“Reputation is an idle and most false imposition;
oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.”
— William Shakespeare
Abraham Lincoln, a man smiled upon by history, once said that “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” Honestly put, Abe. Indeed, people carry around their reputation like a layer of skin — it’s acquired over time, can get a little dirty, and is not so easily shed. In many cases we learn about a person well before we ever meet them. And it is difficult to say that those preliminary scouting reports don’t impact the tone of our first interaction. Whether positive or negative, our anticipation is shaded by the well-intentioned preambles from some common acquaintance. Perhaps we are on our guard, waiting for them to infuriate us. Or maybe we’re expecting them to set the room alight with their wit and charm. Regardless, a person’s reputation — as it goes — precedes them. But it is our job as members of a civil society, undoubtedly with a spectrum of reputation of our own (depending on who is doing the evaluating), to give each person their due. Otherwise, like Abe said, we’re just judging shadows.
As a teacher I deal with this regularly. In September my colleagues are eager to examine each other’s rosters and before long in the verdicts come. “I had him last year. He’s trouble.” “Watch out for that one; she’s got a mouth on her.” “Oh you have so-and-so? What a phenomenal student!” Some will just offer a global condemnation of the whole class: “I had most of these. Good luck…” I used to heed the advice of these fellow educators and immediately found myself paying extra attention to some and expecting magic from others. While natural I suppose, this was unfair, especially considering the fact that many of the “problem” students turned out to be great in my class, while some of the world-beating all-stars were rather pedestrian. That’s not to say that some portentous musings haven’t been spot on, but in general, we can’t assume anything based on the evaluations of others. This sets us up for either a self-fulfilling prophecy or disappointment. The relationship between character and reputation is tenuous. Occasionally the most distinguished people can be morally suspect, while those with infamously checkered pasts can be kind. With this in mind, I strive to bring a tabula rasa to my classroom each September (and everywhere else) and allow the students (and strangers) to etch their own character.
I began to think about this murky correlation the other day when my wife prepared a meal with a fragrant and mysterious vegetable, with which I was unfamiliar. They looked like tiny heads of lettuce. I cautiously speared one with my fork and ate it. It was delicious. The consistency was fibrous, the flavor in the broccoli or cabbage family, but entirely original.
“What is this?” I inquired through a mouthful of deliciousness.
“Brussels sprouts,” came the reply.
My surprise was the result of a childhood’s worth of conditioning. Brussels sprouts were the vegetable every child hated and every parent sadistically foisted upon them.
Eat your brussels sprouts!
Come on, Mom, do I have to?!
I had never so much as seen a Brussels sprout but I, and presumably some number of people in my generation, had come to hate them by association. If they were ever an option, I would refuse them roundly. Brussels sprouts?? What, am I being punished? And now here I was devouring these delectable little globes with zeal and regret. I could’ve enjoyed these for years!
Has there ever been a dish vilified so unjustly? Could there be a worse smear campaign in the history of edibility? Imagine if Brussels sprouts had the same public relations campaign as caviar — a gelatinous black blob of fish eggs, with a worse consistency than tapioca pudding, that tastes like wet fishy sand, but for some reason is a ludicrously expensive delicacy. Why couldn’t Robin Leach, Kim Kardashian, or Jay-Z have been extolling the virtues of this splendiferous sprout, spooning them into their faces while they sipped their Dom Perignon?
I had made a mistake which I’ve made since: I assumed the commotion was true and acquiesced to an unfair, yet popular opinion. In this case I neglected the modest and surprisingly tasty sprout of Brussels, assuming they were disgusting vegetables, good only to stealthily scrape off the plate for the unrefined and indiscriminate palate of the family dog.
Well, the day of that meal I changed my mind, not only about disreputable vegetation, but with regard to lending credence to reputation. I would endeavor to let every person — and every dish — have a say before I had mine. Next time I feel compelled to take stock in someone else’s opinion, I’ll amend David Foster Wallace’s advice and consider the Brussels sprout.