Saturday, October 7, 2017

Head lice

When I was six years old, the week before Christmas break, my first grade teacher gave my class the lecture about head lice.  It was the “talk-to-the-parent-through-the-kid” approach:  Your parents should clean your hair very well every single night.  They should make sure all sheets, towels, hats, gloves, and clothing is squeaky-clean.  There had been a lice outbreak in our school, and she told us we needed to keep very, very clean.  “We will be doing lice checks on everyone here at school,” she said gravely.  She showed us pictures of lice; she talked about how quickly they reproduce and how they would make us feel itchy and uncomfortable.  As she spoke, dread settled in my stomach and crawl up to my face and then my hairline.  Almost as if I couldn’t control my own hand, I began to scratch the back of my head.  I saw Miss Lehman’s eyes flick over to me.

I don’t know who thought telling a group of six-year-olds how to parent our parents on this issue was a good idea, but, well, whatever.

The school nurse knocked on the classroom door a few minutes later.  “Send them all out, one at a time,” she told Miss Lehman.  “I’ll give them a quick check and send them right back to you.”

Miss Lehman looked right at me.  “Honey?  Why don’t you go first?” she said.  

My face flushed hot as I stood and left the room. 
The nurse beckoned to a stool placed right outside the classroom door.  She held a box of wooden toothpicks in her gloved hand; she picked one out and placed the rest of the box on a stool next to the chair.  I felt the pick on my scalp as she weaved it through my long hair.   I listened hard to her breath, hoping it would tell me what she was seeing.

It just took a moment.  “I’m going to have you go in and get your things,” she said.  “Your mother is going to have to come get you and take you home for the rest of the day, all right?”  I nodded numbly.  Her voice was kind, but there was an unmistakable condescending tint, which felt like chastisement.  I imagined a speech bubble above her head:  What a disgusting child you are.  Get out of this school and go clean yourself up.  

I so did not want to go back in the classroom to retrieve my coat and backpack.  Everyone would know I was filthy and itchy; they would whisper about my creepy-crawlies.  My mortification was thick, raw, and ugly.  I thought I might throw up. 

But I was a compliant child, so I pulled myself up from the stool slowly, as if I wore a block of concrete on my feet instead of my raggedy winter boots.   I turned, desperate for a last-minute reprieve.  “Go on,” she said, nodding toward the door.

I went.  It was a very, very long journey to my desk, my cubby, my books and lunchbox, out the door again and toward the office. 

I breathed again when I saw my sisters, sitting side-by-side in the office. It hadn’t occurred to me they would be there, too.   I was so happy to see them I had to hold myself back from crying.   I sat in the empty chair next to my oldest sister.  “It’s okay,” she whispered.  I nodded.

My mother arrived to pick us up and endured the school nurse’s detailed instructions on what to buy and how to treat our hair and clothing.  “Don’t skip any of the steps,” she said, handing over three sealed envelopes, one for each of us.  “This explains when the girls can come back to school.” 

We left the school, bundled in our winter coats.  There was RID, and hot water, and hours at the laundramat.  There was even—this was 35 years ago—a head-dunk in kerosene, because my father wanted to make damned sure the lice was gone forever. 

It’s annoying when a writer tells what she’s trying to say, because a good writer shouldn’t have to explain herself.  But I do it here, just in case, because of course this isn’t about lice, or how much we’ve evolved in the area of lice treatment, or about what’s right or wrong with how we do things.  It’s about the snapshots a child will slip into a lifelong photo album. 

I’ve never forgotten that day.  No one was unkind; no one had ill intentions; no one did anything wrong.  It was just this thing that happened, and I remember it as clearly as I remember anything.  And I think about that, often, as a mother and educator—about those early memories, and how fiercely they grip.  

Children are seeing; they are watching; and they will remember. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Disciplining the Whole Room

When I was in fourth grade, Mrs. Morris routinely disciplined our class by having us put our heads down on our desks to "think about" what "we" had "done."  I was a painfully compliant child, so these punishments felt mystifying and deeply, deeply wrong.  I would clench my eyes and breathe deeply, smelling the sweat on my arms as my nose compressed into my skin.  I'd listen to the tick-tick-tick of the clock, betting against myself on how many minutes it would take for our sentence to end.  Meanwhile, in the back of the room, Doug Webb and Shane O'Leary snickered and spit, infuriating Mrs. Morris ever more. 

Which explains my huge, gigantic pet peeve:  When a whole group of innocent kids gets punished for the choices of a few.  Or one.

I’ve seen this happen on buses, in classrooms, on sports teams, and, most prominently of all, in the cafeteria at lunch.  Especially older kids.  One or two of them, usually leaders and usually gleeful in their search for trouble, will gather a couple followers in the hunt for ways to get themselves in trouble.  They don’t seem bothered when the grownup in charge resorts to all-group discipline; in fact, it seems to make it all the more fun.

Many years ago, I worked in a middle school where the person in charge of lunch duty would routinely grow infuriated at a group of kids, or a specific table, and she’d lose her mind on the whole room.  She’d shout and holler and work herself into such fury that she had to culminate in a big ol’ consequence.  “For the rest of the period, it will be silent lunch,” she’d hurl out.  “I don’t want to hear a single word.  A single sound.  For the rest of the period.” 

In her defense, lunch duty was a terrible gig, and after years and years, she was sick of it.  There were several hundred students in the room, all packed in with their hunger and hormones and teenaged drama.  It was hard, hard work.  Infuriating work.  Which is why her temper and frustration routinely overwhelmed her and grew too big for her to manage. 

Unfortunately, she’d made herself a target by being so easily provoked into a tizzy; some students found it downright funny to get her. Some even found glee in being punished with silent lunch; after all, it opened up a whole new game:  If they giggled  or snorted while her back was turned, and then wiped their faces clean while she whirled around, it was pretty much impossible to ever get caught.  She’d get madder and madder, watching her beloved silent lunch being chipped away, one too-loud sneeze at a time, until finally everyone would be (literally) saved by the bell and, with the loudest whoops, flee the cafeteria on their way back to class. 

But while a handful of students were playing cat-and-mouse with the teacher, there were of several hundred students who were trying to lie low and do everything right.  They’d come into the room and done precisely what they were told to do.  Get lunch.  Sit.  Eat.  Talk quietly.  Throw trash away.  Wait for the bell. 

It just wasn’t fair.

At the time, I couldn’t do anything about it; I was in no position to intervene or offer solutions.  I couldn’t have done anything anyway; I wouldn’t have any clue how to do it differently or better.  After all, at the time, I was still trying to develop my own articulated beliefs about why the whole thing felt so wrong. 

Now, though, I can; I try to reinforce how deeply unfair it is to punish whole groups of students for the behaviors of one.  I explain how we lose respect from students when we can’t delineate between problem and non-problem behaviors.  I suggest how much easier it is to find the root of the problem and deal with that, specifically, rather than a whole mass of students at once. 

Here’s the thing.  If one kid throws a tater tot across the room, that’s the kid who should have some consequences.  If one kid mouths back, it is that mouth we should deal with.  If three kids start an inappropriate and nasty chant, it is those three kids who should be pulled and dealt with.  Focusing on the kids who did the deed—and letting the others proceed with a peaceful day—will garner far more respect from the larger group that if we spit and snarl our way to all-group discipline. 

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Too Tired to Learn

In college, I pulled exactly one all-nighter.  My freshman year, I stayed up to study for a final calculus exam.  I’d never been one to stay up late, so by midnight I was a sloppy, slurry mess; by three a.m. I couldn’t have articulated the difference between an asymptote and a derivative; and by the time I fell into bed for a catnap before the exam, I’d forgotten all the math I’d ever known.  I bombed the exam, and were it not for a compassionate professor, I’d still have a failing grade on my final transcript. 

Thinking clearly is virtually impossible if we are tired.

Several years ago, a student enrolled in our school after an indescribable and difficult journey that led her and her mother to an apartment in our attendance area.  On her first day, Alysia was ghost-like, all dark circles and blank eyes.  She was fierce, though, in everything she did—in her glare as I met her at the front doors, in her combative reaction to peers, in her rude eye-roll to her teacher, in her stomping and flouncing around.  When I stopped by to check in mid-morning, the teacher, a wildly patient and loving soul, looked like she’d been through a tornado.

“Why don’t you let me talk to her,” I told the teacher.  “I’ll sit down with her and see if I can get some ideas for handling the few days while she gets used to being here.”  The teacher nodded, and told me Alysia would come to the office after lunch.

Alas, just as the teacher sent Alysia to my office, I got called to help in another classroom.  My secretary got her settled in a seat until I could get back.   Soon afterwards, I turned into my office and was stopped in my tracks by Alysia, sprawled awkwardly on a chair, sound asleep.
I tiptoed out and let her be.

Several hours later, I heard her rustle around and went in.  She was sheepish and sullen as her eyes fluttered open and met mine.

“You were pretty tired,” I said.

She nodded. 

“I don’t blame you one little bit,” I told her.  “I’m glad you found a way to get some rest.”  We chatted awhile, and when I felt she was relaxing a bit, I showed her the picture I’d snapped at her as she slept.  “This is what a tired kid looks like.”  We both smiled.  “You don’t look comfortable there in that chair, but something must have worked for you.”

“I’m pretty tired,” she admitted. 

After school the teacher and I talked about it.  “She’s a sweet kid,” I said.  “She’s just worn out, I think.” 

“What should I do?” the teacher asked. 

“I don’t see that we have a choice,” I told her.  “She is exhausted… and her body needs to heal.  I think we should find a way for her to get some rest.” 

The next morning, the teacher moved a few seats around, making room for a big and fluffy beanbag chair in the dark, calm corner beside the bookshelves.  She told Alysia it was all right for her to rest there anytime.  “Whenever your eyes get heavy, or your mind doesn’t know what to do next, go take a seat on this chair.  It’s a good place to rest,” she said.

For several days, Alysia spent more time asleep at school than she did awake.  By week’s end, though, the teacher felt she was waking up, both figuratively and literally.  She started to participate.  She tentatively found herself among books, learned some characters she loved.  Over time, she recovered from whatever ordeal had worn her out, and started to show interest and willingness to join the class activities.  Day by day, her stamina increased and she revealed herself to be a whip-smart student with creative ideas and a mind like a sponge.

If we are tired—the kind of tired that can only be healed with sleep and time—there really is no sense in trying to push through.  I’m not talking about the typical kid-tired thing, where a little challenge and adrenalin can help them get up and moving; I’m talking about the kind of tired where it’s impossible to think clearly.  The kind of tired that isn’t fixed by a good night’s sleep or a weekend nap.  When the body is ready to shut down, we need to listen and provide a way to give it what it needs. 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Fruitlessness of Motivating With Guilt

Not long ago, I met a friend for dinner.  My stir-fry came with a teeny-tiny side of rice, which lasted about five minutes before it was all gone.  When the server asked how we were doing, I asked if I could have a little more rice.

“Sure, honey,” she whisked the empty dish away.  “I’m supposed to charge you, though.”

“That’s okay.” 

“I won’t, though,” she leaned in close.  “I won’t charge you.  I’ll just give it to you.”

“No, really.  It’s okay.  You can charge me.”  I tried not to sound irritated.

“I won’t, though.” 

And then we got in a little I won’t yes it’s fine no I won’t, with my voice sounding increasingly desperate and her voice increasingly like my co-conspirator, which was silly, because, as my friend pointed out later, “You were going to pay for that rice, either way.  She was just hoping it was on the tip.”

But it was Guilt rice, is the thing.  So, free or not, it had a metallic and nasty tinge to it. 

There are lots of things that come with a side of guilt.  The one that stands out to me most, in my work, is tied to a leader’s daily quandary:  Making sure the right things get done in the right amount of time—for the right reasons.  Motivating people to do good work, though, isn't done by making someone feel guilty.  In fact, delivering anything with a side of guilt—rice, news, requests, gifts—generally backfires, because people don’t like to feel guilty.  It’s a successful tactic sometimes, particularly if a religion or culture relies on guilt from its followers, or if one grew up in a household tinged with guilt, but it never feels good.  

Here are things I avoid saying when rallying people to come together. 

Do it for me.  This might work in marriage or friendship, but it doesn’t work in leadership. 

Do it because someone else will suffer if you don’t.  This works if it’s really true… but unless we’re talking about broad cultural implications or big world issues, it’s rare that real suffering will occur if someone doesn’t follow through—and everyone knows it. 

Do it because you’re a lousy person if you don’t.  No one likes the implication that they are not a decent human being.  Putting caveats on any action in which one’s self-worth is at stake is a big mistake, because in the end, while the task might get completed, it’s done with resentment and distrust. 

In the end, culpability and obligations really lie within each of us.  We do things because we want to.  We want to do well.  We want to do right by the world.  We want to feel proud or accomplished or legitimate. No amount of reproach or condemnation will change that.  We can try—we can dig deep until others have deep and ugly pangs of guilt—but in the end, it just. Doesn’t. Feel.  Good.

I have a friend who almost married a man whose guilt-inducing controlling tactics kept her tightly diminished and miserable.  Every dollar she spent, everything she said, every choice she made about her time and energy—it was all questioned and discussed, ad nauseum, until she finally realized how guilty she was feeling—all the time.  That’s when she finally considered a lifetime of feeling that way.  She walked away, just in time. 

I know a lot about guilt; I feel it deeply, and always have.  Even as a child.  My friends and family could get me to do anything by spreading a few specks of guilt around the room.  And then there was my brother, who didn’t seem to have a single shred of that particular bone in his body.  My mom remembers trying to get him to clean his room when he was about twelve.  She was laying it on thick:  She was tired, she couldn’t do it all herself, she was relying on him, things would get so much better for the whole entire world if he would clean his room.  Will full-on distain, he said to her, “Don’t even try it, Mom.  Guilt won’t work with me.  Ever.”  She says she realized she’d have to give him real reasons to do his part in the world, because taking the easy way out—motivating with guilt—wasn’t going to work.  He could see right through it and had identified it for what it really was.  He’d outsmarted her in a game she didn’t even know she was playing. 

I try to catch myself saying things that might illicit guilt in others. I don’t want to be the person who asks anyone to do anything out of guilt. If I can explain why, and if we can come together in our mission for real reasons, good reasons, sustainable reasons—there will be no reason for anything to come with a side of guilt. 

In the past few days—the first week of school, here, for us—I’ve been overcome by the teamwork of our staff.  It’s been like watching a well-rehearsed orchestra, with all the instruments showing up right on cue and playing their hearts out.  Every string in sync. 

The extra steps everyone took?  It wasn’t out of guilt.  The times they showed up for a duty, unassigned; the extra smiles and helping hands offered; all of the people, supporting and assisting and just being available—all those things happened on their very own.   They didn’t do it because I asked them to, or because I insisted.  I didn’t even really have to mention it.  They just did it because it was who they are and what they wanted to do. 

Head lice

When I was six years old, the week before Christmas break, my first grade teacher gave my class the lecture about head lice.   It was the ...