Monday, October 29, 2007

The highest form of flattery

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When I was growing up I had written a story. It was a story of which I was incredibly proud. I had shared this story with my little brother, Yancy. A few weeks later my little brother was very excited because a short story he had written won a writing contest and would be included in a publication at his elementary school. It wasn’t long before the stapled-together booklet came home with my brother’s short story. As I read the first sentence I found myself my temper beginning to rise within me. The reason I was feeling angry was because the story my brother had written was my story. The one I had written and had told him about.

I immediately wanted justice for this “stealing” of my idea. Had I known what the word plagiarism was back then, I probably would have used that when I was stating my case to my mom who, after listening, responded with something like, “Jason, your little brother copied your idea because he looks up to you. You’re his big brother who wrote a story; he wanted to write a similar story…he did it because you’re his hero.”

I didn’t see how stealing my idea had anything to do with being a hero, and once-again tried to get my mom to see my side of the situation. After listening to me rant on yet again, my mom tried to get me to see what she was trying to say. I just didn’t get it. She ended the conversation with the following words, “Jason, imitation is the highest form of flattery, and one day you’ll understand it.”

Many years have flown since that day when my brother and I were both children, and I have to say that over these days I have finally came to understand what it was my mother meant. When we copy what someone else does, we are in essence saying, “I want to be like you,” or “You are somebody that I look up to.” By imitating them, we are sending a message, a message without any words.

I was recently absent for about a week from the classroom where I teach sixth grade. When I returned to school today, I was greeted with a surprise. You see, four days each week I dress up for school—usually with a white shirt and tie. Today was no exception. However, as I went outside this morning to retrieve my class, I noticed that one of my students, whom I’ll christen as “Chase,” was wearing a white shirt and tie as well.

At first I didn’t say anything to him about this, but instead just gave him a little wink and a smile as he walked into the school with the rest of his classmates. After the first few hours of classes I found myself on recess duty, walking the playground with Chase following in my wake. I stopped and began to talk to him, “Chase, you dressed up today. Could I ask you why?”

Chase smiled and said, “Well Mr. Z, you were gone all last week and I knew you were coming back today and, well, I just felt like dressing up.”

As Chase and I walked the playground together talking, I began to remember that time as a boy when my little brother had copied my story. I’ll admit I hadn’t thought about this story for quite some time. As I did I smiled. My mom was right when she’d said that one of the greatest compliments we can give to others is our emulation of them.

I spoke with Chase’s mother this evening. In our conversation she said that Chase had had worn his white shirt and tie for several of the days I was absent from school. She also said that last night he was adamant that his white shirt needed to be laundered; it needed to be clean in order for him to wear again at school. “I think he was trying to impress someone,” she said.

Impress someone he had.

When the end of the school day arrived I thanked Chase. I thanked him for the compliment he had given to me. There are no words more powerful this boy could have spoken to his teacher which could have sent a message greater than the one he did by simply coming to school wearing a white shirt and a tie.


Miya said...

I know how you feel. Lucie used to copy all my drawings (even trace them) when we were little and it drove me batty how she was always copying everything I did. But when you said the other day that you could tell her style of art resembled mine, I couldn't help but feel a little twinge of pride! :)

~cari~ said...

I think you'd be very surprised to know how many of your students want to be like you! You're one of those teachers that your students will always remember for making a big impact in their lives. I know this for a fact because I have 4 of those students! (Even Max talks about you all the time and he's never been a "student" of yours. He thinks the world of you.) I can't thank you enough for the example and valuable lessons you've taught my boys. So, I guess I'm not suprised how Chase looks up to you. He's a lucky boy too!

shoezimm said...

I believe we talked about this before but you drove me nuts when you'd start doing something I was doing only better when we were kids--writing, drawing, etc. I couldn't figure out why you couldn't just go and find a hobby of your own instead of "always" taking mine...guess its my turn now with photography, isn't it?

Teachinfourth said...


I could tell that Lucie really does look up to you and you have every right to feel a sense of pride!


Thanks. I want you to know that I really do miss having a Houghton in my class. I guess it will be a couple more years until I get another one. Thanks for entrusting me with your "little ones" (even though your eldest son is taller than both of us now)!


Yeah, stealing my photography...hmmm, I seem to recall something called "Woodland Theatre" as well.

Yancy said...

i love this story. and i love my family.

Gerb said...

Amen to what Cari said. Very well put.

jacs said...

i learned my lesson, the hard way of course, when a 2 yr old jake said the s word at sunday night dinner at my mom's. luckily, i'm a fast thinker and shot his dad a really pointed look that said "how could you have taught our son such a thing?!" and then i very carefully spent the next year scrutinizing what i was about to say. i have also realized ,again the hard way, that jake will soon drive and i have spent the last 14 years teaching him every bad habit i know...ouch.

jacs said...

i forgot to say that it was all me. i totally taught jake that word...most likely by repetition and maybe more repetition. and for the record, corey hasn't forgiven me yet but i have high hopes.

Teachinfourth said...


Me too.


Thanks. You know what though? Both you and Cari have kids that I look up to for the type of individuals they are, and for the choices they make. I wanted to thank you both for being such good parents and raising great families.


It's sad isn't is that people not only can learn from, as well as imitate, our good actions, but our bad ones as well? It was Neal A. Maxwell who'd said something to the effect of, "Don't worry when you make a mistake, you can always be used as a bad example." Sometimes that can be the hardest lesson to learn...

annette said...

This is a great story! So cool! I know one little boy who likes to wear his hair "Mr. Z" style now and again. I guess it's the price you pay when you're as cool as you are :)

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