05 July 2014

Just Like Everybody Else

I have told the story here before of a day long ago... I was a tiny first grader sitting in a noisy elementary school cafeteria. As is probably true for many 5- and 6-year old children, first grade was a series of overwhelmingly strange and often frightening events, not the least of them being eating bad food with several hundred other people.

On the day in question, the regular teacher, Ms. Stoneburger (who I adored with a fervor verging on idolatry), was away and a substitute teacher had charge of us. Lunchtime with Ms. Stoneburger was like a storybook tea party; she sat at the head of the table, smiling and gracefully coaxing us toward gentility.

Not so with this crass replacement:  she did not sit. She paced the perimeter, a towering shadow above and behind us, alert for infractions of a code known only to her. Something in her smile made you want to cry or run away.

The emotional toll of the first-grade learning curve is forever etched on my psyche. Though I was well-equipped for the academic experience -- I knew how to read and write, for example; I knew how to sit still and obey; I knew my home address and telephone number -- I was morbidly unprepared for the social milieu of public school.

I had little experience playing with kids other than my three younger siblings:  we were not allowed neighborhood playmates at home and we were always held apart from other children at family or church gatherings.

At 5, I was younger by a year and smaller than most of my classmates. This differential translated into a variety of disadvantages on the playground, the setting for most of the unstructured, social education each day.

At some point, probably pretty early in the year, I landed on "watch Them and do what they do" as a strategy for navigating the uncertain waters of life in school. "Them" was probably anybody who seemed less afraid than I was.

So that day, in the cafeteria, when I observed the little girl across the table from me carefully tearing the brown edge from her bread-and-butter sandwich, I followed suit. When the substitute teacher noticed what I was doing, she pounced. I don't remember if she asked what I was doing or why I was doing it or if she just told me to stop. What I remember is my extreme mortification.

An early lesson about the dangers of following and trying to fit in.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin   Artist: Chris Rawlins
Discovering and making peace with how I am different and how I am just like everybody else has been an ongoing process. "Making peace" includes abandoning complaint about the differences, that "what is wrong with people!" attitude. An enigmatic, and perhaps ironic, commonality among humans is that we each "figure it out" in our own way. None of us is just like anybody else -- and that makes us just like everybody else. This basic truism informs whatever patience or empathy I muster for my fellow humans.

People may display what I deem monstrous or petty or foolish behavior. People do all kinds of things I would never do. And yet from their perspective or someone else's my behavior appears equally monstrous or petty or foolish. We each stand on different tracks. We exist in the same world but we don't see things exactly the same. We can't. We're standing on different tracks.

 One of the places where I learn this most often and most efficiently is in teaching. I share knowledge most effectively when I attempt to meet a student on their particular "track." They don't know what I know and they don't see what I see.  I start with "What do they know? How does the world look to them from where they stand?" The inquiry reveals priorities and symbols, learning styles, memories and beliefs, often quite different from mine; but these unique characteristics reveal the inroads I need to share with them what they have come to me to learn.

The regular albeit mysterious byproduct of this process is that I, the teacher, learn something. Including, how much I am like my students -- and how vastly different we are from each other.

And I experience, over and over, the miracle of transcending difference. Peaceful coexistence doesn't require that we all be just alike. (Thank goodness! since that's never gonna happen anyway.) I also don't believe it requires ignoring or pretending not to see our differences. ("Alex, I don't even notice that you're black," say well-meaning "white" friends.) We're missing a lot of the story when we interact with people as though they're just like us or we're just like them. We limit the possibilities and flatten the flavor of relationship when we avoid confronting our differences.

All my life, friends and family and others have hurled the exasperated question, "Why can't you be more like ___________?!" Time reveals that to be an undoubtedly hypothetical question. Who knows why we are each ourselves and not someone else? A more pertinent follow-up question is "Can you live with the reality that neither you nor I can ever be anyone but who we are?"

Doesn't mean we have to move in together but, for the forseeable future, we'll be sharing a planet. Can you work with that?