In my previous post, I told the story of an exchange I had with a churlish telemarketer. I wonder if I was an unknowing character in a scene of retribution: “Next time, I [churlish telemarketer] am going to tell the person s/he is an asshole!”
That thought makes me reflect on answers not given. Monday morning quarterbacking. The “what I should have said” moments.
There is a lot of tongue-holding as a professor. When replying to a student’s inquiry where the honest response is “I wish you knew that,” I take a deep breath and say something more informative and less snippy. “No, you can’t take the final exam early. See my explanation on page 3 of the syllabus.” Or “Yes, the page limit is strict. The assignment instructions say ‘no exceptions to the page limit.'”
The poet Tom Wayman wrote not just one, but six perfect responses to a common student question, “Did I Miss Anything?” I can live with my second-choice replies to many questions knowing Wayman’s sweetly sarcastic responses are out there for “Did I Miss Anything?” The very best stanza:
Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?
Read the whole poem. It delivers.
When I was a new assistant professor, a friend told me about the time he presented a research paper at Wharton. In the Q&A, one of the host faculty members announced,
This is the worst paper I have ever seen.
I can’t remember what my friend told me he said in the moment. Later he realized he missed the opportunity for the world’s best response:
You haven’t seen my other papers.
Now I eagerly await the time when someone tells me “this is the worst…I have ever seen” so I can use his clever retort. The optimist in me laughs at the pessimist in me; the frightening possibility is now a brash dare to the universe.
Another example from academia, from an article last month in The Paris Review. The author describes her job interviews for a faculty position.
On the third day of the interview, the head of the creative department asks me if the courses I would be expected to teach should even exist. “No,” I wish I had said as I made my body gently vanish. “They shouldn’t exist at all.” Instead I say yes, and pull a beautiful, made-up reason from the air and offer it to him as a gift.
To adapt a phrase from a familiar telemarketer (see previous post), does this man “work at an asshole [university]?” I can understand my telemarketer’s rudeness. That job sucks. But the chair of a university department? What’s his excuse for that inexcusable question?
These thoughts about the “what I should have said” moments dovetail with my Pinterest-flavored Zen:
Three things you cannot recover in life:
the word after it’s said,
the moment after it’s missed,
and the time after it’s gone.
That statement may be strictly true. But there is some recovery, in both senses of the word, in revisiting the moment and revising the script, finding the “what I should have said.” Debriefing with a friend, reading a perfect poem, or composing a blog post are delightful second chances.