I speak for a living. Dave says I speak all my life, which I believe he doesn't mean in quite the same way I do, but I love him just the same. Since I speak at keynotes, speak to people via webinars, and speak with people in workshops, teacher observations/reflection conversations, etc., I think about words a bunch. By "a bunch", I mean I am a bit obsessed with words, their meanings, and their subtle connotations.
"Fine" is the word I would like to discuss today.
While grabbing some things at the grocery store this morning, I noticed the cashier who was checking out the gentleman in front of me seem a bit downtrodden-looking. When she began checking me out, she asked me, "How are you doing today?" and I answered, honestly, "Lots of things to do, but I am ready to do them! This is my first stop. How are you?" She answered, "Fine" but not believable by any stretch. I pushed, which Dave says is the story of my life (blame the Master's in Counseling or better yet, blame my concerned/nosy nature), by asking, "Are your sure?" She looked me in the eyes like she had found someone who actually cared and she said, "We are told we are supposed to always be optimistic." I nodded, said, "Even if it's a lie?" She nodded. I said, "I get that, but I am wondering if there is a compromise." (I'm pausing to let you know there was nobody in line behind me that I was currently annoying with my psycho-analysis.) "What might be some options like: "It's been a rough morning but I'm keeping a positive outlook that it is going to get better and better." She smiled and said, "I love that. It's truthful and it's positive!"
I started thinking about the number of times we say "fine" in answer to the question: How are you doing? I would love to do a study on how many times people say the word without meaning it.
What contrasts this story of a stranger questioning a stranger from many others is that people say "fine" to people with whom they are in relationships, even when it is not the truth. What's worse is that the word "fine", when said with derision, sarcasm, passive-aggressiveness, etc., can have serious detrimental effects on the relationship.
Think back to the last time you said "fine" to a co-worker, spouse, friend, significant other, etc. when you didn't really mean it. What happened afterwards? The "other" likely either got upset that you weren't being honest or, worse yet, gratefully said, "Ok, good, I'm glad all is okay" because they didn't notice.
I am firm believer in discussing the elephant in the room. I have been accused once or twice of being good with conflict. Not true. I am NOT good with conflict, but I am worse with under the carpet conflict. Let's get it out there. Let's talk about it, so the next time we see each other (whether that is in our next meeting, in the hallway of our school or business, or in the shower we share), it is not uncomfortable. Lest anyone think I'm advocating showering with a co-worker, I believe that would be uncomfortable, and I trust you know which scenario accompanied each relationship.
So, when a friend recently said, "Fine" when I asked, at the end of a semi-difficult conversation, "Are we okay?", I heard the undertones of "We are anything but fine", so my next question was "What can we do to agree we won't agree on every point but that we'll love each other at the end of this conversation and truly be 'fine' the next time we see each other in person?" That question changed the playing field. We were no longer allowed to simply say a one-word-dishonest response but instead were required to search for a solution or two or three.
Just for today, perhaps try it out with someone who answers with that one-word show-stopper by delving more deeply.
In the meantime, I hope your day is just fine and mine is, too!!
I am currently reading "A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles. The story takes place in the early 1920s when a formerly well-to-do Count is sentenced to house arrest in a hotel near the Kremlin by the Bolsheviks. The Count is "forced" to examine certain aspects of his life and, at one point, says:
"Whether through careful consideration spawned by books and spirited debate over coffee at two in the morning, or simply from a natural proclivity, we must all eventually adopt a fundamental framework, some reasonable coherent system of causes and effects that will help us make sense not simply of momentous events, but of all the little actions and interactions that constitute our daily lives---be they deliberate or spontaneous, inevitable or unforeseen."
I read and re-read that paragraph because I love it. I truly believe that, no matter what, the human being needs to have a belief in something. My belief happens to be in God and Jesus, while other people I know and love may believe differently. My mother believed in nature---all manner of flora and fauna. I remember trying to convince her to believe just as I believed for many years, only to find that when I finally let go of my need to try to change her so much, she became a bit more willing to listen and learn. In fact, when Dave, Mother, and I would eat a meal together, she began to even reach for our hands as she would know that we would be praying. (On a side note, we tell everyone if you need or want prayers, we're good ones to do it, as we pray every time we eat and eat a bunch). ;)
Even aside from our never-ceasing faith, I have a few philosophical beliefs that guide my everyday life. I wish so badly I could tell you that, if I share mine with you, you have to share yours with me, but I suspect I might get two or three takers. Please prove me wrong.
1. Optimism never hurt anyone: When faced with challenges in life (or even a day of work ahead of me), I try to think about one or two things I am really looking forward to that day. Having been called a Pollyanna a time or two, I poo-poo that notion (now that I think about it, poo-poo might not be so positive or optimistic, but...) and say, "It beats the alternative." While I know for certain I can't please everyone all the time, and I also am pretty darn sure I am not everyone's cup of tea, I can still focus on doing and saying the next right thing. Having a "Dave" in life is a great cure for what ails a person, as well, as evidenced by knowing that he was my human rock when I've been faced with tough physical and emotional trials.
2. Showing gratitude doesn't take long, so we should do it more often: Even if it is something as simple as a hug or a little card telling someone thank you, I have a firm belief that gratitude helps the person giving the accolade as much as the person hearing the accolade. Being grateful is a heart thing, but it is definitely not a hard thing (yep, I just made that one up, folks, I'll be here all week). I will admit that, while this is one of my firm philosophical beliefs, I fall short way too often. I forget to tell Dave how much I appreciate him taking care of our clan when I am off traveling the country for work. I forget to fill out the airline or hotel surveys every time to thank them for their customer service (I am getting better at this, as I know it matters), and I forget to just simply BE grateful sometimes (Shelly, go back to #1; rinse and repeat).
3. Life is too short to hold a grudge or resentment. I promise you I didn't used to believe this (or certainly didn't act like I believed it). But getting older has taught me I don't have to act like that, and that when I let go, truly let go, of a resentment that has been eating me up, I am so much more content. A spiritual advisor tells me that if you have a resentment against someone, simply pray for them every single day for two weeks (unfailingly and totally sincerely----not pray for them to be happy in another part of the universe, for example), that resentment should begin to be lifted. I like that.
Just for today, I pray for each and every one of you who reads this blog (once or occasionally or every week---especially the every week readers---just kidding) to figure out what your philosophy of life entails and make every decision in life congruent with that philosophy.
Some people say "Home is where the heart is". Other say, "Home is where I grew up". Still others might say, "Home is where I lived the longest."
Dave and I are going 'home' this week, back to Niceville, Florida. We are going back for just a week (likely not long enough, because, if you know the secret to the area, October is the most beautiful time of year there and the people are always beautiful) to visit friends and loved ones we lived alongside for 17 years of our so far 25-year marriage. So, when we say it's where we lived the longest, that is so much the truth.
Niceville is also a place where Dave and I both passionately loved the work we did. He worked for years on Eglin Air Force Base and I worked in Okaloosa County Schools, as a teacher, guidance counselor, and a principal. Niceville, originally called Boggy, is a small town by most standards but is situated near Destin, the Emerald Coast of the Gulf of Mexico, so it draws a pretty touristy crowd running through it.
For me, going back to Niceville brings to mind so many beautiful life, learning and loving moments:
1. Church: After being a cradle Episcopalian, my fractured family all strayed from church for many years (and forever, for some). In high school in San Antonio, a dear friend's family re-introduced me to the Episcopal church and when Dave and I moved to Niceville, I found such solace in re-re-introducing myself to St. Jude's Episcopal Church. I taught youth group (where I met some of the dearest youth who have become dear friends with their own children, and where I got in touch with my own soul through the lives of countless others), sang in the choir, served on the Vestry, and worshiped and praised God.
2. Serenity: Niceville is where I found the loving arms of spiritual guidance through a 12-step program that helped me decide that alcohol had become way too important to me. For over 14 years, I met with other folks on a daily and weekly basis who helped me become who I am today. As one of my sweet friends just said this morning, "I grew up enough to see that I still had a lot of growing up to do." For the first time, I began to feel comfortable in my own skin and I can't wait to go back and see some of those folks who were there for me when I began that journey. Dave and I went through some tough life lessons while in Niceville (not the least of which were the deaths of his parents, sitting beside by own mother as she died, and putting our dear first Labrador Retriever, K.C., to rest). But the serenity and peace I feel when I think back on those times does not cause me any "should have..., could have..., would have...'s" because of the serenity I learned about in Niceville.
3. Passion for education: Believe me when I say I knew I was going to be a teacher when I was six years old (lining up stuffed animals and trying to teach them to read---the stuffed frog made TOADal progress----sorry). But I could have never dreamed what all would happen to me and for me with regard to my own education and the education of others around me. While we lived in Niceville, I taught students with learning disabilities, I was a guidance counselor at a middle school, I became a guidance counselor at an elementary school, then I became the principal at that same elementary school. Through each of those experiences, I learned a bit more about teachers, teaching, students, learning, and, yes, more of my own passion for education. I earned my doctorate in education while living there and made lifelong friends through that program. Most of all, I tried to become the kind of instructional leader I felt God had called me to be. I made some mistakes, I made some good decisions, but the best part of being a principal at an elementary school in Niceville were the people and the relationships nobody can ever in a million years take away.
I talk in most of my blogs about relationships, communication and the power of working alongside one another (mostly in schools). Now that I have been an educational consultant for a few years and have had the opportunity to work in schools and districts literally across the world, I still believe the formative learning that impacted me the very most was from that elementary school in Niceville.
They say, "You can't go home again". This next week, Dave and I are going to give it a go.
We all know the scenarios in which people are trudging through life with a frown on their faces. Personal examples abound about going to restaurants and being served by frustrated waitstaff; checking out at the grocery store and receiving grumbles to our attempts at cheery chit-chat; gate agents at the airport who will not budge (and seem to do it with a badge of honor) on helping you get another flight. The list is endless, and we all have those stories. Whining at work and about work seems to be an American pastime. And when we aren’t the ones doing it ourselves, we are likely complaining about those who do.
But what do we do when we encounter those who are loving their jobs…and showing it? And what are we doing to pay the kindness or goodwill forward when we are faced with those employees who don’t often get to hear from happy customers?
As a frequent traveler, I have certainly seen my fair share of cranky customers as well as sullen service people, alike. I also happen to be extremely happily married (for 25 years!) to a man who knows how to turn the ice-cold waitress warmer with his charm. Over the years, he has taught me some tips of the trade that have helped me in times of frustration on the part of employees and customers.
1. Be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. Consider the following scenario: I’ve asked for a diet coke with a lime (let’s really not talk about the fact that I had given up diet coke for a year and am now drinking it again---that’s for another blog. Please). The waiter is crazy busy and comes back with drinks for everyone and….no lime. If I am close to the bar, I might just go up and ask if I can get a lime on a napkin. Same thing if we don’t get ketchup----we might steal it from another table instead of asking the crazy-busy waitstaff. In other words, I believe some people take pride in being picky and making a stink out of “This is not how I ordered this” when Stephen Covey said we should seek first to understand then to be understood (I wonder how many times I used a Covey-ism in my blogs over the last few years---something to research).
2.Smile and be polite, even if others are not. Here is a common scenario: the flight is delayed; everyone is frustrated in the gate area and the gate agents are sweating because they know everyone is frustrated and worried about their connecting flights (Have I mentioned that I will drive to Phoenix to catch a non-stop flight rather than having to make a connection somewhere? I h**e connections! Oh wait, I’m smiling, and being polite---back to the story in progress). When we (finally) board, everyone seems to be glaring at the gate agent checking boarding passes as if that gate agent called the airline that morning and said, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for today---why don’t we delay a bunch of flights today to see how many passengers we can frustrate?” When I scan my boarding pass, I try to look them in the eye and say, “Thank you for everything you do. I know it’s been rough. Hope you have a great day.” What does that hurt? It takes me about 3 seconds, and I would guess I get a relieved smile almost 100% of the time. Also, if there is someone who seems to be particularly enjoying their job, why not let them know how much you appreciate that? People, no matter the job (my hairdresser, the bagger at the grocery store, the custodian, the taxi driver, etc.), often say, “It is so nice to hear good news. People are always quick to share the bad news but not so much with good news. Thank you SO much.”
3.Be helpful, if possible. Here are some examples we try to do: stack the plates on the table when you know the wait staff is incredibly busy; stack the bins at the airport as we go through screening (yes, even though the clueless people in front of you left them on the belt) while waiting for our own luggage (it takes about 5 seconds and it helps the TSA folks a bunch); help lift a bag into the overhead bin (okay, in truth, Dave does this ALL the time---I was not blessed with that sort of vertical ability); and finally, speaking up when it might help others. My best recent example was while waiting for an update on a delayed flight. The three gate agents were standing at the gate talking among themselves, while the screens still said our flight was going to depart on time (when it was 5 minutes away from departure time and we still hadn’t begun boarding). Rumblings and grumblings began, “Here we go again”; “Come on!” “Let’s go!” You could feel a palpable frustration in the crowd that the gate agents either weren’t recognizing or didn’t know what to say. I stepped out of line, went up to the gate agents, and said, “I know you guys are super busy, and I also know you want to keep this crowd from growing more frustrated. It would be extremely helpful if you could just give everyone an update, so we know what’s going on.” They thanked me and one agent announced they were waiting for one more flight attendant and we should be boarding momentarily. All of a sudden, the tension in the crowd relaxed visibly. One little tweak.
My parents divorced when I was in elementary school. My sister and I became those kids who spent the week living with our mom and going to school, then spending the weekend with our dad. (I chronicled the time of how the divorce affected my mom, about her alcoholism, her recovery, her diagnosis of cancer of the larynx in my memoir called "Finding Mother's Voice". Mother, in all honestly, was a much better writer than I could ever hope to be, so when I got the chance to put some of her own writings in a story that deals with parenting a parent, what it's like to live without a mother who had been my greatest fan all my life, I jumped at the chance).
This blog is about what I remember the most about 5th grade, despite all that divorce and custody mess. Claudia Edgerton was my 5th grade teacher. I couldn't tell you how old she was (pretty young, I think) or how long she had been teaching, but I can tell you how she made me feel. Every weekend, we'd go out to dinner or to the movies with Daddy (I remember going to see "Jaws" and Woody Allen movies and thinking I should maybe not be watching these movies) or to his apartment. On Monday morning, it seems there would always be a note written on Mrs. Edgerton's stationery on my desk.
The notes would say something like "I hope you had a great weekend with your dad. I love having you in class." In one, she said I was "wise", and I thought I would cry. In fact, I likely did, as life was a bit emotional at the time. My best friend's dad died that year, and I know Mrs. Edgerton was there for Tricia as well. Wise? I felt clumsy and different, not "wise". I knew I was a good reader; in fact, books transformed my life events to another place, one in which I didn't have to think about things like alcoholism or divorce. When I am asked what my favorite book is, I don't hesitate before saying, "Where the Red Fern Grows" by Wilson Rawls. Claudia Edgerton read to us every day right after lunch for a few minutes, and I remember almost every line of that book (not just from her reading it aloud, but because it is likely the only book I have ever read multiple times---I think I read it at least 10 times---I still have the same paperback with tear-stained pages). I remember getting to go to a special math group each week with four other kids, as well, where we did "harder math" or worked on turning kids' books into felt-board stories for the younger grades, but, as special as that was, I missed being with Mrs. Edgerton during those times.
Why? Three reasons that I believe all teachers should do or be for every student:
1. She made me feel special.
As evidenced by the notes she wrote, the hugs she gave and the true sincerity in her voice when she asked about my weekend, I knew she cared.
2. She loved what she did.
I would be lying if I said I remembered all the academics we did in 5th grade, but what I do remember is the passion Mrs. Edgerton had for everything she taught, read and did.
3. It mattered to her what kind of people we would turn out to be.
The things she said to me, and I suspect to many of us, indicated that she didn't just care about us as 5th graders. She wanted us to be empathetic. She actually told me I should use empathy (I used S. Covey's words "Seek first to understand, then to be understood" when I became a principal) when I was upset when Mrs. Edgerton's student teacher moved me away from my best friend in an effort to try to "make the class her own". I still have that note.
A few years ago, during Teacher Appreciation Week, I looked up Claudia Edgerton, found her address and sent her a letter telling her what she had meant to me. Lo and behold (no, it shouldn't have come as a surprise, actually), she wrote me back. She told me she remembered me and she was proud of the educator I have become. We are now friends on Facebook and I am someday going to take a moment to go see her again in person.
Charlotte Danielson says that we, as educators, must get the climate of respect and rapport and the classroom environment right before we can do anything else in teaching. Claudia Edgerton is my example of why I believe in this truth so whole-heartedly.
Just for today, think about the educator who has had the most impact on your life and share that with me on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or on my blog. Our stories matter!