Perceptions

I was doing a felt board retelling of Leaf  for a Kindergarten class. Usually kids at that age are very gung ho, excited to be hearing a story, especially to be able to help tell the story, and intrigued by that mysterious retro material that sticks to itself. They’re so used to smart boards and screens of every description that good old felt is something new and exciting.

As the kids settled in, my eye was drawn to one little guy whose face was so creased and puckered that he instantly reminded me of the cranky, old hecklers on the Muppet show. And when I started talking to the group, I knew for sure he was channeling at least one, if not both, of them. Everything I said was met with a frown and a grumble:

“Well, that’s stupid.”

“Hmmmph. That’s a crazy thing.”

“Oh, that’s boring.”

He never spoke loud enough to be disruptive, but I could hear every groan and sigh and see every rolled eye. I chuckled to myself because, in a 5 year old, such grumpiness is cute. I focused instead on the happy, engaged children. By the time, he got to put a leaf on the tree, his grumbling had subsided and I didn’t hear much more from him.

It made for a funny dinnertime story. As I told it, I pondered the whole nature vs nurture thing – how much grumpiness did he come in with and how much was modelled to him? Kids are such sponges in those first six years of life. I wondered what adult in his life was modelling the crankiness.

And then, not even a week later, I was presented with that little boy’s metaphorical grandfather. Different school, different kids, but same grumpy, uninterested, bored demeanor, only this time on an adult. And not just any adult — one of the grade three teachers.

I would put this man in his late fifties — although a lifetime of frowning like that would crease any face prematurely, so he could have been much younger — and he sat smack dab in the middle of the back row of teacher chairs, well above the children sitting on the floor, and right in my line of vision. I tried to focus on the much-more-receptive children in front of me, but he was so . . . in my face. And his face was a mask of boredom, even derision, his body language saying things like, “This is such a waste of time — what drivel — this woman has no idea what she’s talking about.”

Luckily, once I got going, the kids and I were swept into the give-and-take of the presentation and I was able to block him out entirely, other than wondering if that’s the sort of model the previous kindergartener had in his life.

I didn’t have too much time to ponder it. I had to prepare for the most challenging session of the day — an hour and ten minute presentation on writing to 88 grade 5 and 6 students. I was apprehensive about this presentation. It takes a lot of energy to hold the space for a large group of students and I had already spoken to several large groups that day.

It’s also one thing to share my enthusiasm for writing and another thing entirely to teach something and I had a sneaking suspicion that the teachers were expecting something from me that I would not be able to deliver.

But I had committed to this –“Sure, I can do a writing workshop for 88 kids!” Gack! What was I thinking? — so I put a lot of thought and planning into the presentation, endeavouring to give it my best, but I still felt apprehensive as they filed into the library.

It takes a long time for 88 students to settle. By the time I got the nod to begin, we had an hour left.

I plunged right in, but as the minutes ticked by and we moved from one activity to another, it became apparent that we were not going to get through everything I had prepared. The students were getting more and more talkative. It was harder and harder to bring them back after each activity, even with the teachers intervening, calling for quiet and focus. It was a  rowdy group.

I tried to surf with it. At one point, I actually felt part of me detach, rise above the energy of the room, cast an objective eye on everything laid out on the table before me, and decide which things needed to be cut from the presentation in order to wrap everything up in a coherent manner.

When the bell finally went, I was limp with relief. It was over. I spent a few minutes talking with enthusiastic students, answering questions and encouraging them in their writing and then turned to face the librarian, coming my way.

I have an evaluation sheet I ask teachers and librarians to fill out after a presentation, but I needed instant feedback: what went wrong? how could I improve for another time? was anything salvageable or should I just jettison the entire presentation?

I steeled myself for a humbling conversation, determined to learn as much from it as I could. When the librarian arrived in front of me she said,

“That was awesome!”

Thud.

(That was the sound of my jaw hitting the floor.)

Awesome?

She started talking about how engaged the students were, how excited, how —  and then she was interrupted by one of the teachers, striding into the room, who chimed in with, “Yes, that was amazing! I have a lot of reluctant writers in my class and they were writing! You had so many good suggestions for capturing ideas. I was trying to keep up,” she gestured at the laptop in her hand, “but I couldn’t.” She turned to the librarian. “Do you think we could get her to come in for a PD day?”

“Yes, but . . . ,” I spluttered. “I didn’t plan very well. I had to cut a lot of stuff out. And there was so much talking. I didn’t do a very good job of keeping them focused.”

“I heard a speaker once, “said a second teacher, as she joined us, “who was talking about drama. He said if you’re doing something creative with kids, and they’re all sitting in silence just looking at you, you’ve lost them. If there is a buzz going, it’s because they are excited by the material. And all that talking the kids were doing,” she said, turning to me, “was on topic. They were excited to talk about the ideas they were generating.”

My head swivelled from one person to the next as a third teacher joined the group to give his two cents worth. I’m sure I looked like a stunned goldfish, gaping at them, eyes glazed over as their words sunk in.

There was nothing wrong with my presentation.

I might want to ensure that the groups be smaller in the future and ask that the presentation be at least 90 minutes long so there is time built in for the students to share their discoveries with each other after each activity, but those are minor tweaks. The presentation itself was fine — awesome, even.

Wow. Perception, is such a subjective thing. Here I was ready to perform hari kari after what I perceived as a presentation gone badly awry, while others thought it was amazing.

Which made me think of the grumpy, old teacher I’d seen earlier in the day. Maybe that pained expression on his face had nothing to do with my presentation. Maybe he had been blindsided with bad news just that morning. Maybe he was really worried about someone close to him. Maybe all those bodily positions that reeked boredom to me were really because he was sitting on a painful hernia.

I have no way of knowing.

And, likewise, with the grumpy five year old. Maybe it had nothing to do with nature or nurture, but the fact that he was just having a really, bad morning. And maybe getting to put a leaf on Tree Mother helped to lift that morning into a better afternoon.

We’re talking major Aha Moment here. Big lesson.

Don’t be so quick to judge others (or yourself), especially if it’s a negative judgement. Sometimes, our own senses cannot be trusted because we are seeing and hearing things through our own personal, very subjective filter.

So what’s the take home from these experiences?

I think it’s best summed up in this quote from some ancient Roman sage or general or philosopher. I don’t remember who it was, but his words serve us very well today:

“Be kind to everyone you meet. We are all fighting a tremendous battle.”

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8 Responses to Perceptions

  1. MJ says:

    Good post again – thanks! And one thing I’ve observed when hanging out in classrooms over the past years volunteering for my kids: schools are a lot noisier places than the ones I attended. Noise isn’t bad anymore. Hurray for that. (Although teachers probably need more Tylenol?)

  2. whoist says:

    This made me think about something that happened to my cousin while she was visiting her dying mother in hospital. Her mother had picked up a stomach bug. She had had an accident in the bed and needed cleaning up. My cousin went to find a nurse who reacted with frustration and anger saying crossly “that’s the third time this morning”. On hearing this story at this point I reacted with horror, but then I heard that what happened next was that my cousin opened her arms and said with kindness to the nurse “do you need a hug?” to which the nurse burst into tears and accepted the hug. That has stuck with me and I love your quote. I love your story of your workshops and the journey from an inner feeling of dismal failure to the realisation of tremendous success. How wonderful that the next time you run the workshop, the participants will benefit not only from your gifts but also from the extra confidence you can have in remembering how well those gifts have been received this time. I would love to take your workshop!

  3. Lois Unger says:

    You have such a way of bringing me right into your story! What person doesn’t go inward when things feel like they aren’t going as we thought. But then I think of you, Maxine, who I adore and I ask “How could you not know you will always be successful?” Everything is from your heart – of course you are a success story!!! At least that’s how I will always see you!!! Love you!!!

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