A random scene that sticks with me (the gist of it, anyways) from Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is when Brad Pitt’s character lectures his son on the woes of success, telling him to stay middle of the road because when you are really good at something, people take advantage of you.
It’s not a slacker’s mentality like it sounds. I don’t think he means “don’t work hard.” Rather, just don’t be freakishly good at what you do. At least, that’s how I interpret the message. It’s a social thing, you see?
The day after I watched The Tree of Life I was offered a promotion at work, which I promptly turned down, much to the chagrin of my family, especially my older sister, a veteran English teacher, and my mother, a novelist.
I earn a living, at least in the spring and summer, reading and scoring essays K-12. Now, the promotion was to be a team leader, which would involve supervising and guiding the work of 10 other readers. From what I’ve surmised it’s ten times the work for only a few bucks more an hour.
The appeal is prestige. And the Team Leaders I have had the pleasure of working under are all rock stars. Curious, intelligent, warm-hearted people, with eyes like laser beams! Many are retired teachers, journalists, and/or editors. Some are active writers. They possess sophisticated vocabularies and shrewd understanding of grammar, style, and composition.
As someone who wasn’t an English major, and who’s highest writing accomplishment is a graded senior thesis, you can imagine I’m a bit intimidated by these people, however kind and reassuring they have been towards me.
So I turned the promotion down. And I was at peace with my decision to turn it down.”I’m not ready” I rationalized. I don’t have the people skills to be a supervisor. I’m perfectly happy being a normal reader.
That night I kicked my shoes off, fell effortlessly into bed, interlocked my fingers behind my head like Ferris Bueller and let out a smug sigh of relief. “Middle of the road” I said, and fell into a restful sleep. And I have not regretted the decision once in the month since.
But there was a catch. My reader statistics aren’t “middle of the road.” Productivity? relatively normal; I’m not an exceptionally fast reader. But accuracy? Approaching freakish. And that’s the category that matters most if you’re going to be a team leader, because you have to know where the boundaries are. For instance, where a 7 essay becomes an 8, 9, or even a perfect 10. You have to understand the difference as a team leader so you can advise your readers how to score when they are unsure.
I suppose my accuracy had something to do with what happened today. Low and behold, I was offered the promotion again, this time by a project manager who was prepared to meet my resistance. She showered me with encouragement, praised me for the stellar evaluations I had received from my superiors, and spewed out details about how I’d receive the best training and would be working alongside people I knew and respected. I give her performance an A+. I couldn’t say no. Again.
So, starting next week I will officially be a Team Leader… Yay?? I don’t know. I feel more like Bruce Willis griping in The Fifth Element as his old general begs him to accept the mission to Fhloston paradise.
Or Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. Same gist. It’s the reluctant hero motif. But I’ve seen enough winters now to doubt whether being the hero is really worth all that it’s cracked up to be.
In this case, I guess we’ll see.
Thanks for reading.
“Middle of the Road” is also a song by The Pretenders. I can’t vouch for whether the lyrics bear any direct relation to my post.