In which I propose compliments

This piece originally ran on the Blog A Go-Go in 2007, but it  makes me so happy to think about this day. I wonder how many of my old classmates remember it?

One of my favorite high school memories is an appreciation exercise that an English teacher made us complete. (The only two things I enjoyed in that class were this exercise and seeing Gallipoli for the first time. “How fast can you run?” “Fast as a leopard…”) Anyway, this English teacher was not one of my favorites, but this assignment was genius. At the beginning of class she handed out slips of paper to us. There were thirty students in the class; we each got 29 slips of paper, one for each of our classmates, already printed with their names. Our instructions were simple: on that little piece of paper, we were to appreciate something about that particular classmate. (She made it quite clear that ONLY complimentary observations would be accepted.) The trick was, it was to be done anonymously. We were not to sign our names, and she even encouraged us to disguise our handwriting.

Naturally, we groaned and complained as only teenagers can do. It was easy to jot something about our friends, those we didn’t think about. The people we didn’t really know or didn’t especially like were more challenging. We were required to find something to compliment. She took them up at the end of the period and kept them for a few days before she passed them out. That only served to heighten the anticipation. When she passed them out, she had bundled them for us, so when she stopped at our desks, there was a little flurry of compliments drifting onto our desks at once. It was magical.

I read through mine quickly at first, then one more, slowly. The ones from my friends were easily recognizable by the handwriting. The sentiments were nice enough, but they were predictable and a little dull. The others, each written in an unfamiliar hand, were illuminating. The observations were sometimes intimate and always interesting. I was surprised by some, flattered by others. It was a little slice of voyeurism to peek into how others saw me. My very favorite was one that read: I would not mind if you sent me your first novel. It was offhand, and not, strictly speaking, a compliment, but it was vastly encouraging to me that someone even then saw me as a writer, and a successful one.

I carried those slips of paper with me for many years, through several moves, until our final move to this beautiful old house in Virginia destroyed them. Aside from my favorite, I can’t remember what they said or even the last time I read them. And I have no idea who wrote that compliment, but I wish I did. I hope somehow they find this blog and know that every time I got a rejection letter I took out that little slip of paper and read it like a cookie’s fortune, believing that someday it would happen.

It took less than an hour for us to write those anonymous compliments, but I know that for me, the effects lasted much longer than the time it took to read them. So what I propose is this: compliment someone unexpected today. Find something fabulous in the unlovely; celebrate the surprising in the mundane. And find a way to let them know. It might mean a lot more than you think.

Shortly after our move to Virginia, our stored possessions were afflicted with mold and had to be discarded. For five years I thought the compliment slips were among them. I found them last month when I was cleaning out my memorabilia boxes, a little yellow, a little faded, but just as wonderful.

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