As we get older, it’s interesting what we recall from our youth and the impact it had upon us – even if we didn’t know it at the time. For me, I was blessed with having several teachers who supported me and influenced me a great deal.
There was Ms. Blair, my 3rd grade teacher. She had a habit of confiscating the Matchbox and Hot Wheel cars I brought to class. It wouldn’t be until 9th grade when I had Mr. Blair for history class that I discovered she had kept them all those years and he gave them back to me. That made me hold her, and him, is a much different light and taught me that it’s never too late.
There was Ms. Deluca in 4th grade who let me and a friend commandeer a corner of the class for self-study. I wanted to be a “scientist” and brought in all manner of books and my friend wanted to be a “herpetologist” and study reptiles. The space program was in full stride and I wrote to NASA several times. Each time, they would respond with a package of pictures, pamphlets and patches from the missions that were pending.
Then there was Ms. Farynyk who helped me stretch academically. I almost got in trouble (although I didn’t know it at the time) when I was called down to the principal’s office after having a perfect score on the IOWA Tests. When they let me know of my score, I thought it was pretty cool, but didn’t think too much of it. It was only later that I realized they thought I cheated.
And Ms. Lenhart in 6th grade introduced me to geology and Binghamton University and its Geology Department. I joined the Southern Tier Geology Club and was co-star of a local PBS show called “Rocks, Stones, Gems, and Things”. My first public speaking gig in front of a camera. I wish I could get a copy of the show.
My favorite teacher of them all was Larry Hynes who was my 10th grade English teacher. He had us reading the classics like Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and the Iliad and Odyssey by Homer. I still have a couple of copies of Homer’s works – some in prose form, but one in the original poetry of Homer (translated to English, of course).
But the lesson that was most impactful from Mr. Hynes was his having all of his students memorize “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley (1849-1903). The “test” of our having memorized the poem would be most challenging on many levels. Mr. Hynes could see you anytime, anywhere – in the hall, at a football game, in the grocery store, literally anytime and anywhere – and simply utter “Invictus” and you would have to recite it then and there on the spot. The more conviction in your recital, the better your grade. So the entire year we had to be at the ready – and play a cat and mouse game of trying to avoid seeing him in a public place.
But some background on the significance of the poem; Henley was an English poet during the Victorian era who suffered tuberculosis in the bone (as opposed to the lungs) and which saw him lose a leg and found him in and out of institutions. Many of his stays included procedures to drain the abbesses that had formed in his bones – a particularly painful process to endure with the primitive medical capabilities of the Victorian era. During one of his more challenging hospital stays, Henley penned an untitled poem that would come to be called Invictus (which is Latin for “Unconquered”).
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
We have all had, at least I pray we have all had, mentors and influencers who helped us on our journey.
In my profession, helping companies and people become better versions of themselves (what the discipline is actually called is not so important as the results), I have had a great many people who have influenced me. Some helped me to recognize what was good and which I accepted, some helped me to recognize what was not good and which I rejected, and some helped me to recognize a notion and personalize it to me.
Certainly, I often wish I could have been personally taught by “the Masters” such as W. Edwards Deming, Peter Drucker, the founders of Toyota, Sakichi, Kiichiro, and Eiji Toyoda as well as Taiichi Ohno, Shigeo Shingo, Mikel Harry, Eliyahu Goldratt and the near countless other sages and sears who have, collectively, added to the body of knowledge for organizational design – improving company performance and the circumstances of those who work there.
It would have even been better if I could have debated with them – try to discover what lays beyond the surface of their teachings. After all, what is being taught today is a look back – knowledge that has already been discovered and is a hermitized in time. I don’t believe a teacher would be so arrogant as to have us live in the past – their past. But rather to learn from their past and have us evolve and expand what is known and understood into, and for, the future.
As for the lessons I have learned from Mr. Hynes and Invictus; in the 40 years since 10th grade, I have faced many challenges – though none so nearly perilous and painful as those suffered by Henley. But during those trying times, I have often invoked “Invictus” to help steel my spine and summon the courage to kick myself in the ass and muster on.
Mr. Hynes passed away a few years ago from cancer. The line at the viewing was thousands deep – a true testament to all the people who he touched and upon whom he made an indelible and positive impression. It took me a few hours to serpentine my way to finally pay my respects.
Through evasion and pure luck, I was the only student in Mr. Hynes’ class that that did not get “Invicted” that year. But standing over him and in tribute, I recited Invictus then and there. I believe Mr. Hynes would have given me a passing grade.
by Joseph Paris
Paris is the Founder and Chairman of the XONITEK Group of Companies; an international management consultancy firm specializing in all disciplines related to Operational Excellence, the continuous and deliberate improvement of company performance AND the circumstances of those who work there – to pursue “Operational Excellence by Design” and not by coincidence.
He is also the Founder of the Operational Excellence Society, with hundreds of members and several Chapters located around the world, as well as the Owner of the Operational Excellence Group on Linked-In, with over 60,000 members. Connect with him on LinkedIn or find out more about him.