That weekend He Who Is In Personal Crisis and I went to a horse race in Kentucky with a family member of his, and we spent nine hours in the car together while driving through winding mountains. It wasn't a stress-free experience to begin with, and we fought at least twice on the way there. But I couldn't get out of the car; it was too late to say I didn't want to make the trip. And I'm glad I didn't, because I had a wonderful time. That idea of bailing and, therefore, missing out struck me at my core, and I decided almost instantly that quitting teaching was not an option. I resolved to figure out a way to get their attention and to demand their collective and individual respect. It wasn't part of the program curriculum, but it was clear to me that my girls were different. It was going to take something powerful to get their attention.
So, the next week, first thing, I passed out a copy of a concocted Contract to Word Hard and Respect Others. "I spent quite a few years working in the legal field," I started, "and it taught me something. That is, for every opportunity you get, you have to promise to do something. And for every promise you make, you have to pay the consequences if you break it." They all stared at me like I was speaking German. I wondered whether I might lose them for good by focusing on this.
"But when you enter into business with somebody," I continued, "both parties generally sign a contract. They say they will do certain things in exchange for receiving other things, and both sides agree to suffer the legal consequences of breaking the contract if they don't hold up to their end of the bargain." Oddly enough, they were all paying attention. I kept going.
"So, here's my end of the bargain: I will show up every week and teach you about something that I have prepared and that I think will help you in the end. I promise to do my best, and I promise to make it interesting. But in exchange for it, you have to work hard and respect others. If you don't, you'll have to suffer the consequences. Sometimes those consequences will be immediate: you won't get the candy reward for working hard and respecting others that would otherwise be available to you that night; you will have to go see the program leaders for disciplinary action; or you'll be removed from this group. You can learn elsewhere or not at all, but not on my watch. Other consequences will be delayed: you'll eventually learn less than you need to, to succeed; you'll miss a lesson about life that could have helped you eventually; or you'll lose my respect and the respect of your classmates. But there are always consequences. And being in this program is an opportunity. Many people are turned down when they apply to get in. So, you're going to have to agree to do some things for me. If you're willing to hold up your end of the bargain, please sign the contract and return it to me. If you're unwilling to do it, please return it to me unsigned, and we can discuss it privately."
They all looked at me like I was crazy for a minute, but within in the next few, everyone had signed them.
Then I passed out a story for all of us to read. It was Langston Hughes' "Thank You, M'am," which we took turns reading sections of aloud. It goes something like this: Mrs. Jones, an elderly woman, is walking down the street one day when a teenage boy grabs her purse in an effort to steal it. But given the weight of the purse, he is unable to get away and, instead, falls to the ground. Mrs. Jones promptly kicks him in the seat of his pants, grabs him by his shirt neck and says, "Boy, you better pick up my purse." She holds him tightly but lets him wiggle enough to do so, and then she asks him a question: is he ashamed of himself? He says he is. She asks him why he did it. He says he didn't intend to, and she calls him a liar. Then this:
"If I turn you loose, will you run?" she questions him. "Yes'm," he responds. And so she refuses to do it.
But then she does something unexpected. She tells him that his face is dirty and that she has a mind to wash it. She asks him if he has anybody at home to help him do it. He says he doesn't. As soon as he answers this, she says she will do it, and she drags the boy all the way to her home, where she makes him do it himself. She decides he must be hungry to try to steal her purse, and she tells him as much. But it is his turn to surprise her.
"I want a pair of blue suede shoes," he says. He hadn't attempted to steal her purse for the right reasons after all.
But she makes the two of them dinner anyway, because the boy admits there is no one at home to do that for him, either. She eventually tells him that she, too, has done things that she now regrets. And that's when he moves as far away from the purse as possible. Because "he does not trust her not to trust him." In other words, he now wants to be seen as someone to be trusted.
When dinner concludes she hands the boy enough money to buy the blue suede shoes he wants, but she she issues this warning: "Next time, do not make the mistake of latching on to my pocketbook - nor nobody else's, because shoes got by devilish ways will burn your feet... From here on in, son, I hope you will behave yourself." The boy is so dumbfounded that he couldn't even say, "Thank you, M'am" before she shut the door.
And that concluded our lesson.
There was an embedded moral that I wanted to teach them, sure: "shoes got by devilish ways will burn your feet." But there was also a lesson I wanted to teach myself: to see beyond the surface level outburst to the heart of the need and to give even when the subject of the gift has proved he/she cannot be trusted. My girls wanted to be trusted. That is what my contract gave them. They just needed someone to treat them like they were worthy of entering into a mutual contract. Because every time someone conveys the message that they aren't worth it, they start to believe it about themselves.
It's a lesson I try to tell myself every time I teach a class and they are rude to each other or to me, and it's a lesson I tell myself every time I give my time, money or energy to someone who may or may not use it in the right way or appreciate it. We don't give because we want the outcome; we give because we want to be people who give. And most of the time the recipients of our gifts want to be trusted because they want to believe they're worthy of it. Sometimes we just have to stand up and say, "I don't buy your little act", ask them if they're ashamed of themselves and proceed as if there is a hidden need to be met or a hidden hurt to be healed -- that there's more to the story than what is obvious on the surface. And then we have to give what we can to show them that they're worthy of those gifts. Because we can't control how they act, only how we respond to those actions.
The same is almost definitely true of He Who Is In Personal Crisis. He wants so badly for me to leave, declare him selfish a jackass and make it easier for him to tell himself the story he's currently telling. But, I don't buy it. And my only option is to proceed with an understanding of the hidden wounds and need, not reacting angrily but responding as if he is worthy. I can't control how he handles this, only how I respond to him. And while that frustrates me, that's all I can do at this moment. It won't last forever, but it's what I can do right now.
If I don't do it, I may pay reap the consequence that is losing him. This is my end of the bargain.
#95 - I'm grateful that I understand that (at least in theory).