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Mychal Wilmes: Punishment, reward prod motivation from within

He shook the offered hand with a firm grip befitting an Alpha male. He smiled and began to lay the foundation for his pitch.

"Mr. Wilmeece, it's good to finally meet you,'' he said.

I winced, in part because his shake was strong, but mostly because he hadn't gotten my name right. Not that one need be a stickler for such things because it hints at a massive ego.

His last syllable sounded like a plural form of mice. It is the least favorite mispronunciation of the name. Others on the list include Will-elms and Wilmar. Wilmeece became a weapon of sorts in public school, when older bullies yelled it out to put me in my proper low place. There were only a couple of bullies, but it's easier to remember the mean than the kind. It came to blows once, but the punches thrown didn't land.

Angry words drew the teacher's attention, which led to the principal's office. The other kid got detention, but I hadn't been in trouble before. Besides, we lived seven miles from the school, and that was too great a distance to expect mother to pick me up.


The principal's leniency was rewarded with only one other incident. A truckload of pigs passed by the open windows of a math classroom one warm spring day. With nothing much else to say, I blurted out that it was apparent the teacher's family was moving to town.

The teacher grabbed me by the collar, lifted me off the floor and banged me hard against the lockers outside the room. I meant him no offense, which I explained in the principal's office. He suggested that a letter of apology — in the best handwriting that could be mustered — was in order. To ensure the letter conveyed the right message, he recommended that my mother read and approve it.

This would not be a pleasant experience, given that my mother had no tolerance for disrespect. She was not violent, therefore there would be no spanking. When a situation called for it, she demanded attention by placing her index finger and thumb around an earlobe and squeezing hard. The pain could bring a grown man to his knees.

Math class problems continued to be an albatross through high school. The math teacher also was the football coach. He wasn't a good teacher, and I was a far worse student. If memory serves right, he was a chain smoker, and the classroom reeked of stale smoke. It wasn't a place where a poor student wanted to spend much time.

No math assignment was too small to avoid, which caused him to command that I write "I will turn in my assignment on time'' 150 times each time one wasn't turned in. It seemed much easier to produce the rote material than to receive an "F" for incorrect class work. The penalty eventually reached 600 sentences, a daunting amount that would require more than one study hall to complete.

Technology solved the problem to a certain extent. The creative use of rubber bands bound three pencils together. It was then possible to simultaneously create three lines of "I will turn in my assignment on time.''

It worked great until it was used at home. Mother watched while I worked at the kitchen table and wondered what was going on. It seemed to her that it would be more practical to do the assignments than pay the penalty. The math teacher, and several others, told her at conference that more effort was sorely needed. Laziness and sloth, she insisted, was a bad reflection on the family name.

Besides, she said, high school would end, and there were certain things that a person needed to know. If talk turned into action by the time the quarter ended, she offered 25 cents for each "B received.''


Her monetary motivation wasn't sufficient. Dad took a more tough-love approach. You, he said, are too stupid to go to college.

The guidance counselor, who agreed with his assessment, said that I might make a good assembly line worker. Tests also showed that I had a heretofore unknown interest in becoming a mortician.

None of it was particularly appealing.

Dad's message burned into my thoughts.

The college degree produced solid mediocrity. It didn't matter if the professors called out "Wilmeece, Will-elms or Wilmar,'' Dad was proven wrong.

Realization came much later that both she and he motivated me with a mix of prodding and condemnation. Ultimately, the push must come from within.

Just for the record, the last name is pronounced Will-mess, as in "he will make a mess." To that extent, I have lived up to the name quite well indeed.

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