Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I need you


In May of 2000, my mother, the greatest educator I've ever known, fell into a coma.  Rushing back from an education conference in Kentucky, I joined her hospital bedside and remained there every minute that I could.  It was unclear whether she'd open her eyes again, but I strove to connect with her as if she would.  I relied on every sense I could engage, enveloping the room with the music she loved, letting a cup of fresh Dunkin' Donuts coffee sit with its lid off, holding her hand, and telling her stories, such as that of my encounter with the guy in Harvard Square who was wearing tie-dyed pants and yelling angrily at a pigeon.  For days she was unresponsive, yet I kept that vigil.  And then, quietly, one afternoon, she awoke.

Those beautiful brown eyes met mine, and I experienced gratitude like never before.  She was unable to speak and too weak to write, but her eyes made it clear that she had a lot to say.  At that point, her hospital room was full; doctors, nurses, family, and friends had gathered around.  I saw in her eyes confusion, fear, love, and frustration all at once.  She wanted to ask questions, relay what she was experiencing, ask for help, and yet she couldn't.  Until she locked eyes with me, held up one hand, and began to sign.

When I was young, my mom had taught me the sign language alphabet.  No one close to us was deaf, but my mom always stressed the value and beauty of communication in all its forms.  And so, together, we learned each letter, and practiced sharing messages in public when we were out of earshot or unable to talk.  I always found it cool to have a special means of "talking," but I couldn't have imagined its significance one day.

In a moment, I became her voice.  She spelled out each word, and I shared it with the room.  She'd nod with relief once her message was received and smiled bigger each time she successfully expressed herself.  I was literally giddy, and the moment she spelled out "g-u-m," I ran to the gift shop and bought every flavor they had in stock.  She just shook her head and giggled.

Her health wavered over the subsequent weeks.  There were highs and lows, but it was three words that she scribbled on a piece of paper that profoundly impacted me.  With a weak hand resulting in a slightly lopsided "n," she wrote "I need you."  I haven't been the same person since.

This person who initially showed no response, who couldn't demonstrate to me what she could or couldn't understand, who was afraid and upset with her circumstances, ultimately found her method of connecting.  She let me know, in her own way, that my efforts were not wasted.  If I hadn't been paying attention, I might have missed it.

What a powerful lesson this experience has offered as an educator.  And I'm not one bit surprised.  After all, my mom had for years taught children, adolescents, and even adults in prison.  She had raised two teenagers, bombarding us with "I love you" no matter how much eye rolling or sighing ensued.  It mattered not whether our response was immediate, appreciative, or clear.  She sought to connect with her children and learners, whatever it took.

I can only imagine what beauty would transpire were my mom able to teach in a classroom of today, with diverse methods for communicating, sharing, and demonstrating understanding.  I would be in awe, I would be humbled, and I'd be taking notes furiously in an attempt to pass onto my own students a portion of her gift.

My mom passed away ten years ago this past Sunday.  And yet I find myself less saddled with grief and more inspired to continue learning from her.  I will continue to attempt to connect with each of my students, even in the face of unresponsiveness.  I will maintain hope.  I will celebrate each success.  And I will pay careful attention just in case I discover that a student, in her own way, has shown that she needs me.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

"He broke a rule, and I can't praise him enough for it."

CC image on Flickr by selva
Nine years ago my friend made a decision that saved his life.  He went against everything he'd been told for years, used his own judgment, and is alive today because of it.

Mike worked on one of the top floors of Tower 2 of the World Trade Center.  After the first tower was hit, he received word from upper management that there was no reason to panic and workers should return to their desks.  Mike's gut told him otherwise.  And so, at the risk of behaving as an insubordinate worker, Mike headed for the stairwell.  It had been drilled into his head, as it has been for many of us, that in case of emergency, you should take the stairs, not the elevator.  And so he began his descent.

The stairwell Mike entered was soon a crowded one in which the pace of movement was excruciatingly slow.  In more time than his instincts were comfortable with, he had only descended 20 stories.  More than 80 remained.  Remembering that there was an express elevator to the ground floor in one of the nearby lobbies, Mike stood immobile, with a decision before him.  He could do as he was told and remain in the stairwell, or gamble on the express exit.  Assessing the situation and using his judgment, he chose the latter.

Squeezing his way into the nearby lobby, Mike stood as close to an elevator door as he could get.  As people continued to pour in behind him, he soon found himself once again immobile and for a moment wondered if he had made the right decision.  And then he heard a ping.

The elevator doors in front of him opened, and Mike stepped forward.  As many as could entered, and down they went.  Mike made it out.

He's spoken little of what he saw, heard, and felt as he stepped outside.  I'm not surprised.  I can't imagine the challenge of working through those kinds of sensory memories.  And I can only hope that time has helped him heal.

I also can't imagine the panic his parents experienced as they watched the media coverage that day and went without word from their son for hours.  My father, an ordained minister, drove over to support and comfort Mike's family during this ordeal.  Mike's dad left his office and drove home as quickly as he could to join his wife.  Arriving there after my father had, I imagine the image of a priest sitting in his living room at least momentarily made Mike's dad fear the worst.

Eventually Mike reached a working phone and made the call to his family that so many waiting loved ones were praying for that day.  What emotions must have run through that home.

Weeks later Mike's mom spoke to the community, thanking them for their outpouring of love and made a point of commenting on her son's judgment that day.  "He didn't do what he'd been told," she said, both smiling and tearing up.  "He broke a rule, and I can't praise him enough for it."  Those words have stayed with me for years.

I can't begin to relate to what Mike and his family went through that day.  What I can take away, aside from the gratitude I feel for his survival, is the lesson offered in the value of judgment superseding policy and protocol.  If you haven't yet watched Barry Schwarz's TED Talk on "our loss of wisdom," you must.  He eloquently explains how "rules often fail us" and emphasizes the urgent need for all of us, especially educators, to apply "practical wisdom" in our everyday lives.  He argues that a wise person:
  • knows when and how to make "the exception to every rule"
  • knows when and how to improvise
  • knows how to use moral skills in pursuit of the right aims
  • is made and not born
Our world would be a better place with more wise people.  And we educators have the power to affect how much wisdom pervades our world.  I find that both daunting and overwhelmingly inspirational.

As I face this nascent academic year with my students, my hope is to help them develop their sense of judgment.  I hope I can help them discover both the value of rules and the occasions when our wisdom may justifiably compel us to break them.

Mike's story teaches us not that stairwells are less safe or that emergency procedures have no merit.  Instead, it illustrates how critical thinking, analysis, judgment, and courage can be our most powerful survival skills in life.  His story also teaches us how good fortune, whatever you believe its source to be, is something that we ought to actively appreciate daily.

And so, I am grateful that my friend is alive, that his family has peace, and that his story offers some profound life lessons.  And I'm grateful to be in a position where I can connect learners to those lessons.  It just so happens I was supposed to use a different lesson plan on Monday -- one without Mike's story, but I've decided... I think I'll break the rules.