The Day a Tough Guy on Probation Taught Me a Lesson

Three decades ago I was the guidance counselor for the adult education program in Auburn, and was also teaching classes I’d designed.

One of those courses was “Assertiveness Skills”. My students in the fall of 1989 were mostly women in their 40s and 50s, all of whom, it seemed, were hoping to gain the courage to speak up for themselves with their families and at work. There was one lone male in the class.

This youngish man – who was perhaps in his mid 20s – always arrived with a 2 liter bottle of some kind of soda, pretty much repeated the same jeans & t-shirt style each week, sat casually slouched and half hanging out of those awkward school desk & chair combos, and although he listened politely week after week, he didn’t “fit” with the rest of the class. And he never said a word.

Until, that is, one day I decided to start a discussion on how we feel when it seems everyone around us is being deliberately irritating and unhelpful. Do we feel hurt? Upset? Angry? How do we respond?

At that point, my guy straightened up slightly and very quietly drawled, “You know, my probation officer says that if you meet more than three assholes in any one day, you ought to take a look at your attitude”.

Some nervous laughs from the ladies and then, dead silence.


With that one sentence I learned more from that young man than my entire curriculum was worth. I hope his classmates got it, too.

I’ve repeated this story over and over for three decades. Sadly, I don’t remember the young guy’s name, nor that of his probation officer. If I did, I would look them up and thank them both.

Categories: Mental Health, Relationships

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