Listen

This morning I rushed into class as the bell was ringing and smiled a greeting to the teacher whose classroom I occupy during first period.  She was wearing a cute black dress and bright, bright green tights (or maybe even bright, bright, bright green -- bright enough that I still get a headache just thinking about them!)  I was wearing a fuzzy wool scarf of various shades of green, and we joked that we should have combined outfits.  She left to work in the computer lab, and I dove into the morning routine of prayer -- quiz -- discussion that consumed 90 minutes before I realized what was happening.

As my students filed out, thrusting papers in my direction, I sat down to restore order, and another teacher walked in.  "Sonja's going to the hospital.  She's in terrible pain and doesn't know what's wrong.  Have you seen her keys?"  We searched for them to no avail, and she left to tell the principal, who was going to drive her to the hospital.

Concerned, I called down to see what I could do.  I didn't have any classes after second period; could I drive her to the hospital?  No, but I could substitute for her two remaining classes.  When I greeted the surprised faces of Sonja's next class, I decided that last-minute substitutes are the antithesis of dentists.  Students LOVE to see them, especially when the subs are as clueless as I was.  ("Quiz?  What quiz?  No, I don't have one here . . . ")

During my half-hour lunch period I dashed home to fix a sandwich and grab my binder of accreditation stuff for our after-school meeting.  We've had a lot of meetings this year, some skin-crawlingly boring and some fairly illuminating, but I enjoy being part of my committee, whose job is to review the school's long- and short-range plans and goals. For today's meeting, I was supposed to review the students' survey results, especially their comments, and make some sweeping generalizations about what the students liked and didn't like about the way the school was being run.

Sonja's last class was AP European History, which was my favorite class in all of high school, so I was excited to see what they were studying.  Apparently, however, even AP students would rather have a break than work, even when someone as knowledgeable as me offered to help.  (I'm not sure they bought it.  "I got a 5 on the test," I bragged, and I could see the thought bubbles floating above their heads: "When was that? 20 years ago?")

On a whim, I asked the students to help me clarify some of the survey responses.  "I know you didn't write all of these," I explained, "But I figured since you guys are some of the best students in the school [flattery, flattery] you could give me some idea of the general trends of thought."  They were excited. "We love giving our opinions!"

I read the first question. "Does the administration provide effective leadership?"  And then I didn't get to say another word for forty-five minutes.  They had a LOT to say.  They felt left out; they didn't ever feel they knew what was going on, from programs to goals to school policies; they felt they were ruled with an iron fist, when they had done nothing to deserve that kind of authoritarianism.  Granted, these are teenage girls, but I certainly saw their point; most of my colleagues feel the same way to some degree.  The administration does tend to micromanage, insisting that all decisions pass under their watchful eye.

There was more.  They had had privileges revoked without explanation.  Little things, like Christmas parties and the annual lip-synch contest, but things that mattered to them.  And most of it came down to respect.  They wanted to be respected as human beings -- as near-adults who had valid points of view.  As one girl put it: "They consistenly show no regard for our opinions."  Who hasn't felt like that at some point?

I've written before about the importance of listening when you're making music, but I was reminded today that you should always be listening, no matter who is speaking or how much you think you already know what they're going to say.  It was actually very freeing to let them air their griefs without feeling the need to defend the school's position; I didn't take either side, and didn't even speak except to clarify what they meant.  I just listened and wrote and wrote and wrote.  And as their hands flew into the air to emphasize a point, as the color rose in their cheeks and their eyes widened at the honor of being given a chance to say what they really thought, I gained a new level of respect for these incredibly sophisticated and articulate students.  They had words of criticism for the powers that ruled the school, but they were just as quick to condemn their own classmates who constantly complained and weren't interested in learning.  They couldn't imagine how difficult it must be to have the job of teaching  a class full of kids who didn't care: "I mean, there's only so much you can pull out of them, right?"  I stifled a laugh at the accuracy of that metaphor, and I could have hugged each one of them for her amazingly mature attempts to see the situation from the other side.

End-of-the-day announcements interrupted their animated discussion, and there were sighs of resignation as they turned toward the cross for prayer, returning to the way things usually were.  As they left, I thanked them for helping me see their point of view.  "No, thank you," they said.  "Seriously.  Thank you for caring what we think.  Thank you for listening to us."