An old friend’s stalwart observation has risen to the top of my thoughts lately. The concept I speak of is both challenging and comforting, and I’m finding that it stands the test of time. When I can accept it as constructive, it brings about self reflection and patience. When I’m unable to see it positively, it’s usually time to reevaluate my thought process.
So, what am I talking about? Well, let me take you back a ways … we’re going to visit my early reporting days at the Times-Courier, the weekly paper in Ellijay, Georgia. If you’ve read my column for a while, you’ve met my old friend John Peeler, who was the Times-Courier sports editor at the time and played a big role in my entry into the journalism world. The saying I’m referring to was one he leaned on when talking to unhappy readers.
This was a time when newspapers still ruled the publicity scene. Facebook had barely taken off, and parents had few ways, aside from their local print products, to see their children’s accomplishments recognized publicly. Peeler tried hard to be evenhanded, but as in most small communities, there were always those who didn’t agree with his coverage choices. The paper would hit mailboxes and racks each week, and disgruntled parents who hadn’t seen their children’s names would inevitably begin trooping in to state their cases to him (as if he could go back in time and reprint that week’s edition).
To my knowledge, Peeler was always kind, but he stood his ground. He was a little territorial about his sports pages, as most good editors are. If someone confronted him in a heated manner, he usually got cooler, and when things reached a certain point, he was done engaging and the other party would find themselves evenly and systematically shut down. If a parent didn’t accept his explanations and pushed an issue, Peeler would respond with level-headed philosophical musings that, despite being applicable, rarely diffused the tension.
He would report these interactions to me later, triumphant in his delivery, and I would roll my eyes and express concern for his personal safety after having seen him calmly exacerbate the outrage of so many sports parents. The scenario, as he told it, often culminated with Peeler propping his black cowboy boots up on top of his desk, tipping back in his ergonomic chair and proclaiming with sage unflappability, “The cream of the crop will always rise to the top.”
This platitude could have meant several things, but I think he was trying to say that when an athlete did something of note, they would end up on his sports pages. This was rather a closed system as Peeler would inevitably be the one to determine which things were of note, but I guess since his title was “sports editor,” he was allowed to pull a little rank.
Back then, as a fledgling writer, I had a tendency to try to satisfy all requests that came across my desk, and I was slightly appalled that Peeler wouldn’t try to accommodate these desperate parents somehow. The reality was — and he knew this — that if he did make concessions, there would be a never ending stream of requests to follow, and he’d never be able to fit all the extra mentions. So, his “cream of the crop” declaration was not only the mechanism by which he justified his decisions but also a concept he put into legitimate play when making his coverage choices. It wasn’t so much that he believed only a certain level of athlete should be recognized but more that those who truly put in the work and had the talent or ability to be in certain positions would inevitably get there. If complaining parents had listened closely, they would have caught the spark of possibility in those words, but by the time Peeler delivered this coup de grace, things were usually too far gone. And the front door to the Times-Courier would once again sigh shut thanks to the limitations of a hydraulic arm, denying an exiting parent the satisfaction of a slammed farewell, and Peeler would once more materialize victoriously at my office door, cigarettes in hand, in need of a smoke break.
It’s the dichotomy of those long-ago words that I’ve found myself chewing on quite a few times recently as I’ve contemplated decisions and challenges. On one hand, maybe “the top,” whether it’s recognition for one’s children or a career achievement or community standing, is reserved only for a select few. On the other hand, if we stick with an endeavor and believe in it long enough, maybe there’s room for us all, and hard work will result in due promotion. And at the same time, there’s the question of what the “top” actually is. Is it acknowledgement or money? Is it the fruition of seeing our children become good citizens and emotionally balanced people after we work so hard to raise them responsibly?
I suppose it’s different for all of us, but when I’m discouraged, I remember that Peeler said the cream always rises — he never modified it to “may” or “sometimes.” And I comfort myself by imagining that if a goal isn’t working out, maybe I haven’t given it enough time or there will be offshoots down the line with results that feel more like “the top.” If Peeler were still with us, I’d ask him to elaborate on his trusted phrase, but I expect he’d probably demur on a concrete explanation and instead prop his boots on his desk, lean back and ask a series of philosophical questions that would lead me to the same open-ended conclusions.