When I was in sixth grade I started a fight at school. Actually it wasn’t much of a fight. I attacked and the other girl cried.

Here is what happened. The teacher asked us to create family crests. We were given a sheet of construction paper with a shield shape mimeographed on one side. The assignment was to divide the shield into parts and illustrate some aspect of our families in each space. We had crayons, more construction paper, scissors and glue. As was, and is, my habit, I focused immediately and began to work. Most of the spaces were easy, but I thought carefully about how to portray my mother. She was aware enough of the women’s lib movement to feel she should declare and define her stay-at-home choice. She would say, “My husband is a manufacturing engineer and I am a domestic engineer.” At that age I thought this was clever and wanted to immortalize her role in my shield. So with practiced paper doll finesse, I cut a tiny broom with individual bristles, a dustpan, cooking utensils and an apron with delicately placed flowers. I arranged everything neatly in the mom part of the crest and sat back to admire.

As I glanced over to the desk next to me, I noticed that my neighbor had reproduced my mother’s symbols in detail, coloring with crayon instead of cut paper and drawing a vacuum instead of a broom, but everything else was the same. I accused her of copying me and I grabbed and crunched the offending shield. When she did not seem to grasp the import of her sin, I shouted and conveyed my wrath with a tug on her hair. We were dragged into the hallway and eventually the principal’s office, she sobbing and me trash-talking like a prize fighter. No placating assurance that imitation was flattery or the value of sharing seemed to penetrate my fury. She copied me.

Feel free to judge my twelve year old self harshly; I was being unreasonable. But the object of my rage was not a sympathetic protagonist. I remember her name: Sandy. I remember her outfit: fluffy pink sweater and perfect cords. I remember her manner: she would maneuver sideways between the classroom aisles, holding the seams of her pants in a perpetual curtsie, never touching edges of the dirty desks. She was pretty and surrounded by a crowd girls at recess. Previous to this assignment, I had been invisible to her and her friends.  

The epilogue to this story takes place in a corporate meeting where everyone is smiling and nodding and admiring each other’s shoes.

One of my peers presents an idea, a great idea, what leadership gurus love to call “an elegant solution.” Only it isn’t hers. It’s mine. We discussed it yesterday and now it sounds as if she dreamed a vision of divine inspiration and offered it up with music and ambrosia. This is not the first time. She also has lots of friends at recess and postures to get more and better friends. I stifle an urge to tear up her notes, scribble purple marker in her daytimer and dump the contents of her fancy too-big tote bag into the toilet. These are not acceptable grown-up impulses, so I smile and nod and look at my shoes. But my hands clutch and I can feel her hair in my grasp.

After thirty plus years, I do believe in collaboration. I love to work with smart, opinionated people who are willing to get messy with a scheme or dilemma. People who knew me as an intense kid would be surprised that one of my professional skills is facilitation. I stand in front of groups, ask questions, listen to answers, value each contribution as distinct and attempt to weave the single strands of thought into a whole of new meaning. I launch the conversation and often have a destination in mind, but what happens along the way is exhilaratingly unpredictable. I don’t anticipate comments. I stay open, linking the responses together in real time. It is a process that depends on a high level of participation and interaction. If we miss a particular connection, we may lose the most coherent path. When a discussion is facilitated well, people have a sense of collective brilliance that they both own and share.

I also know that there are no new or original ideas. We carry around the same handful of cave drawings and though we may gussy them up in our own language and culture, humans are doomed to enact the same script, reinvent the same wheel, whether pulling a cart or searching a playlist. Woody Guthrie wrote far more lyrics than tunes, unapologetically recycling the same music or using music from the public domain. He did not invent newness for newness sake; he just wanted to make music as it came to him. Aside from copyright contracts, can we expect to hold on to anything we say and pronounce it unique?

Having experienced the buzz of cooperation and the acceptance of common discovery, I can intellectualize and manage my proprietor inclinations. But the sixth grader lingers. I have evolved from tantrums to a sort of citation superhero. I attribute people’s statements like a compulsive academic: who said it, when and in what context. I use the pronoun “we” more than the Queen of England. I will remember something said months later and give appropriate credit. This does not make me noble; it only means I have learned to socially channel fighting for “mine” to protecting the “mine” of others.

Back in the meeting, I let my colleague speak and then I “layer” on a “clarifying” thought. I imagine I am deviously forcing her to at least acknowledge a previous conversation, but I know I just sound supportive. I have lost the fight by rationalizing that there was never a fight. We all work for the same company; everything we say and do should be for the greater good. My reaction is just my ego getting in the way. I decide to let it go.

I put the purple marker very slowly back into my briefcase.

8 responses to “Mine”

  1. Dave says:

    Ramona, I’m kind of afraid of you.

    It’s funny how, for our ideas to be of any use, we have to put them out there where anyone can take them. I totally understand your commitment to the ownership of your ideas — I am always spoiling jokes by citing the person who told them to me, etc. I suspect that your willingness to share your ideas makes you much more valuable than someone who hoards ideas or steals them from others, and I suspect it gets noticed.

  2. jeremy says:

    I love how this story about you getting in a fight starts off, Here is what happened. The teacher asked us to create family crests. I think that’s how most prison fights start, too, btw.

  3. domestic engineer

    Cool: this will be the job title of the person responsible for coordinating workflow and traffic patterns of the household servants.

  4. Dave says:

    It makes me think of the Doozers from Fraggle Rock.

  5. Ramona says:

    Dave – don’t be afraid. Although I seem very violent in my posts, I am safe to read from afar.

    jeremy – I am liking the prison connection though. From afar of course.

  6. Kate the Great says:

    It’s okay, Ramona. I did something similar in my senior year of high school. Some girl snatched a paper crane a dear girlfriend made for me earlier that day and taunted me by playing keep away. I grabbed a book and threw it in her face, making her nose bleed.

    Irrational? Oh, yes. She got sent to the nurse’s office and I was sent after her to apologize. There, she got in my face with “how dare you”s and other such variations. I got sent to the vice-principal’s office where I sobbed out my story and got a week’s detention.

  7. Scotty says:

    Great post! I love how you took some basic ideas and created complexity, and took complex ideas and boiled them down. I’m with you on the anger over wanting to contribute to a greater good — to collaborate — in a world of people who are primarily looking for individualized spotlights. I was severely burned twice by these types of situations: once in a rock band, and once in a professional situation. It was hard to decide which emotion was stronger, the hurt or the rage.

  8. Cynthia says:

    enjoyed the post, ramona. It just sucks that we are put in these positions. I too was at school and at work and of course I am the one punished.