Box Day

Once upon a time, I went to school to study music composition. I had many good teachers over the years, but the man who had the greatest impact on me was Merrill Ellis. Mr. Ellis  was an unusual, and remarkable man. Every time you saw him he would break out in a big smile, stick out his hand and shake hands. It didn't matter if he had just seen you an hour ago. Every encounter with Mr. Ellis was an opportunity for him to teach. The conversation usually started with, "Did you write music today?" He was constantly urging his students to stay focused, keep at it, and work consistently throughout the semester to get the music completed. There was a good reason for this.

On the last day of the semester Mr. Ellis would come to school in the morning and put a cardboard box outside his office. Then he would go home for the day. At 5:00PM he came back and picked up the box. If you wanted credit for the semester, you had to get your music into that box before he came back to pick it up. And your music could not be just scribbled out on whatever was at hand. It had to be copied in ink, on vellum, professionally reproduced and bound. Otherwise, it would not be accepted. And there were no excuses. If it wasn't in the box on Box Day, you didn't get credit. Your grade for the semester was based solely on what was in the box. If you didn't get it in the box on Box Day, you might as well have not bothered to show up for the semester.

Now, you may think that sounds harsh and that my teacher was a tyrant or unreasonable man. But those who knew Mr. Ellis would tell you the exact opposite. He was a very kind, gentle, caring teacher who did everything he could to help his students succeed. Box Day was the final lesson for the semester. Mr. Ellis made it clear that the greatest talent in the world was worthless unless you had the discipline to complete the work. Success requires setting a goal and meeting it, in other words. It's also important to understand that we knew about Box Day from the first day of the semester. It wasn't something that Mr. Ellis threw out at the last minute and then sat back to see if we could get it done. Throughout the semester, he continuously encouraged and helped us to succeed. He not only taught us music composition, but also how to prepare a manuscript so that it looked professional. But that was only a small part of what we learned. We also learned discipline, integrity and confidence. By the end of the semester we had all the skills necessary to succeed.

The way Mr. Ellis treated his students also teaches a lesson about how to get people to succeed. So often we encounter people in authority who make demands that we can't meet for the simple reason that they do not give us the necessary resources to succeed. A tyrant is not someone who makes difficult demands on others. A true tyrant is someone who makes demands without sufficient warning and without empowering a person to succeed. In other words, with every obligation must come sufficient information, resources and authority to meet the obligation. Otherwise, making demands on people serves no purpose. If you require someone to do something, you must also give them what is necessary to meet the requirement.

The lesson of Box Day has stayed with me ever since. It applies to many things in life, not just getting school work in on time. Discipline, care, attention to detail, and tenacity to see it through to the end is every bit as important as knowledge and talent. Likewise, if you are in a position of authority over others, you must give them the time, knowledge, resources and delegated authority they need to succeed.


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