Tag Archives: Personal Growth

There is a Light that Never Goes Out

26 Mar
Chicago Winter. Photo by MAG

Chicago Winter. Photo by MAG

The first time I’d seen him, he was bundled in a camel overcoat, fast asleep.

I thought I was extremely lucky when I hopped on the almost empty El car at the Chicago stop and grabbed a seat during rush hour, but once the doors closed, I quickly realized why the car was deserted.  The stench coming from the corner made my eyes water and I followed the lead of the man next to me and pulled my scarf up over my nose and mouth to filter the air enough to be able to make it to the Clark/Division stop where I quickly changed cars.

I didn’t really think much about it after that.  Over the past year, I’ve become acclimated to riding public transport and have learned to adjust to the inevitable clash of cultures, and this brutal Chicago winter has made me even more aware of the challenges faced by the city’s poor and homeless residents.   The CTA became a refuge from the subzero temperatures, and to their credit, the CTA employees who run the trains did their best to shepherd the all-day riders onto one car in order to keep an eye on people and make sure no one froze to death.

Last week, I saw him again.

I recognized the tattered camel overcoat, and the smell.  As he walked the platform the crowd of people parted and gave him a wide berth.  When he found a bench to settle down on, the man sitting there got up and moved ten feet away.  Everyone on the platform turned their backs and looked away as if not looking would make the man – and the smell – disappear.  I wanted to look away, too, but I’d just written my last blog entry about how I was going to smile at strangers and help when I could, so I looked.

The man sat on the bench fiddling with a pair of ripped gloves that barely covered his fingers, a tattered black plastic bag at his feet.  He stared at the ground as he tugged his coat, pulling it more tightly around his body, as I debated about what I should do.  And then in an instant, I knew.

I walked over and leaned down close enough to say, “Good morning, sir.”  Startled, the man looked up and then looked away quickly.

Taking a deep breath, I continued, “Have you had breakfast?”

He looked back up, confused for a moment, and asked, “What?”

I repeated, “Have you had breakfast yet?”

He ducked his head and gestured toward the black bag, “Not yet, but I’m going to have a bite soon.”

I reached into my messenger bag and pulled out the PBJ sandwich that I’d packed before I left the apartment that morning and offered it to him, saying, “It’s just PBJ, but you’re more than welcome to it.”

He smiled a little and replied, “Oh no, ma’am, I’m fine.  I’ve got breakfast in this here bag. But thank you.”

My first impulse was to press further and make him take the sandwich, but I quickly understood what he was saying and backed off, tucking the sandwich back into my bag.

Sometimes preserving one’s dignity trumps hunger.

I smiled at him, and asked a question that I would spend the next few days kicking myself for asking, “Do you need anything else, sir?”

What kind of idiot question was that?  Of course he needing something else.  He needed a lot of things, but since he’d refused the sandwich I didn’t know what else to offer and I didn’t want to insult him by assuming I did.

He smiled back at me, and replied, “Oh no, I’m fine, ma’am.  Thank you.”

As I looked at him and nodded, he lifted his head and looked right into my eyes as he smiled in a way that could only be described as serene and said, “And God bless you, ma’am.  God bless you.”

I returned his smile and his blessing, and then stepped on the train leaving him sitting on the bench.

As the car sped down the tracks I felt sad for a moment because I hadn’t been able to do anything for the man.  I hadn’t been able to give him anything or help in any measurable way.

And then I thought about the way he’d looked me in the eye, raising his head and smiling as he blessed me.

Maybe the greatest gift we can offer another person is the dignity of being seen.

Cycles

7 Sep

Union Square - photo by MAG

Frank Sinatra always manages to sing his way into my life when I need it the most.

Lately, people have been asking me exactly when I’ll be making the move to New York. I understand the question to be part curiosity, part support and part desire to know that someone is making their dreams come true. And while I know that I began this blog as a way of actively moving toward my dream of living in the city, the truth is that I don’t know.

In the past year, I have traveled more than I ever imagined – both physically and emotionally – and I’ve come to realize that it’s the dreaming, not the outcome of the dreams, that matters the most. I can’t know where I’m going to end up, I can only plant the seeds of a dream, tend the garden, and accept that, no matter how hard I try, I cannot control Mother Nature.

I know that sounds fatalistic, and maybe even pessimistic, but I don’t see it that way at all. I view my life as an experiment – a hand’s-on learning lab of sorts – and in order to gain the most from it, I have to let go of the notion that to be “successful” means I must, somehow, achieve absolutely everything I set out to do.

Not all crops make it to the harvest season, but even the ones that fail to thrive serve a purpose – those crops fertilize the ones that remain viable.

Around this time last year, I was teaching, was on the verge of starting a second job, and was still dreaming about finding a way to travel to New York City. A year later, I’m still teaching, have left the second job, and spent an amazing week in New York City. I learned that teaching is my passion; it’s my reason for getting up in the morning and the one job I would do even if I didn’t get paid to do it. Teaching is who I am. My second job, in sales, was instrumental in helping me understand this, and I will be forever thankful for the experience and for the opportunity to work with some of the most intelligent, creative, and incredibly kind people I’ve ever known.

And New York…well…New York helped me realize that it’s not so much where I am physically, as it is my perception of and my attitude toward where I am that matters the most. As long as I am learning, growing, and excited about all of the possible adventures that each new day brings, I will be happy anywhere.

For me, New York City really is a state of mind.

This epiphany freed me from a lot of “have to’s” and “should’s”, and opened up new ways of thinking about where I am, and where I want to be. It has me realize that the people who truly love and support me [my students, colleagues, friends, and family] are absolutely vital to my growth efforts because they continue to have faith in my wide-eyed optimism and my belief that I can grow something in even the the most unlikely soil. The people I love celebrate when my garden flourishes, and generously share their resources during the lean times.

So, what’s next?

As usual, I’ve got new ideas, new plans, and new dreams, and I’ve begun planting a few seeds with the knowledge that every savvy gardener possesses – growing things takes patience, time, and faith in nature’s cycle. Earlier this week, I was reminded of this when I heard Old Blue Eyes singing the words, “Life is like the seasons/After winter comes the spring/So I’ll keep this smile awhile/And see what tomorrow brings.”

I believe I’ll do just that.

Here I Go Again

21 Oct

Photo by DMT

Teacher, teach thyself.

I spend a great deal of time trying to teach students to “go with the flow” and accept that the only thing we can control are our own responses to situations.  But I also recognize that this is much easier said than done, since, for those of us who like to feel like we’re in control of our lives, change can be incredibly challenging.

Over the past few weeks I’ve had to let go and trust that the changes that are happening are going to make my life better, but I’ll tell you, it ain’t easy.

I spent this past weekend training to begin my second job, which involves selling computer technology. While it was exciting and invigorating, I kept asking myself whether or not this was going to not only interfere with my dream of moving to New York, but also if I was being asked to do something that goes against who I am and how I view the world.

One of the things I have always dreaded about shopping is walking into a store and feeling pressured by pushy salespeople to “buy, buy, buy!”  In fact, in my experience, the pushiness of sales people is precisely the thing that will cause me to turn and leave without buying anything – even if I need it.

I’m pretty stubborn.

I understand that, on a basic level, selling involves educating people in order give them the information they need to make a purchase, but I wasn’t sure if I was someone who could participate in pushing people to buy things. As a result, the intellectually idealistic part of me argued with the pragmatic realist part of me all weekend.

As a teacher, part of my job is to “sell knowledge,” and since I do this in a proprietary institution, the sales feature is a large part of what I do, but it’s never felt like the main purpose.  I’ve always viewed education as a free and open exchange of ideas, rather than the process of “selling a product.”  I don’t go into the classroom with the notion that I have to convert students to my way of thinking because, for me, that feels like an abuse of knowledge and power.  My goal has always been to give students the information they need in order to make decisions that will benefit them.  How they use that information is entirely up to them.

However, I’ve also come to recognize that part of my job is to show students the value of the education they’ve purchased.  If they can’t see the value and, as a result, decide not to continue to pay for access to the information my school offers, then I will be out of a job.  Coming to that realization made me feel uncomfortable, at first, because it made the relationship between education and economics uncomfortably clear.  It’s not an open and free exchange of ideas. In the end, it’s a service that people are paying for and my job involves selling that service to the best of my ability.

What I realized is that my primary concern was with what I view as the ethical responsibility of educating people.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t view myself as any more ethical than the next person, I just know what I believe and every day I do the best I can to adhere to the beliefs that my conscience can bear.  If I can look myself in the eye every day and honestly say that I’ve treated people in a way that recognizes and respects their human dignity, then I’m satisfied I’ve done the best I can.  If I don’t feel that I have done that, then I admit my mistakes, evaluate what needs to be changed, and improve the next time.

My Cultural Diversity class happened to provide me with one of these teachable moments this past week.

This class is an evening class that runs from 8:30-10:30 two nights a week, and has 40 students registered, and on this particular evening we’d engaged in a lively discussion about the challenges related to becoming culturally diverse.  The class engaged in an exciting conversation, and I’d had to remind people not to talk over one another a number of times.  At the tail end of the discussion, two young men [who’ve been in classes with me before, and are good students] had a side conversation going while I was trying to explain the directions for the quiz that was to be given during the next class period.  Without asking any questions, I turned and barked at them, “Stop talking!  NOW!”  And they did.

Later, I felt guilty about my reaction.  Not because I’d wanted them to be quite while I was giving directions, but because I felt like I’d failed to model the kind of professional behavior that I want students to adopt, and because I felt like I’d missed something important.  Over the next few days, I thought about why I’d reacted the way I had, and came to the conclusion that it was the result of a number of factors – one of which I could actually change.

I realized that one of the problems with the large group discussion was that while, in theory, it gave everyone a chance to talk and listen to what others had to say about a particular issue, it really didn’t get students involved in an active sense.  The sheer number of students in the class combined with the limited time we have, means that those who wanted to participate had to wait their turn to be called on, and with a discussion like this, there was a lot to say.  I could see that in a late-night classroom full of students who, for the most part, are experiential learners, this could be frustrating, thus the side conversations.

So, I came into the next class period and admitted my mistake.  The guys I’d barked at didn’t even remember what had happened, and that made me laugh.  Then I informed the class that as a result of my epiphany, we were going to change it up a bit and get everyone more involved in the discussion.  I assigned small groups a portion of the information we were covering that class period, and made them responsible for making sense of a few key points and then explaining these points to the rest of the class.  As I watched the groups discuss their topics, I was able to see that students who had been quiet during the large group discussion now felt more comfortable talking and students who wanted to talk were talking. As an added bonus, while they wrestled with the ideas I was able to move around the room and push them toward developing more nuanced explanations, which they later shared with their classmates.  Overall it was a successful change, but it also made it clear to me that I am in the business of “selling knowledge,” and I have to make it useful to my “consumers” in order for them to “make a purchase.”

What made me connect all of this?

I spend a lot of time thinking about things – obviously.  I am constantly looking for new ways to learn and teach, but it was the push I got from the weekend training for my new job that helped me make the concrete connection.  I realized this new job will be something that I’ve already been doing.  It will utilize my teaching skills since I’ll be working for a corporation whose belief is that they “enrich people’s lives” – and the extent to which they believe this means that they don’t have to try and sell anything.  At the end of the weekend training, I was shocked to learn that there are no numbers or quotas for the sales people to meet.  The job of sales people in this company is to provide people with the information they need in order to make decisions that will improve their lives.

That’s it.

At my new job they actually believe that “those who are crazy enough to believe they can change the world – are the ones who do” and as a result the profit this company makes is viewed as the logical by-product of treating people with kindness, dignity and respect.

My conscience can definitely live with that.

One Year to Move Soundtrack

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