Why Bother Talking With Strangers?

Why Bother Talking With Strangers?

Recently, while taking a walk in the park with my camera trying to capture the beauty of the fall colors, I noticed an artist and stopped to admire his work. He was also trying to catch the beauty, but with a paintbrush and canvas instead of a camera. I stood under the canopy of red and orange leaves and looked at the outline of a tree on his canvas. Wishing I had his talent, I struck up a conversation with him. 

A Fresh Perspective

He told me he’d grown up as a native and graduated from the local high school. It had been about ten years since he’d done much drawing or painting. I told him I worked as an elementary school teacher and had lived in the neighborhood for about thirty years. He smiled to himself and then related to me what kind of a student he’d been while in school. “I was like a vegetarian wolf,” he told me. “I did not fit in.”

I’d never heard the term, “vegetarian wolf,” but the words gave me an instant and vivid picture. I visualized a lone wolf chewing grass on a hillside, while the rest of the pack chowed down on freshly killed meat. But I also wondered how a vegetarian wolf would be treated by the rest of the pack? What would they think of him? Would they still let a vegetarian wolf live with them? 

I told the artist I had a few vegetarian wolves in my classroom and then thought about how those kids might feel. I know as a teacher, they force me to stretch and grow. Since they are unlike the rest of the class, I have to come up with different strategies to teach them. They take a bit more of my energy, but I appreciate them just as much if not more than the “carnivore wolves.” And somehow, we all have to learn to get along with each other.  

The next day, I returned to the park to capture some more of the beauty of the fall season and again I saw the artist. The tree outline on his canvas had taken on more detail, but still no leaves had appeared on his tree. I worried the weather might turn cold and wet before he got the colors onto his canvas. He told me one of his downfalls was control. He wanted to get the tree trunk and branches just right before he added the color. But he said, at some point he had to let go of his commanding desire for perfection, and just let the art happen. I had to admit his words hit home with me. I often try to control and when I do, I have to remind myself to allow things to unfold in their time and in their way. I don’t know if I will ever see this stranger again, but in talking with him, I was given a fresh perspective on some old ideas.  

Why bother talking with strangers? Striking up a conversation with people we do not know may show us a fresh way of looking at the old.

Why Bother Learning From the Experienced?

                                    Why Bother Learning From the Experienced?

Although it has been said that experience is the best teacher, I would like to rephrase that particular statement. I agree that we do learn from our experiences, yet I wonder if learning from the experienced, is a better way to master a skill. 

Remembering Mary

I once had a friend named Mary. She was at least twice my age. I met her when I was in the throes of raising teenagers. She, on the other hand, was a widow. Her children were grown and her grandchildren were teenagers. I met Mary at church and even though there was a great age gap between us, we were drawn toward friendship.

Mary lived in the neighborhood and welcomed my random drop in visits. Morning, afternoon or evening, whenever I rang her doorbell, her front door always opened wide to me. She would clap her hands, and smile. Not only did she love having company, she most always had time to sit and visit. Sometimes we plopped in her comfy living room chairs propping our feet on the coffee table. Other times we ate cold sandwiches and drank iced tea at the dining room table. If I visited on a Saturday morning, we took our coffee to the back porch swing and sat, admiring the view of the distant mountains while sipping our steaming cups of espresso. I counted on Mary to make room for me in her life and whenever I showed up at her doorstep, she did exactly that. 

What I liked most about Mary was that no matter the particular trial I told her I was enduring with my teens, she could enlighten me with one of her stories. Experiences with her own children gave her a treasure trove of wisdom that she generously and willingly shared with me. Already well versed in the ways of adolescents, she knew the ropes well. 

Her well grounded and respectable adult children had once been teenagers too, she told me. She also assured me that all adolescents have similar characteristics. They think they know it all, use selective hearing and show great disdain for any adult who tries sharing an inkling of common sense with them. With a wide knowing grin, she related, “Your sons are not acting out of the ordinary, but they are calling for extraordinary love and patience from you.” How right she was.

Mary was a well seasoned mother and lived to tell of her trials of training up her own youths. With great fondness, she could look back at the season she had once lived through and offer her perception to another mom of teens. Listening to Mary helped me to skip out on  attendance at the school of hard knocks. Instead, I gleaned the skillful wisdom of someone with experience.

Why bother learning from the experienced. As a novice, it might be worth connecting with the well versed. We just may find them to be better tutors than just the experience.

Why Bother To Accept The Past?

Why Bother To Accept The Past?

Recently, my husband and I watched one of our favorite movies, The Kid. It’s humorous story line drives home an important point about all of us: we don’t willingly welcome our past into our present.

      Our Younger Selves

In the movie, Russ, (Bruce Willis) is turning forty. Though a financially successful image consultant, he is a jerk who lacks any sense of humility, a key ingredient in any good human being. But before the movie ends, his eight-year-old-self, Rusty, helps him to welcome his past into the present, showing him how to be less of a jerk. 

Russ worked hard all of his life to eliminate any traces of his painful childhood. He omitted his speech impediment with speech therapy. He eradicated his pudginess with  a better diet and he does not accept any invitations to family gatherings, thus maintaining distance between him and them. The image he personifies to the world is that of a very successful and independent business man. But when Rusty, his eight-year-old self, shows up, he sees Russ for what he is, a chickless, dogless loser with an eye twitch. 

Russ cannot accept Rusty’s presence in his life believing instead that he is an illusion, something brought on by a nervous breakdown he thinks he is experiencing. But the powerful medication his psychologist prescribes in order to calm him down, does nothing to make the younger version of himself disappear. Nor does denying Rusty’s existence exterminate him either. It is not until Russ accepts Rusty’s presence that anything changes for the better. 

Our pasts can be difficult for any of us to view. We’ve all lived through tragic moments in our childhood. Whether it was the death or divorce of our parents, bullying on the playground, or a dozen moves to different houses, things happened to us that were beyond our control. Yet, the events effected us, leaving their mark, an impression, a memory and/or a wound. But, kids don’t have any tools to unpack and examine what happened. Instead, kids have the resolve to survive.  

Not until adulthood do we get a chance to look back at those sad, defining moments and consider the lessons we might learn from them. Like Russ, we may try to eliminate our past, or deny its existence even when it shows up in our present: that vow we made to never cry again, or that eye twitch that won’t go away. Even though acceptance may be the last thing we want to do, it may also be the very thing that humbles us enough to learn something making us less of a jerk. 

Why bother to accept our past. It is worth acknowledging since it never leaves us anyway. 

Why Bother With Your Emotions?

Why Bother With Your Emotions?

For the longest time, I thought sad, mad, and glad were the only emotions I had, with mad as the dominant one. But recently, as I went through my day I perceived a smorgasbord of  feelings; energetic, tired, confused, impatient, delighted, relaxed, sad, empathetic, angry, hopeful, curious, calm, competitive, anxious, playful, humored, concerned, cautious, hurried and worried. 

What I noted was that I have become more emotionally intelligent than I used to be. And for this I am grateful.

Growing Your Emotional Intelligence

I did not grow up in an emotionally intelligent household. I was never taught to be intuitive about my emotions, or why they were important. Instead, I grew up around adults who displayed their anger by yelling, stomping their feet, and hurling objects through the air. Yet, no one ever spoke about their anger. No one ever mentioned the energy that anger produced inside of them. No one mentioned that turning anger inward led to depression. No one said anything. 

Sadness, like anger, was also present in my family, but was not a topic that anybody discussed. So, whenever I felt sad, I didn’t know what to do with the sadness I felt. I just knew I did not like the feeling and tried hard to ignore it. Happiness, lightheartedness and gladness were welcomed by everyone, but other feelings were ignored. By the time I left home I’d come to the conclusion that it was better to deny my emotions than to acknowledge that they existed. 

But, emotions are not something that can be ignored. We were born with them. They are natural and come and go throughout the day.  And, I’ve learned that they tell me something about myself. 

Learning to listen to what I feel is a process. But the process started with listening. When I’d get angry, I noted who or what made me angry. When I was sad, I paid attention to what made me sad.  Being aware of how I felt when I felt it, was the first step.

The next step was more painful; watching myself respond. When I’m angry, my anger, like a surge of power, can be harmful.  When I am sad I resort to pouting like a ten-year-old and alienate myself. When I am worried, I am preoccupied, unfocused and unproductive. But knowing what I am like in response to an emotion, liberates me. I don’t have to resort to that behavior. Instead, I can do something different and doing something different makes all the difference, it makes me intelligent. 

But being more aware of how I feel isn’t just about knowing myself better, it also makes me a little more savvy about the feelings of others. For instance, I know when one of my students is angry, when my husband is hurting or when a friend is lonely. Acknowledging the feelings of others help them become more intelligent about their emotions too. 

So why bother with our emotions? Without a frontal lobotomy we have to do something with them. If we are willing to learn from them, they are willing to teach us something. 

Why Bother Noticing Our Mistakes?

Why Bother Noticing Our Mistakes?

My students notice my mistakes. When I misspell a student’s name, when I forget to change the date on the white board in front of the classroom, or when I write the wrong denominator in a math equation, they are quick to point out my blunder and quick to correct me. But, they are slow to notice their own errors on the papers they hand in to me, even when I ask them to double check for their mistakes after they say, “I’m done.” Why is it so easy for us to notice the blunders of another, and not our own?

      I Hate to Be Wrong

I will admit that I am a recovering perfectionist. I am not sure if I was born with this particular trait or if I learned it from my parents and siblings while growing up. I just know that I am recovering from it, one day at a time. Changing from being overly critical of myself and others means I am learning how to learn from my mistakes instead of being so afraid of making them. 

Nobody likes to have their errors pointed out and some of us are hypervigilant about never making a boo boo. But since we are human, we will make errors. The question is, how do we respond to the flaws we make when we make them?

When a student discovers an oversight of mine, I model a nonchalant, but grateful attitude and tell them thank you. Then I point out to them that even teachers make mistakes. At first my group of students were taken off guard by my confession, now they just smile, nod their head and feel smarter than me for a moment or two. 

  Recently, when handing back some tests to my fourth graders, I gave them a few minutes to look at the questions they got wrong and then asked, “By looking at your mistakes, what can you learn from them?” There was a long pause before anyone spoke. Finally, someone broached this delicate and personal topic concerning their wrong answers.

“I learned that I should have read the question more than once because now I see the answer I should have chosen.” 

“How many others got that same one wrong?” I asked. A few hands went up. “Oh, see, you are not alone,” I told the one who had been the first to speak bravely about their error.

Another student volunteered, “I learned that if I’d read my answer more than once, then I would have seen it didn’t make sense,” said another. “I see the right answer right there,” they said pointing to the one they should have chosen and grinning at their simple oversight. 

“How many of you got that one wrong?” Again, a few students raised their hands and I pointed out, “You are not alone either” 

Looking at our mistakes is not easy, it is humbling. But when we look and then find the right answer, there is hope of not making the same oversights again and again. And isn’t that what learning is about? 

Why bother noticing our mistakes? It is worth seeing them for what they are; something that teaches us how to do better.