Speaking Personally

“It isn’t personal,” they say. “Don’t take it personally,” they say.

Well, I take things personally. Always have. Probably always will. For me, there is no “just doing my job,” or “just following the rules.”

When my First Grade teacher taught me to read, she was just doing her job, but it was personal to me. She called me her “Young Spaceman,” and I loved her. She had given me the greatest gift in the world.

When my Third Grade teacher threatened me with a tree branch, because she was following her rules and I wasn’t, it was personal. I frustrated her. She pretty clearly hated me. When my other Third Grade teacher (my father fired the entire school on my behalf and took me elsewhere) taught me my multiplication tables, a year late and after much struggling, it was personal, and I loved her too.

In high school, when the yearbook advisor told me that our senior yearbook would likely not be published until the class after ours had already graduated, it was personal, and I stayed late every day for two weeks, getting the layouts finished, meeting the printer’s deadline. We had all worked hard on that book, and I wanted it in people’s hands. That wasn’t just my job or my grade, it was personal. I could make a difference, and, dammit, I was going to.

When I became a librarian, it was personal to me when a crazy patron yelled at me because the book she wanted for her child was a year overdue, and probably never coming back. I thought she needed a little damn perspective, but it was still personal, because she was upset and frustrated while trying to help her child. The rules said all I needed to do was tell her the book was not coming, but I also wanted to help her find an answer, because it was personal.

It was personal to me when three-year old Meagan ran to me and climbed up on my lap at story time, because I was her favorite storyteller at the library. Hey, it was my job, but it was personal to a little girl who loved to be told stories.

When a father in the Reference section said that he thought I was giving his daughter less service than I would an adult, that was personal. I felt his frustration, and I felt mine, too, because that was unfair to say about me. I asked him to stay and talk to me about that.

And when a father at a Star Trek convention was told by con security that he would lose his seat in the ballroom if he took his little daughter to the bathroom, and she would not get to see Brent Spiner, that was personal. Kids should never miss a chance to see their heroes. I pinned my committee badge on her and told them to sit in the reserved seating when they came back. That father tracked me down and thanked me ten years later. I was an unpaid lackey at a mid-sized fan convention, but it was personal.

When the Fire Department’s computers were not going to survive Y2K, and there was no budget to replace them, my boss and I worked overtime to rebuild them with scavenged hardware, because leaving firefighters without the tools they need to do their jobs in our community was wrong, and we took that personally. It was not our job to do that, but we did it. When the records software also failed at Y2K, and the vendor could not provide a solution, I went to school and learned to write one. And when the data transfer program that fed 911 times into that system wasn’t doing its job, it wasn’t my job to fix it, but I wrote a new one, because it was a matter of personal pride to see that system work.

When one of my employees said he didn’t like to come to work anymore, because the atmosphere was so tense, that was personal. I needed to do what I could to fix that. It’s not that I necessarily owe anyone anything, it’s that I need, for myself, for my own pride and self-esteem, to do the best work I can, and to apply my talents where they can be of help. That makes the world a better place for me, as well as others.

If you are my friend, my co-worker, my customer, the things that are happening to you are personal to me. Where we interact, that’s personal. What you need from me, that matters. I may not always be able to help you. I may have to tell you that you’re the author of your own problem and you need to do some re-writes to your life to fix it. Friends, mentors and advisors have to say that sometimes. But I still take your feelings personally, because only I can react to them in the way that I do.

So if my feelings are not of equal concern to you, if you can hurt me, exclude me, hold me back, then look at me later and say, “It’s not personal,” feeling no twinge of remorse, no inkling of a need to fix the problem… Then are you really my friend? Or anyone worth my time? Do I want to have further interactions with you?

If you need to turn off your feelings to interact with the people around you, and fall back on the rule book, because your own moral core is too structurally unsound to provide you with the wherewithal to do what’s right, what’s needed, and take the time to care about other people’s feelings… Isn’t that cowardice?

Kinda harsh, I know. And, yeah, you should take it personally; because that’s exactly how I mean it.

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