Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Those Three Little Words

During my first few months at the College Park fire station in the autumn of 1985, I learned several unique lessons.  Oddly, the most important rule I learned was not one I expected, but have come to truly understand.  It was all about the THREE LITTLE WORDS they never wanted to hear come from your pie hole. 
At first, the use of these three words seemed harmless, and not being allowed to say them felt like a silly, but manageable phase of initiation.  What harm could come from saying them.  They weren’t argumentative, offensive, racist, or harmful words.  They were simple words that would be used to start a sentence, to define a source, to establish validity of a story.  These were words often spoken with pride, yet here, they were poison. 
It soon became apparent that resisting was going to be difficult.  I found myself wanting to use these words … a lot.  As I became more comfortable in my new surroundings, I began to become frustrated by this seemingly ridiculous rule.  I tried and tried, but often had to catch myself as these words escaped my lips.  My frustration led to anger.  How dare these people restrict my language by eliminating these three little words?  I could understand eliminating phrases like, “I don’t think…”, or “I don’t wanna…”, or “Why must I…”, or “I just can’t…”   These negative statements should ALWAYS be avoided by anyone striving to achieve greatness.   In an organization that relies on teamwork, they could be considered rebellious.  Even Jeff Spicoli’s famous line, “I don’t know”, wasn’t restricted.  Thank Goodness Mr. Hand wasn’t a line officer, huh? 

The three words that seemed to get everyone’s panties in a bunch were “Back Home We”.  Nobody cared what you did “back home” at your fire station.  You were here in Prince George’s County, serving as a member of the College Park Volunteer Fire Department.  The only thing that mattered is that you knew how things were done HERE! 
It didn’t take me long to learn why “back home we” was so toxic.  The College Park Station was staffed by students in fire protection curriculums.  We had ALL come from rather progressive departments, and each of us represented the best of the youth from our respective departments.  That’s 12 smart individuals from 12 different departments, most of which did things a little different from the others.  This wasn’t the West Lawn Fire Company, and despite my beliefs at the time, there was always another way to do things.  If the CPVFD allowed the “back home” influence from every one of the probies that walked through their doors, their identity, traditions, reputation and sense of solidarity would be eroded. 
In time, as I progressed through the ranks and I had proven myself to the officers and members of the department, my opinion began to matter.  Once I had firmly implanted myself into the ways of the CPVFD, the knowledge I brought from the WLFC became relevant.  I am proud to say that some ideas that were born in little ‘ol West Lawn Borough were incorporated into programs in the City of College Park.  Eventually I was permitted to say “Back home, we…”, but not before I learned why I couldn’t as the new guy in the house. 
I learned to understand patience, and tolerance for others opinions.  I realized that I was the new guy in town, not the organization.  They had been hosin’ and truckin’ for decades before the mere consideration of my existence.  Despite how smart I thought I was, I thankfully learned that others may be smarter.  The humbling experience of being forced to forget the past and accept the present was a valuable lesson that now, makes all the sense in the world. 
This is a lesson that I have applied numerous times in my life.  As the new guy, I always take the time to get to know the people and the system that is in place, giving them every opportunity to show me what is already in place.  This open-mindedness has helped me learn quite a bit about organizational philosophies as well as individual capabilities.  I only wish others in my recent past would have learned the same lesson of respect that the CPVFD taught me.  THAT story, I will save for another time...
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.  Enjoy a safe and wonderful time with your family and friends as we celebrate of the "things" we have in life .