February 1, 2019

Dear Drama Observers,

There are a handful of educators who will never be erased from the hard drive of my memory. One was Miss Parnell, my fifth-grade teacher. I have two recollections of her I’ll never forget.

The first occurred on a Friday afternoon in November of 1963. I was in the sixth grade and we had just returned from lunch in the school cafeteria. Our teacher, Miss Flowers, was late in returning to the classroom. When she finally arrived, she walked in very slowly and said the following: “I just heard on the radio in the principal’s office that President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas. He’s been taken to a hospital and that’s all we know right now.”

She started her afternoon lessons but, obviously, none of us heard a word she said. A few minutes later, I looked over at the classroom door, and framed in that little window was Miss Parnell’s face. She waited until she had the attention of Miss Flowers and then shook her head back and forth. Miss Flowers left the room and returned a minute later to inform us that President Kennedy had died.

Most of us can recall exactly where we were and what we were doing when certain notable events occurred—i.e. Kennedy’s assassination, Reagan’s attempted assassination, the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, or 911. Miss Parnell will forever be etched into my memories of that fateful November afternoon.

Here’s my other memory of Miss Parnell: When I was in her fifth-grade class, I was standing in line for something one day and the kid behind me—I don’t remember his name, so let’s just call him “Johnny”—decided to kick me in the rear end for no particular reason. Well, I wasn’t going to just stand there and take it because, after all, my pride had to be defended. I mean, I grew up in the South and went to Sunday School and all, but I was pretty sure that stuff about “turning the other cheek” referred only to the facial variety of assaults. So, I kicked him back.

Just as my foot contacted his squishy posterior, Miss Parnell came around the corner.  She didn’t see Johnny’s kick, but she definitely saw mine and took me into the classroom for a “talking to.” From the other side of her desk where I was standing, Miss Parnell said, “Alan, I’m just so disappointed. I taught both your brother and sister, and you have such a nice family. This just doesn’t seem like you.”

I proceeded to explain to Miss Parnell that my kick was simply a reaction to Johnny’s kick and that he’s the one who should be in trouble, not me.

She looked at me, paused, looked down at her grade book, and in the margin of the page wrote the word, “Blaming.” I’ve never been great at reading upside down, but I distinctly remember doing so that day. Now, notice that she didn’t write, “Lying,” for I suspect she understood perfectly the context of what happened. She didn’t write, “Butt-kicking.” She wrote, “Blaming.” I was in Miss Parnell’s dog house for refusing to accept responsibility for those actions that were clearly mine.

Maybe that’s why I remember Miss Parnell so fondly and vividly. She cared enough to instill in me a valuable life lesson that day about personal responsibility. I suspect my time in her dog house did me some lasting good.

An ingredient missing from the psyches of Drama People is the ability to claim responsibility for personal wrongness. They engage instead in what’s often referred to as blame-shifting. Dr. Wikipedia explains blame-shifting this way:

Blame-shifting is when a person does something wrong or inappropriate, and then dumps the blame on someone else to avoid taking responsibility for their own behavior.

When confronted with an actual personal wrongdoing, a normally-wired person is able to concede—though reluctantly, at times: “I was wrong about that.” When a Drama Person is confronted with an actual personal wrongdoing, the stance taken is: “It’s not my fault; it’s (fill-in-the-blank)’s fault.” Blame is shifted away from self and onto someone else.

One version of blame-shifting might be called he-did-it-too-ism. That was my tack with Miss Parnell. I shouldn’t be in trouble because Johnny started it, my thinking went. This version shows up on a national scale in what’s come to be called what-about-ism. Political Party A is rightly criticized for some nefarious action and defends itself by saying, “Well, what about when Political Party B did it? I didn’t hear you complaining then.”

Some people, unfortunately, never mature beyond the fifth grade.

A worse version is when the Drama Person shifts blame to a villain who doesn’t exist or attributes sinister motivations to the one upon whom the blame is being shifted. In other words, he lies. If I can make the other person out to be worse than me, then my actions can be considered not so bad by comparison, the thinking goes.

Blame-shifting might actually achieve the Drama Person’s short-term purpose—to be taken off the hook. But from a long-term perspective, Drama People aren’t typically held in high regard. The one who willingly accepts blame, on the other hand, is usually looked upon with favor.

We’re all familiar with the triumph of the Normandy invasion in June of 1944. It was a risky venture and its success was by no means guaranteed. At the instruction of General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, a handwritten note was to be released to the press if the invasion had failed. It read:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.

The gains of blame-shifters are fleeting, but the greatness of those willing to acknowledge fault and accept appropriate blame is enduring.

Till next week.

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