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Column - Learning the hard way

One of my downfalls is a low patience tolerance for people not following directions. It might be something simple like asking my daughter to empty her backpack and hang it up, only to find later that she emptied it but tossed it on the floor. Or it might be something more complex, like leaving detailed, written instructions for someone only to have them followed incorrectly.

I admit, I wasn't always the best follower of directions myself. I learned the hard way.

One day in junior high, my classmates and I were given a blank sheet of paper, and another sheet filled with instructions. I always strived for good grades, but my downfall was that I also wanted to be the first one done with any given project. So, with my usual competitive drive, I dove into the assignment.

There was a brief introduction at the top of the page, followed by a list of numbered steps to follow. In my quest to be the first one done, I jumped to step number one and began following the directions. I don't actually remember what the directions all involved, but it was something like writing answers to certain questions, drawing pictures, completing sentences, doing simple math problems, etc.

I was so into my work that it took me awhile to realize that some of the students weren't doing anything. I remember jumping to the last direction on the page, which was something along the lines of, "Turn your paper face down on your desk and wait quietly until everyone else is done."

I glanced at the girl who was always in competition with me to be the first done and sure enough, her paper was face down and she had a gleam of satisfaction in her eye when she met my gaze.

"Impossible!" I thought. I realized with disappointment that I couldn't be the first one done, but I could still get the best score, so I focused on the questions more carefully and did my best to answer them accurately. I'm sure I probably even went back and double-checked some of my answers.

So I did my best and turned my paper over as the last direction indicated, feeling disappointed that several others were so much quicker than me, but confident I had done well. It was, after all, a very easy assignment.

Then came the lesson that has stuck with me for a lifetime. The teacher had us turn our papers over and asked one student to read out loud the introduction at the top of the page.

I don't remember the exact words, but it went something like this: "This is a test of your ability to follow directions. Following is a list of directions. You are to read through the entire list only - do not actually complete any of the directions, except for the last one. When you have finished reading all of the directions, do as instructed on the last one."

I'll never forget the feeling that crept into the pit of my stomach at that moment when I realized my mistake. Never had I failed so miserably on an assignment.

Looking back now, I realize how important that assignment actually was. Unlike some of my geometry assignments, this was one that I could use throughout my life. And even though I failed miserably, I learned a lot from that one assignment, including to slow down, listen (or read) carefully, gather ALL the information before you act, and so much more.

I'm usually not the first one done with a project anymore, but it's seldom that I miss any of the directions, thanks to that long-ago lesson!

"It's Our Turn" is a weekly column that rotates among members of the Echo Press editorial staff.

Tara Bitzan

Tara Bitzan is editor of the Echo Press. She joined the company in 1991 as a news reporter. A lifelong resident of Douglas County, Tara graduated from Brandon High School and earned a bachelor of arts degree in mass communications and English with a minor in Scandinavian Studies from Moorhead State University. She and her husband, Dennis, and their children live near Alexandria.

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