HUNT COLUMN: A master class in restraint

Published 9:30 am Wednesday, May 10, 2023

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By Cathy Hunt
Retired Troup County teacher and current school board member

I recently read a memoir entitled “Why Not Win?” by Larry Thornton. The author grew up poor in Montgomery in the 1960s but later became the first African American to own a McDonald’s franchise in Birmingham. He also worked a $5 an hour job as a sign painter at Coca-Cola as a young man and went on to one day sit on its board of directors. The one burger franchise became many; the board seats held now also include banks, the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind, and a private, formerly all-white supper club.

One of Thornton’s guiding principles for winning in life is the obvious: Work hard. Go the extra mile and show initiative; your ethics will eventually get you noticed and open new doors for you.

But the biggest takeaway is Thornton’s insistence on learning to face injustices without letting them break you: “If you can’t take anything, you can’t have anything.” The author shares multiple instances in which he was the object of ridicule and disrespect because of his skin color. Although tempted to retaliate, he grew to believe in patient humility, and now he has remarkable stories about purposefully cultivating positive relationships with, and opening the eyes of, those who sought to belittle him. Once he realized how powerful his humbleness could be, he welcomed the challenge of figuring out how to tackle troubling interactions to make that relationship productive for himself and his antagonist – instead of looking for ways to bring his nemesis down.

Conflict, enmity, meanness, and scorn abound today, often taking root in the fertile ground of social media and coming from bullies both old and young. It’s hard not to push back at those who can’t think of anything better to do than denigrate you or someone you care about, usually without knowing the whole story or even attempting to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. 

People fight and hate with words and fists and weapons. Because one of the school board’s jobs is to hear appeals from families dissatisfied with the punishment given by a disciplinary tribunal, we hear lots of details about conflicts. Nowadays, with cameras on walls and in buses and in the hands of anyone with a cell phone, we also watch plenty of videos of physical confrontations. In so many cases, escalation in a tense situation could have been avoided, and we like to talk to the offenders about what could have happened differently and how a hot-headed response can derail a person’s life. It’s disturbing the number of times that a parent will try to make excuses for a child by saying, “He/she was just defending himself. You can’t ask a child to not defend himself.” But it usually takes two to tango, and videos and background information generally show that things didn’t have to go the way they did. 

I’ve also seen a video of a student refusing to take the bait. He kept his cool, even when the other student made physical contact. This young man knew he had too much to lose to allow himself to enter the fray. He knew it would be stupid to mar his excellent school record by fighting even though he was mad. He has enough self-respect to worry about being seen as a wimp. That video could be shown as a shining example of how not to engage. Add in some of Larry Thornton’s anecdotes, and you have a master class in restraint, and, ultimately, success.