Eric Ligon presents “They Won’t Thank You For It”

Eric Ligon presents “They Won’t Thank You For It”

I grew up in Louisiana where I went to public
and parochial schools. In elementary school, I was taught by nuns. I had wonderful teachers
who worked hard and dedicated their lives to teaching reluctant learners like me. Eric
Ligon, will you please stop talking! theyd say. And, Eric Ligon, will you turn around in your
seat?, and my favorite: Eric Ligon, you are capable of so much more. I always wondered,
How do they knew if I was capable of so much more if I had actually never done so much
more. Perhaps it didnt get better from me? Perhaps this was the best it was. I was pretty
darn sure that was the case. I liked all my teachers, except for my 7th
and 8th grade English teacher, Sister Bridgett. She was the bane of my existence. I never
knew a meaner, more unyielding nasty woman. She drove us onward, harder and harder. No
excuses. No fun. Only sentence diagramming, and grammar, and misery, and pain. I went on to high school and then to college
in Louisiana where I studied graphic design. Dont you want to be a doctor?, my parents
would ask. Or a dentist? No I said firmly. I want to be a graphic designer. My parents
said, Well, whatever that is you should probably go to a really great school. I only applied to art schools in New York
City. Id never been further north than Fayetteville, Arkansas when I got off the plane in New York
to attend Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Pratt was a really fine school in a really dangerous
neighborhood. My mom didn’t want me to stay there but I did.I received a great education
and i made life-long friends. In a philosophy course, my professor asked
if anyone knew what a gerund was. My right hand shot up into the air. Then I looked at
it in horror.I dont know what a gerund is!! He called on me. A gerund is a verb form ending
in ing that functions as a noun such as, Boating is fun. Exactly the definition Sister Bridget
taught me in 7th grade. Word for word. My first professional job was at Working Woman
Magazine as the Art Assistant. There is nothing lower on the totem pole of a magazine than
the art assistant. Not even the cleaning crew. Me, and 63 women. That was an education! And
I learned a very valuable lesson: Never take your boss a problem without a possible solution. I worked as a freelancer designer in New York.
At Weight Watchers Magazine, I found a grammatical problem in the text and took it to the executive
editor. She looked at me a long time and then said, Designers dont know grammar! I told
her about my education at Sister Bridgets cruel hands. The managing editor of the magazine
challenged me to a sentence diagram-off. I won. I worked at Andy Warhols Interview Magazine
as a production artist for a year. Andy used to stand behind my chair and just watch me
do paste-up. He never spoke to me. I never spoke to him. He just stared. Sister Bridget
would have prayed for his lost soul. And, for his hair. My last job in New York was as the Associate
Art Director for the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine. I loved language, and words, and
design, and image, and the salary that came with joining the New York Newspaper Publishing
Guild. Publication design was the perfect place for me. I felt happy and at home. One Sunday morning, I was riding the subway
when I saw a man reading the magazine. He flipped through it and then stopped at a spread
I had designed. I was just sure he stopped to read this spread because of my design and
I was very proud. As the subway pulled into the next station, the doors opened, he tossed
paper to the floor and got off. I was stunned. I make trash. Thats what I do! This was a
true crisis for me. It was time to do something that was more meaningful with my life than
designing pretty trash, even if it meant leaving New York where I loved being. My first design
professor had told me that he thought Id make a good professor. I called to talk to him
about it. I applied to graduate school. After leaving New York, I spent a couple of
days in my hometown before my grad program began. While there, I drove past St. Vincents
Convent. I drove a block and then, possessed by who knows what, I turned around and pulled
into the convent parking lot. I was going to tell Sister Bridget how much I had hated
her. I marched into the convent and up to the nun
at the front desk and asked if Sister Bridget was available for a visitor. The nun very
sweetly said, Please have a seat in the parlor, Ill go get her for you. So I sat there waiting,
trying to decide what I wanted to tell her. How could you have been so mean? Then she
walked into the room. She looked at me, smiled and instantly said
Eric Ligon! It had been 15 years since I had seen her and she knew me by name. Immediately.
We caught up the intervening years briefly and then I said, I came here today to tell
you how much I hated you. Her face lit up and she just beamed. Then she said, Oh I loved the boys. You did,
I said. We had no idea. We thought you were so mean. Oh, I always wanted to be easy on
them, but in the long run, they wont thank you for it.
They wont thank you for it? Set your expectations high and demand the best from the student
or they wont thank you for it! Now, I dont believe in divine providence,
but this made me wonder. I had gone to tell a woman who had dedicated her life to teaching
kids like me how much I had hated her and she offered me the best advice Id ever heard
about teaching, just days before I was to teach my first classes as a teaching fellow.
What a tremendous lesson! As a professor I have lived by that advice
my entire teaching career. In fact, I attribute whatever success Ive found as a professor
to that advice. I have always been known as a professor who expected a great deal from
his students. And I dont suffer excuses very well, either. I expect my students to succeed. My first semester teaching, I had a student
who was performing poorly in my class. She never seemed to have done the work I thought
she was capable of doing. I said to her, Mary, you are capable of so much more! Then I heard
myself. My teachers had instinctively known what I was capable of. And now I knew the
same of my students. Sister Bridget changed my life. She taught
me more than I knew Id learned about English and grammar. And she offered me a simple phrase
that has been the central philosophy for my entire teaching career. I wish I had gone
back to tell her how much I appreciated her wisdom. Perhaps, by sharing it with you here
today, her gift will grow. What a fine gift it has been! Thank you.

One thought on “Eric Ligon presents “They Won’t Thank You For It”

  1. In the mid 90s I was in your typography class. I was at the lowest point in my life, having recently been assaulted and experiencing a PTSD related depression (I wouldn't be diagnosed for two more years). You expected a great deal from us in that class. You offered guidance and set the bar high. I couldn't keep up. You were never unkind, nor did you lower your standards. I told you after class one day that I could not keep up because my roommate was suicidal and I was having to watch her. It wasn't her, it was me. You were kind and asked if I needed help. I said I just needed more time. You accommodated me and I felt like I had let you down and stopped going to class. I had always been a good student and I was ashamed to go back. The depression was getting worse. But one of my clearest bright spots from that time was your compassion. You called the campus psych team and they contacted me, which set me in motion to finding the right kind of help and climbing out of that depression. It was a long road, but Mr. Ligon, you saved my life. Over the last 20+ years, I have thought of you often and with tremendous gratitude. I hope you see this. I am well now and I have been for more than 20 years. I ended up graduating with a few degrees and doing quite well in school after that year. I appreciate that you didn't lower the bar. I appreciated that you didn't just look the other way. The ripple effects of your kindness toward me are bigger than you will ever know. Thank you, Eric Ligon. Your teacher's ripple effect are felt still. She would be very proud.

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