present: join me in raising a toast to those naysayers. Let us not allow them to rob us of our joy or future. Think not of them as a reason you cannot, but rather a reason that you can.

Turn up the music in your life my friend. Allow it to reach deep down into who you are. And what you find there, greet it with confidence and a smile. The faces of people past, embrace. Their words are what make us. And what we do with them makes our future. It is up to us. It was never up to them. They were just observers. Commentators. Some right, many wrong.

God Bless you, Mrs. Robinson. His plan for me was greater than you knew.