My maternal grandpa died in 1982 when I was 12 years old. His name was Matthew Nichols, and his passing was the first significant loss of my life.
He never graduated high school and was a self-taught electrician by trade, yet there were several invaluable life lessons that I learned from him.
One such lesson occurred when I was in the first grade at Hawthorne Elementary School in Wilingboro, New Jersey.
One day during recess I got in big trouble because my two best friends decided it would be funny to go behind the school and pee on the building.
I went along and did just as they did.
Our six-year old minds thought it was hysterically funny, until one of the recess aides caught us. Not only was I banned from outdoor recess for two weeks, I was roundly and soundly spanked when I got home from school by my parents – strong adherents of corporal punishment.
To add to my embarrassment, our grandparents were staying with us. I remember crying on my bed when my grandpa came into my room and unexpectedly turned the thermostat on my wall to 60º, forcing frigid air to pour into the already autumnally cool room.
He sat down on my bed and waited for me to stop crying.
Then he gave me a hug. We sat there in silence for a minute, when I told him that I was getting cold.
He then explained something to me that I have never forgotten. He said that a thermometer goes up and down based on the temperature of the room that it’s in. Even as a first grader I understood that concept. However, he went on to say, the thermostat does the opposite. It actually determines the temperature within a space.
The thermostat, for example, was to blame for the chill we were experiencing in my room.
Grandpa then told me that even though he loved me, he was sad because I chose to be more of a “thermometer” at school that day by lowering to the bad decisions of others. He hoped that next time I would be more of a “thermostat” – setting the tone and expectation for conduct rather than merely following the bad behavior of another.
He then gave me another hug and turned off the air conditioning as he left my room.
The blowing and the chill stopped immediately, but his insight still lingers with me today.
Since then, I’ve heard that analogy several times espoused by experts and PhDs, but the greatest delivery of that life lesson came from a man who had no more than an eighth-grade education.