The October sun beat down on my head with a relentless anger that seemed out of character for that time of year. As sweat beaded on my head and ran down my face in tiny streams, I continued to pull the rake back and forth across the ankle-deep leaves on that five-acre patch of land behind an old farmhouse. I was a starving college student in Arkansas in my early 20s, and the $100 I was promised for this particular task seemed like a small fortune—until about four hours into the job.
The man who hired me was a ruddy farmer who almost exactly matched my preconceived mental image of his weekly attire with old, faded coveralls and a straw hat to match a face and forearms that throbbed in a hue of dark red that reminded me of an overripe apple. I met him at a church I just started attending, and he seemed a genuinely nice sort who just wanted to help a youngster out with a temporary job. I learned a lot about him the first day I was there.
He set a platter of sandwiches and a jar of lemonade on the splintered and weather beaten picnic table on the side of his house and gave a loud whistle for me to stop and grab a bite. The whistle was quite unnecessary, as I was standing maybe 20 feet from that table. As I dropped the rake and stripped off my work gloves, he clamped his hands to his wide hips and shook his head slowly as if the burden of the world had suddenly descended upon him. His first words were jarring.
“Boy, you ain’t worth the skin God printed you on, you know that?” he said in his low, gravelly voice. “If you was my son, I believe I’d drop you off at a bus station somewhere and wish the world luck with you.”
Gone was the sweet, smiling older gentleman who welcomed me to his church only a few weeks before. His upper lip was curved in a sort of menacing grin that told me these next few days were going to be the longest of my new tenure in adulthood. As I settled down at that old, rickety table to hush my stomach with the help of a few ham and cheese sandwiches, he continued to stare holes through me.
“Seriously. What have you been doing all morning?“ he asked in a growl that dripped with disgust. “You should be halfway through this job by now and you ain’t got 20 feet from this house!”
He paused his tongue lashing long enough to bless the food, and once he uttered “amen” (in Jesus’ name, of course) the verbal flogging resumed. Each bite I took through that entire meal was punctuated with some new commentary on my work ethic, the way I gripped a rake, the size of the piles I made with the leaves in his yard. I waited through the entire meal for some nugget of encouragement, but none came.
The verbal beat downs continued each and every day for the entire week I worked for him. I went to bed each night with blistered hands, a throbbing back, and a wounded spirit. By the time the week was over, his entire property had been raked, an old storage shed had been torn down (and the rubble hauled off), his house had been repainted, and that old picnic table had been fortified, sanded down, and repainted.
At the end of the last day, he called me over to get my check before I left. My shoulders slumped as I trudged over to receive my remuneration—and probably one last commentary on how I represented the most worthless generation he ever witnessed.
I stopped in front of him and noticed immediately that the man I had been working for all week was gone. In his place was the warm, smiling man I met recently at a country church. As he handed me a folded check, he gripped my hand tightly and thanked me for all of my hard work. As my face turned into a soupy mess of confusion, he patted me on the shoulder and gave me one last speech.
“Son, I believe in hard work. Always have,” he said. “You were doing okay from the start, but I knew I could get a lot more out of you with the proper motivation. No matter what job you are given, you owe your best. All you can give. That will always be rewarded.”
As I climbed in my car to leave, his words continued to ring in my ears. I started the engine, but before I shifted into gear, I took one peek at the folded check from that old farmer with a unique motivational approach. He had doubled my promised pay, but I earned much more than a couple of hundred dollars that week. I earned a life lesson on the importance of pouring my all into every responsibility I have.
Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.
I was a lazy high school student who rarely did homework, rarely studied and merely got by on excellent test scores. Some of my teachers appreciated my ability to kill their tests so they let me slide on the work. Others decided I needed to learn a lesson about work ethic and hit me hard for not putting in the effort. I walked into college thinking I had academics figured out, but I had no idea what was about to happen to me. Object lesson number one: Dr. Tom Auffenberg.
Auffenberg was a short, round, jolly man who made fast friends with everyone he met outside the classroom. He had an easy, infectious smile and a demeanor that immediately set you at ease. I first met him in an office call prior to the beginning of the semester and I immediately liked him. I walked away from that encounter knowing that his History 101 class was a slam dunk for me. I was in for a rude awakening.
Call-me-Tom from the hallways of Ouachita Baptist University’s history department turned into Dr. Auffenberg, Esteemed Academic once I crossed the threshold into his classroom. He still had a very engaging teaching style, but business was business when it came to academics. He handed us a syllabus the first day of class that looked like step-by-step instructions on how to build an airplane from scratch and I knew instantly that I was in trouble.
First, there was the reading. Just so…much…reading. Our textbook was at least three inches thick and when I say it was about history, I mean it was about ALL of it. I took AP History in high school, so I decided to ignore the book and coast through the lectures. The first test I took was a complete bomb. I mean, an F. I actually tried to study, too—a little, anyway. The rest of the semester went about like that with Auffenberg and I was awarded with an F for a semester grade.
I retook that class two years later thinking I was grown up and more responsible. I was doing much better in my other classes so I had some well-earned confidence in taking on The Berg again. Same class, same professor…same result, and this time it wasn’t from lack of effort. I was still missing something at age 21 that I couldn’t put my finger on. I retook that same class with a different professor the next semester and got an A. I was just glad to be done with Auffenberg. Or so I thought.
Military service conspired to keep me out of school until I was 30 years old. At that point, I had chipped my degree plan down to just a few classes, and among them was a senior-level history course. As it turned out, the only class available was taught by—you guessed it. My stomach churned, my scalp broke out in a sweat, and my hands began to tremble. I wasn’t a kid anymore, but I still expected failure.
Textbooks in 1995 gave way to laptops in 2006, but I read every word of assigned text. I took every quiz, turned in every paper, and got extra credit for never missing a day of class. The tests were still 70% of the grade that semester, though. When it came time for the first test review, I looked around the classroom and realized I was the only student in there over the age of 21, so I decided to try a leadership technique I learned in the Army. I raised my hand, and when called upon I asked Dr. Auffenberg if he could provide a study guide for us to organize our notes around while preparing for the test. He stared at me, dumbfounded, as the other 23 students in the class all turned in their chairs to get a better look at the old dude in the back of the room who had the nerve to ask such a question.
The Berg scanned the mixture of shocked and hopeful faces around the room, gave me that big Call-Me-Tom smile that I had not seen since the first time we met 12 years earlier and said, “What a splendid idea, Frank!” I instantly went from Old Pathetic Dude to Campus Hero. I also used that study guide—and the others that semester—to go from Auffenberg Flunky to straight-A student.
The obvious point here is “if at first you don’t succeed…” The less-obvious one, though, is that sometimes we require a little more seasoning in life before taking on monumental goals. I realized through my growth process that Auffenberg was not the code to be cracked in order to succeed. I was.