Tag Archives: Relationships

Meet Me Halfway

It’s a conversation better left un-had and it goes something like this:

“We missed you at the party last night.”
“Yeah, I would have liked to have been there.”
“You could have come.”
“I wasn’t invited.”
“Well, it wasn’t at a time that was really convenient for you anyway.”
“I could have moved things around, or you could have moved the party an hour.”
“We didn’t think you’d want to, and someone else was in charge of organizing. But you should have said something when you found about it.”
“But I wasn’t invited.”
“Don’t worry, it really wasn’t that much fun anyway.”
“Okay.”

The point is not that the party wasn’t fun or that I couldn’t be there. The point is that nobody thought to ask. Nobody in the group of nearly two dozen people in two countries thought that the person farthest away, completely separated from everyone else due to the pandemic, might have wanted to be involved. And even if there was a momentary glimmer of thought, nobody spoke up and nobody asked.

It’s a little bit like the time several years ago when I heard through a friend that another friend was mad at me for not attending her wedding. My response was one of genuine amazement for I hadn’t been invited. Likely, I hadn’t been invited because I live overseas and the wedding was at a time when I could not have feasibly gone. But to be mad at me? If she wanted me to be there, she could have gotten married a month earlier when I was there, just like another friend did. Or she could have invited me and let me work it out. If you’re going to make a choice, at least own the choice.

And likewise, give me the chance to do the same.

A different example: Last November, a friend planned a birthday party over Zoom. She sent me the invitation and wrote, “I know you can’t be there but I wanted to invite you anyway.” I called as she was setting up and wished her a happy birthday and fun party. It really can be that simple to do the good thing.

The issue weighing on my mind is that people don’t think. They don’t think beyond what is immediately in front of them. And I don’t know why.

As a friend said over tea yesterday when I was agonizing over this for the second day in a row, “Just because we think about them all the time doesn’t mean they’re as focused on us.” This seems accurate. Having not seen my family in nearly two years because of the pandemic, and with the need to make decisions about my next move far too soon with so many variables in flux, I think about my family all the time. They are not together in the same place or even the same country, but they have time in common and I do not. This is why I make phone calls before work. This is why I watch the calendar and count hours to get everyone’s birthdays right in their time zone. This is why I send emails just to say hello.

When I first moved overseas, a friend had her watch set for the time in Glasgow, seven hours behind us in Malaysia. I asked why and she said that even after four years of living away, she had never stopped thinking about what her family were doing.

I have never been an adherent of “absence makes the heart grow fonder”, and I fully understand the power of the contrary. However, I know a little bit about the power of shared experiences. People who spend time together deepen the connections they have with one another. This is among the reasons experiential education brings people together. This is why a late-night conversation is so often a turning point in a friendship or romantic relationship. When we no longer have things in common, it is easier drift apart. Our conversations remain superficial and it is easy to grow disinterested or disengaged. It is already difficult to maintain a sense of connection through text messages, email, and too-short phone calls. It is impossible when we are so used to others not being there that we neglect to include them at all.

It seems fitting here to mention the exceptions. I am very lucky to have friends with whom I can pick up after months of no contact, and it will feel like we last saw each other the day before. This is possible because our relationship was forged through years of shared experiences. In that sense, we have a reserve of togetherness that allows us to maintain close ties. We have done the hard work of becoming and staying friends, and this is significant. The bonds exist because we took the time and energy to build them. Exclusion does not allow for this, and so the cycle continues.

I wonder where this leaves us as humans. Are we so fixated on the present that we are unable to ask questions that look beyond? Are we too focused on feeling good about ourselves to remember that our choices impact others? How is it that we are so certain of our own wants and needs that we fail to consider that the wants and needs of others might differ? And do we make choices along the way that take away others’ ability to make choices of their own?

By no means do I need anyone to make allowances for the fact that I live on a different continent in a very different time zone from all family and many friends. This is an unreasonable onus and I understand that. But is it really so hard to meet me halfway? Is it really so hard to hold out your hand and ask?

Leoben, Austria – January 2020

Talking with Young People

Educating is about building relationships and this is what makes it emotionally demanding. Our students need us to be present, to be with them, to recognise and name what they either cannot or will not name. When I say that I work with young people, I mean that we work together, side by side. We go through concepts, ideas, information, and assessments together. We are often not doing the same thing, but we do it together.

One of the textbooks assigned in my education methods courses as an undergrad was Discipline with Dignity by Curwin, Mendler, and Mendler. It spoke of respect, responsibility, of treating young people first and foremost as people. This sounds funny to say, but think about it. Educators have a lot of power and that power can build a child up or totally, utterly cut them down.

In the words of Haim Ginott, words that still give me chills:

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanised or dehumanised.”

And this means that teachers must recognise the human role they play in the classroom. We are all beings with dignity and honouring this is critical in the way we treat others – who they are, what matters to them, and the demands we place on their time and energy. Throughout my career, students have come to me just to talk. I’ve heard, “You’re the only one I trust” more times than I can count. I’ve been thanked for saving lives years after the fact. How hard is it, really, to treat a young person the way all people should be treated?

But it is hard. All meaningful relationships are hard. Doing this requires vulnerability and courage. It requires understanding that we are in this together and this can be a difficult position for teachers who do not understand that educating is about relationships. Students know when we are authentic and they know when we are disingenuous. Like all of us, they respond to what is genuine and protect themselves from what is false. I want my students to be good people and this requires me to walk beside them.

At the beginning of this school year, I finally had the chance to get to know a group of young men who had made cafeteria duty a miserable experience the two years before. I smiled while greeting them and said to the class, “To those of you who I have encountered, this is a great opportunity to prove that you’ve grown up.” And they have. Each interaction that we have with young people is a new interaction. Each day really is a new day. If we are going to work together for a year or two, we need to set ourselves up for doing so. I’ve learned to take a deep breath each time I address a question or comment from a student who just grates on me. He deserves the same chances, the same positive attention, as anyone else, time after time. This is how we learn, and I want my students to leave my class knowing more about themselves and the world around them than they did before.

When we feel valued for who we are, we respond. We know this as adults and it is ever more true of young people. A smile, making eye contact, tone of voice, and gestures are all part of communication. Just like how we might know how someone feels about us without them saying so, students know this, too. We like to know someone is looking out for us. This is why teachers should pay attention when a student gets new shoes, a haircut, or looks like they’re having a tough day. It’s a powerful thing to close the laptop and look young people in the eye when having a conversation, or to sit on the same side of the desk that might otherwise act as a barrier. When we sit side-by-side, we are working together. Each member of the classroom community matters, so take the time to do the small things that set a tone.

These are emotional investments that make what we do real rather than abstract. Educating is about building relationships. It is work. It is time intensive, meaningful, deeply fulfilling, and it has the power to change lives. Young people are worth it.

Coney Island, Singapore – April 2020

If They Saw: A Story

She’s not one to drink straight liquor during the day, and certainly not when she’s alone. She’s been a lot of places and that’s a place she doesn’t like. But late in the afternoon, sipping rum, putting black silky pen to the creamy paper of an artist’s sketchbook . . . well. Sometimes we get here, don’t we.

If they could see what I see. This is where we begin.

If they could see what I see, they’d see the child playing behind your eyes. They’d see the sand, the beach. Grasses. They’d listen when you wax poetic about scent, about fragrances we all know and about the raw living in a world that forces one to look and call it by name.

We are crumpled behind walls, preserving the vestiges of who we think we are, torn out and disentangled from who we thought we ought to be, folding into ourselves to protect . . . what?

Sometimes it’s hard to keep track.

If they could see what I see there’d be no end to the hands running across your face, your hair, along your back. No end to skin on skin.

Electricity.

There’s no waking from this dream but she doesn’t know she’s in one. Sometimes it happens like that. She’s lived a long time.

I can still see the hardness that shows itself around your jaw when you’re upset, a tightness that silently screams out to be heard. My stomach drops, just as it always did. And there’s the relief of a laughter that’s real, that comes from deep down where children chase fireflies. I could cry if I did that sort of thing.

The child behind your eyes looks uncertain, afraid. Disappears, runs back. A game of hide-and-seek but we don’t know who’s playing. Sometimes I can reach out and catch you but sometimes you’re gone to places I can’t follow. And so I wait, exhausted with tension, darkness closing in, for you to decide it’s time to return, sometimes with a vengeance and sometimes keening. I flip a coin.

I know when you’re hiding from me. I know when I’d like to do the same, and I know why I won’t. Why I never will. But there are days when you’ve already decided: There will be no smiling today.

When we float through the cobalt sky there’s magic and I have no doubt. But it’s never been about doubt.

A lifetime it has taken me to know you. A lifetime in a few short months, unnoticed. And in just as much time, you’ve pleaded, cajoled, and gone. There’s no place for me out there and I do not look for one.

She looks at the empty glass. The papers crumpled on the floor. The time. Her eyes widen. Memories of moments have taken hours. Too late for dinner and now the internal prohibition against liquor before sundown has no place. Glass is refilled.

If they saw what I saw they’d ask all the questions that were never mine to ask. They’d travel with you the world over and they’d hold your hand without letting go, the hand that was never mine to hold. If they saw what I saw they’d join you when you sang, they’d drink in the timbre of a voice that glides. I am reminded of skis over fresh powder. Do you know that sound? You, who speaks of the sea, do you know the sound of an open mountain with no marked trails? If they saw what I saw, they’d take you there.

But I swear I can hear you. I don’t always know where you’ve gone, in fact I only know the pictures I’ve painted on my heart, but I can hear you. Sometimes I busy myself to shut you out, to remember who it is that I am now that you’re a memory.

You’d vanish, wouldn’t you, if they saw what I saw. You’d breathe, settle, find the light that you used to tell me about, late, when you were supposed to be sleeping. You’d float gently away, so softly that I wouldn’t notice until you were gone. Or at least that’s what you say about me.

She doesn’t remember tearing the sketches but she has. At least they don’t bleed.

But can I blame them? Can I blame them for failing to see when seeing would require that of which we are most afraid? For if we see, we are responsible for the soul that has mirrored ours. I know what the ancients say about this. So can I blame them?

Rather than blame, and I think you’d like this, I’d like to teach them. To hold them while they cried and to encourage their tightly closed eyes to let in some of the colours we read about in stories. To hold them when it became too bright and take one step, together, one step at a time. I’d like to guide them to see through the tears and to hear, to hear that child singing. I’d be there the whole time, you know I would.

If they saw what I saw I never would have known you. You would have been beyond my reach before I even knew you existed. It is because, and it is always this way with me, it is because they did not see that I found in you something you’d forgotten.

Do you remember when I first made you laugh?

In the morning, she is surprised at the mess on the desk. She has fallen asleep fully dressed, a first since . . . a first. There are blank pages shredded all over the floor, faint markings erased. Drawings. Of what? She reads the neat words on creamy paper. These are not her words and not from her hand. But these are words she knows. These are words she believed a long time ago. These are words she fought until they disappeared.

These words are mine and I hear you laughing.