My family is growing weary of hearing me quote Hamilton, but like yoga, I see the parallels throughout daily life. Plus, I like the catchy show tunes and rap verses.
Recently, I found myself trying to talk less, smile more all in the spirit of truly listening to a distressed high school senior whom I will call Hamilton.
DISCLAIMER: I don’t know much about his story except that he is struggling to get by, has at least a few adults trying to put him in his place and, I believe, is smart, determined, competent and struggling to make his way in the world as he searches for how and where he can become a new man.
I am also trying to talk less in general as I hone my listening skills. I’ve facilitated professional development with teachers around listening. I’ve taught kids of all ages about listening, I’ve read about listening. But like most people, I’m not innately a good listener. It takes effort and practice. In my coach training, we’re focusing on reflective and empathetic listening. One of the mantras is “listen twice as much as you speak.”
In my role at a local high school, it is not uncommon for another faculty member to escort a student to my space to have them “sit a bit” or “just do some work.” My comfortable and spacious place is intended for college and career exploration but de facto, it can be a holding place for kids when other adults aren’t sure where to put them. I see this as an opportunity to connect with kids, to offer a safe, quiet place for a short time and ideally, to listen to what’s going on with them. Sometimes, it’s a bit like the Island of Misfit Toys, but everyone needs to have a place to chill and fit in, and if I can be that island, I’m happy to do so.
A teacher who was monitoring a room known by an acronym I don’t even know the full definition of (it has something to do with discipline and detention and is about as barren and sterile as any institution) slid into my room and asked if Hamilton could come down for a bit. He is, she surmised, “A bit worried about college and school.”
Well, alrighty. “…take up a collection and send him…“
When she gave me his actual name, I told her we had worked together before. He had been all over the place with where he might apply now that it was January of his senior year. Shortly thereafter, Hamilton appeared before me, dragging his feet and examining the floor tiles. I was determined to put my reflective listening in action so I could find out what was going on with this kid because his body language told me he was feeling like a beaten dog.
Best laid intentions, but this Hamilton was not conversant.
I tried many versions of “What’s going on?” “And tell me what brought you here?” and “So, waatz up?” He didn’t lift his head and his arms went further into his sweatshirt pocket the more I inquired. Time to cut him some slack and offer words, much like one does with a preschooler who doesn’t yet have words.
Me: So, we chatted before when you came in to look at schools, right?
Me: And you were thinking about schools all over the country. It seemed like you were looking to get out of the area?
Hamilton: Yeah. I dunno…
Me: Ok, so now you need a game plan?
Hamilton: Head turns away.
Me: It’s not too late, but there is work you need to get on and I can help, I think.
Hamilton: Body hunches over the table.
I gently ask a few more questions, hunting for clues as to what he’s done about colleges. Turns out other than taking the SATs he’s done diddly. I ask if he is serious and wants my help, and he looks up at me and makes eye contact for the first time. His ebony eyes are glistening, with tears precariously balancing on the lower edge of his eyes. “Yes, ma’am.”
Dreikur’s roots of misbehavior scroll through my brain: Attention? No. Power? Maybe. Revenge? No. Helplessness? Definitely. He wasn’t just acting out, he’s afraid and feels trapped. “…helpless…“
Then he went and did something that got him ushered out of class and here we sit. “…the world turned upside down…”
“I know this is hard and maybe overwhelming. But it’s not too late. We can find options, but you’re going to have to work,” I assure him. I tell him about an upcoming community college visit and the local Black College Expo that offers on the spot admissions. He looks at me, nodding. I tell him to come back in a bit and I will have some info for him to take home and read – and hopefully – discuss with his adults. Normally, I wouldn’t just dig up documents and hand them off, that’s on the kids. But this kid seemed to feel like nobody is on his side. “… it must be nice. It must be nice to have Washington by your side…”
I get him back in the room and he is looking even more dejected. I summoned a cheerful but not too cheery tone of voice and smile a lot. I show him how the community college admissions process works and explain that if he came to work in this space, he could do it in no time, and I’d be there to help. Plus, he’d have an admissions decision within a week. Befuddled, he looked at me as I acknowledged, it might not be ideal, but it gives him an option.
Me: Does any of this sound like a plan that gives you some choices?
Hamilton: Nods and pulls the paperwork closer to point at the “apply here” link. “…get the job done…”
Me: Think you can come in next week and we’ll do that?
Me: Let me hear it…
Hamilton: Yeah, yes, ma’am. I will come. Thanks…
As he stands up, he towers over me and I see his eyes are, again, wet. I nodded my head and smiled. “…there are moments where the words don’t reach…”
This kid wasn’t misbehaving in class just to piss people off. Like so many high schoolers, he is worried about the uncharted path ahead. Perhaps he is realizing he should have done things differently, made different choices. He was feeling stuck, trapped, without choices and maybe without support. We’ve all been there and it’s crappy.
I tried listening, even when he was barely able to speak. Empathy and reassurance it had to be, talking less, smiling more.
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Here’s to talking less, smiling more!