Keep the (fire) fight positive

Photo By Larry Dalton

Throughout 2006, SN&R and Capital Public Radio have aired and published This I Believe essays on the last Thursday of each month. This is the last in our series.

“You can’t do this!”

“You’re not good enough!”

“What is your major malfunction?!”

“What is the matter with you?!”

The instructors at the Modesto Regional Fire Academy shouted insults daily to break me down, stress me out, make me angry. They tried to tempt my emotions to interfere with the task at hand. The only way for me to deal with their put-downs was to keep a positive attitude. By the end of each day, the instructors had little or no voice and could barely speak. I stayed happy through it all because I learned to tolerate their behavior by finding humor in it, especially when I was not expected to do so.

Once, my company performed a hose drill and an instructor yelled that we were moving like a pack of pregnant turtles. That’s hilarious, even though it was not intended to incite laughter. I let myself laugh silently and privately. It helped me keep a positive attitude so I could be focused and able to perform my best.

When the insults were directed specifically at me, I took a different approach. I would take the instructor’s words and reinvent them. For example, on an interior-hose evolution drill, I pranked some friends by aiming a hose through a window and spraying them. My instructor caught me. “You piece of shit!” he screamed. “What do you think you’re doing?” I immediately translated his words so I heard: “You troglodyte! What do you think you’re doing?” I desensitized every insult that was ladled on me so I could keep my focus, move on and complete the task at hand.

Overall, my positive attitude helped my performance immensely. Just believing that I could handle whatever task the instructors told me to do, even with them yelling in my face attempting to distract me, gave me the confidence I needed to be the best I could be.

I believe positive thinking gives confidence to everyone, not just me. I am rarely down on myself, but I do remember that when I have been, my performance suffered. A negative attitude caused me to take all the insults personally. That got me down. Way down. But with a positive attitude, I could transform an instructor’s small cruelties into something silly and painless.

My positive mind-set allowed me to excel in the Academy and graduate as one of its top students. Toward the end of my training period, instructors would ask me why I was always smiling and in a good mood. “Because I love to be here, sir” was my consistent answer.

It was true. I loved the Academy training because it was an opportunity to be immersed in my passion, firefighting, and because I learned to maintain my focus and enjoy every minute of life despite the insults and the yelling. In a world where people everywhere put others down and try to make them feel worthless, a positive attitude is one strategy to remain focused, content and on track to achieving the goals that allow us to be the best we can be.

Michael Donnelly is 21-years-old and training to become a firefighter.