The Owl

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (Prov 12:18)

The Owl

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In eleventh grade I wanted to learn to type. I loved to write letters and often composed my letters with the flourish of a fountain pen, but I was embarrassed that I could only hunt and peck on a typewriter. I envied my Dad who composed his dissertation on an Underwood Manual and now was able to type letters using all the proper keystrokes. For me, typing had caché; typing was professional; I wanted to learn to type.

Parkdale Senior High School [1] offered a typing class for aspiring secretaries, not for students in the college track. When I asked to sign up for the class, my guidance counselor frowned and consented to enroll me only after considerable prodding. Even then, a problem arose because typing was a one-semester course and I needed to choose another one-semester course for the other semester. Reluctantly, I signed up for note-taking. I had no interest or use for note-taking but I rationalized that
at least I was learning to type.

The note-taking class proceeded without a hitch but halfway through the semester my counselor informed me that I had been bumped out of the typing class. In its place, I was enrolled in a psychology class—ugh. What would I ever do with psychology? Psychology?

Psychology started in the new semester with little fanfare. Students enjoyed it because the class had no textbook and no homework. We met for 50 minutes a day sitting in a big circle and just talked. The latest rage in 1971 pop psychology was neither Dale Carnegie nor B.F.Skinner; it was group therapy. In group therapy, everyone got their say, but the price of speaking your mind was that you had to listen to everyone else’s feedback. With more than 20 students in this class, feedback could take a while.

Psychology class was definitely a class off track. I knew almost none of the students from any previous class; the few that I knew were from my gym class. Although at the time I thought of them mostly as strangers, I suspect that these were the students who aspired to the typing and shop classes that my counselor refused to enroll me in. In a graduating class of 750 where half the students did not graduate, a lot of strangers wandered the halls.

One of those strangers—Bill—stood out. Bill was tall and gruff and wore work outfits with plaid shirts. Now, I enjoyed plaid shirts myself and took a ration of grief for wearing blue jeans and boots to school before either were fashionable, but Bill also looked mean—like walk down the other side of the street kind of mean. In fact, on a bad day I might have been afraid of him.

One day in class our assignment was to pick the name of a person out of a hat, compare that person with an animal, and explain why that animal provided a reasonable comparison. I still remember the panic—think of the potential embarrassment—think of the new nickname around school—what was that teacher thinking? As we took our turns, we dreaded the potential for public derision that an animal name might hold for us.[2]

When Bill picked my name, I tensed up. What would he say? How would I respond? But, he quietly said that I was smart like an owl…With those words, my image of him changed—he did not seem so mean after all. I wondered: who is this guy? Over the next few weeks, the stranger that I had observed became a friend that I knew. Later, when I class ended, I missed seeing and talking with him.

Funny, I cannot remember whose name I picked that day.


Carnegie, Dale. 1981. How to Win Friends and Influence People (Orig pub 1936). New York: Simon and Schuster.

Skinner, B.F. 1971. Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Bantam Books/Vintage Books.


[2] Public derision was a real possibility. The “flying finkle finger of fate award” was an example made famous by a television show (1968) called Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (

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