One time last year, a 67 year old poet came to my school to hang out with some of my students. She read from one of her books talking about her childhood experiences with race, and then asked some of my students to tell their own childhood stories. The kids told marvelous stories, as kids often do, that seemed to kind of resemble the themes of her own reading.
Story after story, the elderly poet’s eyes blazed with excitement.
“Holy Shit,” she would say with her eyes widened and her smile conquering her aging face.
“Please say that one more time.”
The kids loved to hear an old lady say “shit,” and they smiled at her enthusiasm. Then, they proceeded to answer her enthusiastic questions with even more enthusiastic responses. As the stories circled the room, students shared their own memories of experiencing race and racism as minorities in urban America. The stories grew, and the honesty of the sharing grew with each unfolding memory.
And with each new plot, our celebrated visitor grew more captivated by the emerging narratives. Her spirited reactions fed the story-telling, and what was intended to be a poetry reading turned into a student-led story hour that had us all reaching for every twist and turn.
Sure, kids love when old ladies cuss. I think we all do. But her visit forced me to think about how much everybody likes an engaged and active listener.
Occasionally, I try out this active listening strategy on my 3 year old.
“Hey baby, I really want to know what your favorite color is today.”
Because 3 year olds believe that every conversation is pure, she doesn’t see the foolishness in the question. She grabs the question with the philosophical zeal of a grad student, and tosses the options around in her little head. She will scan the room around her for color, as if she is seeing them all for the first time before answering what she feels is an important question.
“Green,” she will blurt out with confidence as her eyes meet a blue dinosaur on her bed.
She doesn’t want me to keep thinking that her favorite color is green, that is so three minutes ago. And immediately after she is pleased with her answer, she stares into my eyes for a response.
“Wow. I love blue.” I say with excitement. I would say “holy shit” but my wife usually gets mad at me when I say “shit” in front of our kids. But I want to echo that poet’s excitement about my daughter’s answer.
I start naming all the blue things that I have seen in the past few days. We talk about the sky and the water, the car across the street and our neighbor’s bike, then we mention the slide at the playground and the mailbox on the corner. She marvels at all the blue in the world and at my excitement.
I try this same thing with the high school students that I teach. I like to make a habit of asking age-appropriate questions and saying “holy shit” at their answers. In other words, it might be important to allow ourselves to be amazed at the stories that people tell when we take the time to listen. Asking about a favorite color may not always work over the age of 5, but high school students love to talk about relationships, their fears (if they are alone), and the music in their headphones.
Just today, I asked a student why she missed school yesterday. I was expecting her to tell me the normal response that she was sick or that she had some kind of appointment or that she overslept. But she caught me off guard.
“I hate school,” she said with the absolute bluntness that the word hate sometimes demands.
“I don’t know. It is not even just this school. I have been hating school since I was a little kid. Usually I can avoid it for most of the year and it only starts to catch up to me in May. But this year, it started soon after Christmas.”
I avoided the “holy shit” response, but she had my full attention and she appreciated that. I wanted to know if it was the classes, the teachers, the kids, bullying, or whatever other reason would make a 16 year old hate the place she has to go to every day.
“Actually, I think it is just being around people this much,” she finally admitted. I thought about my own brand of anxiety, and how hard high school can be for students who tend to get anxious in crowds.
“I just start to get sick of all the noise and the people, and want to stay in my room all day.”
“Yeah, I get that,” I said with a nod of understanding. Adults should have something better to say in moments like this, but this was all I could muster. She had me in a “holy shit” moment, and all I could give her was a “thanks for sharing.”
It doesn’t matter if it is the color blue and how often we see it, amazing stories from childhood, or accounts of social anxiety, I think we should take the time to be awed at what people say. That old poet who visited our school was a pretty amazing writer, but she was even better at listening to children and what they had to say. She let each story surprise her, wearing her surprise on her face and sharing it with each of us. With each “holy shit,” she gave credence to the story and, more importantly, the person telling it.