Ears Wide Shut

Listening is truly a lost art form it seems.

People just flat out no longer listen.

Instead, it feels more like people are only listening long enough to catch an opportunity to talk about themselves.

I find myself telling people things – important things – only for my words to be completely ignored.

Don’t even try to ask someone if they were listening. Odds are, they won’t hear that question either.

Listening is important.

You can pick up some pretty important information just from listening.

Case in point, a situation my child came to me about recently.

“You may hear from my teacher,” he began.

That’s never good, I thought. My experience had taught me teachers only called when something was wrong and usually, it was when the wrong-doing was on my behalf.

Instead of jumping right in with my questions, I decided this would be a good time to listen.

Mama always knew if she gave me the quiet treatment long enough, I would spill what she needed to know.

I thought I’d give her tactic a whirl instead of jumping in with my accusations and allegations.

“I made a zero on an assignment, but it counts as a test grade,” he continued after my silence.

“But it wasn’t my fault.”

I nodded slowly.

“Do you want to hear why it wasn’t my fault?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“Well, my teacher told us we had to grade our own assignments, but we had to do in pen. She told us we could not use pencil.”

“OK.”
“I had picked up a pencil in my left hand and had a pen in the right,” he went on. “It was just out of habit. Really. I always have a pencil that I am bouncing. But she came by and picked up my test and gave me a zero. Just because I had a pencil in my hand – and it is not even the hand I write with!”

Now, I could understand his disappointment and frustration at getting the zero. I would have been devastated.

But that was not where his frustration was coming from.

The first point of contention was the teacher was one of his favorites.

She has known him most of his life and in Cole’s opinion, knew he wouldn’t cheat.

His second issue – and the one he was the most vocal about – was that she did not let him explain.

“I wasn’t using the pencil to grade my assignment. I was just bouncing it. Like I said, it wasn’t even in the hand I write with. It was not fair.”

“It didn’t have to be fair,” I said. “She said not to use a pencil.”

“I wasn’t!” he argued. “You aren’t listening to me. I had the pencil in my left hand – I am right handed! I couldn’t change the answer with my left hand.”
“She didn’t know that,” I said.

“She would have known had she let me explain.”

“She didn’t have to let you explain. She said no pencil. You had a pencil. End of story.”

“Did you hear what I said? I said, I had the pencil in my left hand. Not my right. I was not using it. Only bouncing it.”

“Did you hear what your teacher said? She said no pencil. She is a teacher. Not a cop. Not a judge. She is not there to hear your argument or for you to state your case. She told you if you used a pencil, you got a zero. She walked by and saw a pencil in your hand. So, it made sense to conclude you were going to use it. I don’t blame her and stand by her zero.”

I think at that moment, I lost a lot of mom points with my child.

I had always been the first to rush in with the cavalry to defend and protect him.

I had always stood up for him.

But this time, I didn’t. Instead, I told him the teacher was right.

I wasn’t going to call her, nor was I going to email her, asking her to let him explain.

I was going to let him learn this hard lesson.

He had heard his teacher say one thing – not to grade the paper with a pen – and thought he could go do another, as long as he wasn’t grading it.

Her instruction was implied.

It wasn’t spelled out explicitly, but it was more of a subtle understanding: just don’t pick up a pencil, because it will look like you are changing your answer.

And sometimes, those subtle understandings are the hardest to discern. Especially when we are only listening for what we want to hear.

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The purple house pride

I always get nostalgic this time of year.

There was something so special and magical about the beginning of a new school year.

Brand new notebooks with clean, crisp pages. The fresh packs of pencils. The coveted big box of Crayolas that made you the queen of the classroom.

To me, the start of the school year was exciting and magical, a welcomed end to the boredom of summer.

One of my favorite things was getting to meet my new teacher.

Of course, the bar had been set high in kindergarten by Mrs. Howard. She was the litmus test by which every teacher and most humans must pass, with her sense of humor, compassion, and encouragement.

She made me love school. If I could have stayed in kindergarten with her as my teacher forever, I would have.

First grade, however, almost ruined my love for school.

This one teacher – one –tainted my whole school experience.

And she was bad enough that Mama still holds a spite and grudge against her to this day.

“She should have never been around children!” Mama will exclaim any time the woman’s name is mentioned.

I agree, but I don’t quite hold a grudge against her like Mama does. But then again, I am the child in this scenario; I am sure my perspective would be different if I was in Mama’s position.

This wretched woman did several things throughout my first-grade year that gave Mama good and justified reasons to dislike her.

“Stronger than dislike, Kitten,” Mama will remind me. “I cannot stand that woman.”

Now, what would possibly set my mild-mannered, kind-hearted Mama off like this? The woman whose favorite mantra was “there but by the grace of God go I?”

Well, let me tell you, it was not pretty, but it may not have been the most dramatic of events.
It was a primary school straw on a camel’s back.

My introduction to first grade left me wondering if one could possibly flunk out of school due to erroneous paper folding. I never successfully folded the construction paper in the certain manner this horrid teacher wanted.

I didn’t say a word to Mama; instead, I begged Granny to help me fix it.

If anyone could fix something that involved paper, fabric, or anything related to crafts, it was Granny. I am fairly certain she could have built a house with a needle and thread.

Granny helped me interpret the directions, which we followed explicitly. The teacher still said it was wrong.

“Now she’s saying I did it wrong, and I don’t make no mistakes!” Granny said. “There ain’t no pleasing this woman.”

She wasn’t wrong.

We followed the directions, but she insisted it was still wrong.

A classmate did it the same way, yet this woman did not admonish her the way she did me.

“Maybe you need to go back to kindergarten,” she said to me one day.

“Will you stay in first grade?” I asked.

“Yes,” the bitter woman replied.

“OK.”

I wanted away from her. I had no idea how or why she disliked me so. I was a chubby little woblin of a child and eager to make adults happy. Usually, teachers loved me.

But this woman hated me.

She had even told me on the first day of school she had hoped I wasn’t going to be in her class.

What kind of adult does that? What was wrong with her?

Of course, my beloved Mrs. Howard was teaching first grade that year and I had hoped and prayed, to the point of negotiating with God I would give up all things Little Debbie, to have Mrs. Howard again

Instead I got this shrew.

Mama was right, she had no business being around small children.

One day, we had to color a picture for fire safety week. We could color the house any color we wanted, as long as the fire and the fire truck were red.

My house was my favorite color: purple.

Not pink, which I have never cared for. Not white, not brown.

Purple. See, long before I fell in love with anything Prince, I loved the color purple.

So, my house was purple.

My fire was red – even though fire is really not red but more of a yellow-orange hue.

And my fire truck was red.

The two requirements were met.

The teacher refused to hang mine on the hall with the rest of my classmates, declaring in front of the class that no houses anywhere in the U.S. of A were purple.

“Your mother will not be proud of what you did because I will not hang it out on the hall with everyone else,” the woman told me.

I shrugged. “That’s okay, my Mama is proud of me anyway.”

“No, she’s not,” the woman sneered. “Your picture will not be allowed to be displayed in the hall. How could she proud of failure?”

Even though I was a kid, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, my Mama was proud of me whether my painting made the hall display or not. That didn’t earn my Mama’s love or praise.

Years later, I was standing in the drugstore with my friends Laura and Jane when that horrid woman walked by. She greeted both while ignoring me.

“She still hates you,” Jane said shocked.

As a new school year starts, this experience always comes to mind because I know there are more Mrs. Howards in classrooms than there is that horrible woman.

But, I hope, more than anything, there are more children knowing they are loved and worthy beyond just what gets hung in the halls.