Tag Archives: Relationships

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.

A little ray of…

Hope

is the possibility for something different, something new, something untried, unseen, unfelt. Hope is the catharsis of tropical rain.

Yesterday I had a conversation with an old friend, probably the most adaptable person I know. “I could be angry,” she said, “but that’s just not how I want to be and it doesn’t solve my problem.” A few hours later, I had a conversation with a student who is really struggling with some personal issues. We talked about life and the universe, about meaning and goals, and about what’s left in the world after a goal is accomplished. Just before the end of the day, I had a conversation with another student about the future, a young man who has confidently and quietly made choices and is looking forward to the adventure to come. In the evening I talked with another friend who is considering, as I am, choices that could go anywhere and nowhere.

There are two common threads here and both have struck a chord with me. The first is that sharing and conversing with others, and especially young people, give my life so much meaning. I may not have solved any problems today but there are doors open wide, an invitation to listen, a shoulder to cry on. These connections with other human beings are vital to my sense of personhood, which is to be part of a wider world and walk hand in hand with those I encounter.

The second thread is that all of these conversations, though vastly different in content and tone, were sparked by the hope that there is something else if we’re willing to look for it. There are possibilities if we are willing to do the hard work of asking questions, making changes, beginning again, or beginning differently. And there is the excitement of a world yet to be lived and explored. If there were not hope, none of us would be talking in the first place.

Sunshine

is the golden bubbles that arise out of nowhere and feel like childhood. Sunshine is a periwinkle sky in the evening and the delight of an unsigned thank you note.

When I was little my mum told us how, growing up, she used to wash her long, wavy hair outside in the rain. I went out with a shampoo bottle once but I don’t remember it working very well. Not too long ago I changed into my bathing suit and joined a friend outside in a downpour, one of those rainstorms that quite literally takes your breath away. During a recent and memorable bike ride, it was all we could do to keep our eyes open as we, and everyone else caught in the sudden deluge, giggled and called out to one another, strangers, recognising the shared joy that filled the air.

Last night I decorated Christmas cookies and a gingerbread house with friends and I learned that icing melts quickly in the tropics and that one should put a base layer of icing on the tree-shaped cookie before adding candy ornaments.

Moments that allow us to laugh and play with abandon, to forget our adult decorum and our worries and responsibilities, are moments of sunshine.

Magic

is elusive if you’re looking because it can’t be seen. But magic is omnipresent if you believe it’s real.

Sometimes we say the same thing at the same time. We pick up the phone just as it rings. We send the same story or recommend the same book. Once we learn a new word, we suddenly see it everywhere. If we did it on purpose it wouldn’t happen this way, but it happens all the time when we’re just willing to be.

But sometimes I think we’re afraid of magic. We’re afraid to admit that we don’t have as much control as we wanted, or that there are forces in the universe we can’t explain. And this keeps us from the opportunities to get to know ourselves and others in such a way that allows magic to happen.

And so I ask: What could the world hold if we dared let it?

St. John’s Island, Singapore – July 2020