Learn the Rules to Break Them

I have always enjoyed writing. There were always things taking away my ideas and reasons not to be creative in school, though. “Format the paper this way,” one teacher would say, and another, “I didn’t ask what you think.” Soon, my child-like sense of the world was gone, and in its place, stood a monolithic slab of drivel produced for the sake of a grade in some class that I “would appreciate someday.” I am beyond angry at how our public schools rob us of our creativity and imagination at a young age, brainwashing us into drones that fit neatly into their plans at the time, but that is another post.

In this post, I would like to share with you why the process is not always a bad thing and why learning the rules is exactly what you need to do in order to break them successfully. After all, you cannot knowingly break the law if you do not know the law in the first place . . . and what fun is that? As an analogy, I will use the experience of my Valedictorian address. It was two weeks before high school graduation in 1999 and I was held up by the principal in the hallway in front of the office. “Where’s your speech? I need a copy of it to review before you give it.” What speech? “Your graduation speech?” I’m giving a speech? “Valedictorians give a speech, Chris. I need a copy of it for approval so that we can get everything finalized.” No. “What do you mean? If we don’t get a copy of the speech for approval, we’ll find someone else to speak.” If I am going to give a speech, then I am going to speak, not read. At most, I can come up with a rough outline for you. The principal’s crossed arms said everything, but the words were spoken anyway, “If you so much as deviate a hair from this outline . . .” How long do I get to speak? “Ten to twenty minutes.” Okay. I got the administrators their outline under threat of being yanked off the stage if I deviated one iota from my outline and then proceeded to speak, not from the outline, but from my own heart, my own mind, my own being that they had tried so hard to beat into submission all those years, but had failed so miserably to do. The standing ovation said it all.

Now, I started out oblivious, right? I did not even know that I was Valedictorian and it was two weeks before graduation. I was a good public speaker, though—a public speaker, not a public reader. I had learned the rules of public speaking, but I had also learned that I could not speak if I was worried about what I was reading. Anyone could read out loud to a crowd of students, parents, and teachers, but it took something more to speak to them. It took imagination. It took creativity. It took magic. One thing that took all the magic out of a speech was writing it all down. That was a short story, and probably a poor one because a short story was not my intended outcome. I had every intention of speaking, and I did in the end, with grand results. First, though, I had to negotiate the rules. To begin with, there was the rule of administrator approval. I negotiated for an outline instead, and went with that under threat of bodily injury. Next, I prepared an outline. No harm, no foul, and it gave me an opportunity to compose my thoughts, but not to have to memorize them. It allowed a flexible plan to be put into place. Third, I got the outline approved. Good. Now we could move on to the big day. I did not know prior to this that the administration had never, in the history of the school’s policy exceptions, allowed a Valedictorian to give a speech without a full written statement that would be followed (read) to the letter. I was honored that they trusted me not to embarrass them, and I certainly did not disappoint with my speech. Last, of course, I gave my speech.

My point with all of this is that there was a way that things had been done in the past, and there was a standard that had to be met. I had to prove that I knew the rules, even if I did not end up following them. There was a way that things just were, and that nobody questioned. Feel free to question. Take notes on your crazy ideas. Before you do anything else, though, learn the way it has to be done so that you can revel in the breaking of the rules!

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