I hope you don’t change

I was 29 years old when I acquired my first management job. Management wasn’t something I ever thought I aspired to. I was a teacher. But when the position came up I was in the mood for a new challenge, and so I applied. I was the youngest to take on a management role at the school where I had taught for several years.

For the most part my colleagues were supportive — even though many were older and had more years in the classroom, and some had actually taught me when I was a student at the school twelve years earlier.

There was one notable exception.

“Dee” was one of my fellow teachers, hired around the same time I was, but about ten years older. Shortly after my appointment to the management role was announced, she sat across from me over lunch one day. She congratulated my on my new job, and then looked me in the eye, her face a picture of earnest concern, and said, “I hope you don’t change.”

I was baffled. I spluttered that I wouldn’t have sought out the opportunity if I didn’t want to learn new things, and wasn’t learning all about change?

Years later, after several different management positions, I am still unpacking Dee’s comment– still trying to grasp the assumptions underlying her words.

Assumption #1: Change is bad.

I need to stress that Dee was not only a teacher, she was also a counsellor. I have never understood how one could engage in either teaching or counselling without believing that people can change, and that change can be positive. But clearly by saying “I hope you don’t change” she was conveying her belief that not only was I at risk of changing as a result of this new job, I should be doing everything in my power to resist such a horrible fate.

Assumption #2: Change can be avoided.

“I hope you don’t change” implies that it would be possible to take on a new role and learn new skills without changing. The question I still wish I had thought to ask her is, “Have you gone through your entire career without changing in any way? Do you teach exactly the same way today that you did the day you first set foot in a classroom?”

Assumption #3: Different work will make me a different person.

I can entertain the possibility that she actually meant the statement as a compliment. Perhaps she felt that as colleagues we shared a deep connection that we would no longer share now that I was Management. Not that we had ever been best buddies.  And I would still be doing some teaching, so it’s not like we wouldn’t still have things in common. But somehow her comment implied that simply stepping into the management role was going to transform me to the core of my very being.

To be honest, I was hoping it would. I have always been a person who learns by doing. I had been teaching the same course for several years, and was starting to feel a bit like I was caught in an endless feedback loop of grade eleven English. I was craving the opportunity to take on a new challenge, and learn all the new things that I imagined that new challenge would bring. But Dee clearly had a darker view of what I was about to learn.

Assumption #4: Being a manager will make me a worse person.

Dee’s tone made it clear that by “change” she did not mean “improve.” Saying “I hope you don’t change” indicated that she was unable to entertain the possibility that taking on a management role might change me for the better. That it might mature me — teach me new relationship skills — make me wiser. I really don’t think she could imagine anything of value that I might learn from my new job.

Assumption #5: All managers are bad people.

In the end it comes down to this, doesn’t it? Saying “I hope you don’t change” conveyed her surprise that I chose to take on the management role in the first place. Something about Dee’s mental picture of who I was as a person was incongruent with her mental picture of who managers were as people. All managers. My choice to take on the new role was the moral equivalent of going over to the dark side.

Perhaps if it WAS the dark side, management would be a lot more straightforward...
Perhaps if it really WAS the dark side, management would be a lot more straightforward…

I’ve spent more than 20 years here on the “dark side,” and I can honestly report that it’s been anything by dark. In truth, it’s been very enlightening. It hasn’t been easy, but then the kind of real learning that brings about deep personal change never is.

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No place like home

The up side to attending university in your home town is that you can live with your parents. The down side to attending university in your home town is that you can live with your parents. So there I was, 5 years of university under my belt, 23 years old and well past ready to flex my wings. But, since the first full-time teaching job I landed was in a town some distance from home, my house-hunting efforts were not quite what I anticipated. The fact was, there weren’t a lot of options in the town I was headed to, and so I felt grateful when, at the eleventh hour, I finally secured a room.

Home sweet room
Home sweet room

Yeah, it was a room. In a house belonging to a guy in his 60s I’ll call Mr. Martin. The deal was that he had two bedrooms to rent out, and would accept a female tenant if, for the sake of propriety, there were TWO female tenants. So I found myself at the end of August moving in to Mr. Martin’s house along with another new teacher I’ll call Sarah.

Mr. Martin was experienced at the landlord business. He owned a never-disclosed number of what might politely be described as “inexpensive” rental properties in the city, about a 90 minute drive away. OK he was essentially a slum landlord. Every few days he would drive to the city to check on his properties– one of which, we came to understand, housed his alcoholic wife. While in town he would do some shopping — which always included stocking up on all the newly released Harlequin Romance novels. When he wasn’t in the city, his time was spent sitting at the kitchen table reading the Harlequin Romance novels. In a time before cell phones were ubiquitous, this habit of his meant that there were very few occasions when Sarah and I could have a phone conversation with our respective boyfriends without Mr. Martin as a witness. That was just a little creepy.

According to our rental agreement, Sarah and I were responsible for feeding ourselves. The two of us quickly worked out an arrangement of shared shopping and cooking duties, and even more quickly realized that it was a boon not to have our  diet dependent on Mr. Martin. He had developed an oddly pragmatic approach to achieving a balanced diet. Over the course of a week he managed to hit all the food groups, but he only ever cooked and ate one item at a time. One day his supper would consist of a giant can of stewed tomatoes. The next day he would steam and eat an entire cauliflower. Another day it would be a dinner-plate sized steak. Yet another day it would be an entire pot of boiled potatoes.

But the best part was the house itself.

Yes, that is a manual typewriter. It goes with the lack of cell phones.
Yes, that is a manual typewriter on my desk. It goes with the lack of cell phones.

Seen from the street, it was an ordinary looking bungalow. The living room was immaculate. Unnaturally immaculate. Plastic-on-the-lampshades immaculate. It was understood that the living room was out of bounds to Sarah and I, but so far as I could tell Mr. Martin never entered it either. It was as though it was being kept as a sort of shrine to some long-abandoned dream of household perfection.

The two bedrooms that had been fitted out for us tenants had each been freshly painted and furnished with new beds and used but well-kept desks and dressers. The kitchen, thankfully, was clean and Spartan. But the rest of the house looked considerably more… lived in.

Mr. Martin slept, apparently, on about a ten-inch strip along one edge of a double bed that was otherwise piled high with stacks of clothing. With all the clothes piled there, there would be no way of changing the sheets. The bed had a book-case style head board that held dozens of jars and cans of screws, nails and other assorted bits of hardware, many of which were tipped over and threatening to drop their contents on the pillows. The floor of the room was hidden beneath a layer of paper that had to be 18 inches deep in places– several years accumulation of flyers and ad-mail that he apparently waded through nightly on his way to whatever portion of his bed he could still access. To be honest, I suspected that he never did go to bed, but rather just sat in the kitchen reading those Harlequin Romances.

There was a fourth small bedroom, in which were stored… Harlequin Romances, of course. Several tall bookcases were stuffed to capacity with hundreds of slim volumes.  Out of curiosity I picked one at random and tried reading it. I got to about page 52 before I got bored and gave up.

The basement. On a good day.
The basement. Back before we all learned about hoarding on cable TV.

The shower was in the basement. In order to get to the shower, it was necessary to pick one’s way carefully along a set of narrow stairs which were lined down one side with all the jars and rusty cans of hardware that didn’t fit on Mr. Martin’s bed frame. These jars and rusty cans provided a splendid habitat for dust bunnies, which swirled around my ankles on my trek both to and from the shower, to the extent that I often wondered whether there was much point to showering at all. Every inch of the basement that wasn’t the shower room was piled to the ceiling with items that Mr. Martin had “collected” because they might be useful in one of his multitude of rental properties: lamps, couches, plumbing fixtures, appliances, you name it, it was there.

More basement. To be honest, I'm not even sure if this picture is right-side-up.
More basement. To be honest, I’m not even sure if this picture is right-side-up.

And if it wasn’t there, it was in the back yard. There he had amassed a further collection of appliances, tables, lawnmowers, garden tools, and a few mystery items that were rusted past the point of identification.

I couldn’t make this stuff up.

For all his eccentricities, there was a tragic side to Mr. Martin. He had had a son who had graduated at the top of his class at the local high school, and been killed in a highway accident on graduation night. I often wondered what relationship there was between that horrible loss and Mr. Martin’s peculiarities. When I look back now, with kids of my own around the age his son was at the time of his untimely death, it is a lot easier to see Mr. Martin in a sympathetic light. If I lost one of my children, I can scarcely imagine to what extent I would fall apart — would need to escape into a world of fantasy stories– would struggle to find a balance between obsessive-compulsive discipline in some areas of my life and just plain giving up in others.

Sarah and I lived there for two months. By the first of November we managed to rent a tiny house that belonged to one of my colleagues, and we moved on, leaving Mr. Martin to his romance novels and monotone dinners. I’ve often wondered what became of him.

It was years before my mother admitted to me that, on the day she and my dad had helped me move my things into Mr. Martin’s house, she cried all the way back to the city.

I understand that now too.

Who are you?

Well I’ll be. At some point last night whilst I lay sleeping, one of you clicked “Follow” and became number 500. When I started blogging a little over four months ago, my expectations lay somewhere on the continuum between “international fame” and “hopefully one or two people other than my mother will want to read this stuff.” OK perhaps a little closer to the latter. But seriously, if you had really pressed me for a prediction back in September, I don’t think I would have anticipated over 500 followers in just a few months.

I know I didn’t anticipate the flurry of attention that my blog garnered from being Fresh Pressed. I know I didn’t anticipate all the countries that would be represented by my readers. (Not quite “international fame,” but international nonetheless!) And I really didn’t anticipate that I would actually make a few friends out here on the interweb.

I’m kind of curious about the rest of you. I get that many of you only clicked “follow” because you have something to sell. If that’s you, then you should know that I’m going to be a disappointment; that’s not why I’m here. On the other hand, some of you are obviously here for the same reasons I’m here– to hone your writing, and to share that writing with an audience. In between there’s a whole gamut of blogs of all shapes and sizes. I’m especially curious about the number of bloggers who are writing in languages other than English but who have opted to follow my English-language blog.

Mostly I’m curious about what brought you here. What did you see in my writing that made you think it might be worth sticking around? What motivates you to follow a blog? Do you have a favourite post on my blog?

I really appreciate those of you who have taken the time to comment on what you have read here. Now I’d like to invite the rest of you to speak up (well, at least those of you who aren’t spam-bots!) and tell me something about who you are and why you’re here. Please say hi, either by leaving a comment here, or if you’d like, by going back to another post you liked and commenting there.

Who are you?

Helpful Cat

lightThe clock radio blinked 5:40 am. Saturday morning. I remembered to turn off the alarm on my phone last night, and the alarm on my clock. I have not yet figured out how to turn off the cat.

She starts by climbing up onto my night-table. It’s an antique pedestal style table with a bit of a wobble to it. The cat’s spring on and off the edges of the table has, of late, added to the wobble. I’m going to have to get creative with wood glue soon. She inspects last night’s tea mug to see if I have abandoned a trace of liquid in which she can dip a paw. She burrows into the tissue box. She might opt to send a magazine or two over the edge.

Then she hops to the book case, where she pauses to swat at the pictures hanging on the wall. If I wasn’t awake before, the threat of my artwork crashing to the floor does it. I hiss a warning at her and she steps over to the dresser-top, where she does a little dance on all the important papers waiting to be filed and takes a bite out of an envelope of theatre tickets.

homeworkEventually I have to give up and get out of bed. I have been told in no uncertain terms that it is time for one member of the household to be served breakfast, regardless of the silly notions the rest of us might have about sleeping in.

We have wryly nicknamed her “Helpful Cat.” If you spread out papers on the table to do your homework, Helpful Cat will assist by sitting strategically on the one paper to which you must to pay attention at this precise moment. If you set a box on the floor and turn around to get the things that you are planning to put in the box, by the time you turn back the box will be full of Helpful Cat, helpfully inspecting the interior for you. Helpful Cat is always volunteering to taste whatever we are eating. Helpful Cat spares no effort in routinely checking the contents of the waste-baskets to ensure that we have not inadvertently discarded something really important.

in box 1Helpful Cat is very independent when it comes to finding productive ways to spend her time. No fancy cat toys needed for her, as long as there is an unsupervised hair elastic or toilet paper roll nearby.

My mind works in strange ways sometimes. I was mentally composing a silly little post about Helpful Cat, when I came across both today’s Daily Prompt and a thought provoking post by Ziya Tamesis at A Day With Depression. All of a sudden I saw the nickname in a new light.

decoratingHow often am I like Helpful Cat– offering “assistance” that is really just interference? When my kids were little I was forever breaking up fights that involved one child raging over something the other had done, while the alleged perpetrator offered up the iron-clad defense that they were “just trying to help.” I remember explaining over and over again that it didn’t count as “help” if it wasn’t what the other person wanted.

I need to remind myself of that lesson from time to time. I need to remember that when I think that someone I love needs help, I need to stop and ask them what would be helpful. I need to resist the temptation to leap in with solutions that are based entirely on my own perspective. I need to stop jumping into boxes and tearing up toilet paper when I should just be listening.

papertp

Mirror Mirror

mirrorThe events of the past week have me reflecting on reflection.

I started a new class this week. In addition to my day job, I teach a university course once or twice a year. The course I’m teaching currently is called “Adult Learning and Development.” The students who take this course tend to fall into one of two groups– they are either working (or hoping to work) in some aspect of adult education, or they have entered university late in life and the course is intended to help them gain greater insight into their own learning processes.  I place a lot of emphasis on reflection in this course. For my students who are adult educators, I take the stance that I don’t just want them to learn a lot of academic theory about adult learning and development. I want them to take in that theory in a way that actually has an impact on how they behave when they interact with their students. And for my students who are there primarily as adult learners, I figure the theory is only meaningful if it actually touches them in a way that connects to their personal learning journey.

So I ask them to reflect. A lot. I build opportunities for reflection into class time and into assignments. I push them to reflect until they are rolling their eyes at me every time I say the word. But they thank me for it.

Reflection isn’t something many people immediately associate with university courses. But the reality is, you need reflection for learning. You need to  stop cramming in new information long enough to let it roll around in your mind for a while and latch onto bits of knowledge that are already stored there — to make connections with your past learning so that the new learning knows where it fits in your every expanding mental picture of the universe. If you never stop to reflect on what you are learning, the learning will have minimal effect on you.

Think about a mirror. When I look in a mirror, this thing that is not me is showing me to me. My reflection only exists when I am positioned just so in relation to the mirror. In other words, if I am not engaged directly with the mirror, there is no reflection. Standing beside it doesn’t create a reflection. Nor does holding it turned away from me. I have to be facing it head on. Really looking at it. Looking into it.

Reflecting on experience  is very much like that. It doesn’t matter if it is the experience of reading some new academic content, or a life experience. If I want to truly learn from that experience, I need to engage with it. It won’t be enough to stand beside it, or to hold it away from myself. I need to look into it head on until I see myself.

I am not saying that everything I learn is all about me. It isn’t. But I do think that everything I learn– even those things that challenge every fibre of my being, can act as a mirror to clarify and expand my picture of who I am in the world. I test who I am by holding up what I am learning and looking into it until I see the reflection — the connection — to what I already know. And I discover things I didn’t know about myself when the new learning reflects back an image that looks unfamiliar, and yet I know that what I am seeing is really me from a new angle.

We need reflection for learning all the time, not just when we sign up for university courses. I’ve been reflecting my way through parenting for nearly two decades– a learning enterprise that still challenges me daily to look at reflections of myself that are often less than flattering.

I’ve also had cause to reflect yet again on how little opportunity for reflection is built into my work day– and how very much I benefit when I do make time to step off the hamster-wheel frenzy that so often characterizes my day and pause to contemplate what each experience is offering to show me about my world, and about myself.

Don’t Crack Up

 

“Now listen to me.”

And listen we did. Mom rarely used such a stern tone, and the fierce expression that had suddenly replaced her normally placid demeanor left no question in my thirteen-year-old mind that we were about to be told something of the utmost importance.

“Your father has been awake for thirty-six hours. He has to navigate unfamiliar streets.  And he will be driving on the wrong side of the road. It is absolutely imperative that you not distract him. ” She thrust a box of animal crackers into my hand. “Share those with your sister. And remember, not a peep out of either one of you.”

I scurried into the back seat of the rental car next to my nine-year old sister, making sure to establish a respectable argument-preventing distance between us. Silently, I offered her an animal cracker. Silently, she helped herself to a handful.

Up front, my father was combatting sleep deprivation with a cigarette and meticulously unfolding the road map that would guide our journey away from Heathrow Airport and south to our destination in Dorset.

We set out, my sister and I each with our noses pressed to our respective windows, drinking in the sights of our first overseas adventure and fascinated by the backwards traffic and the unfamiliar roundabouts.

My mother, apparently confident that she had successfully threatened us into being seen-but-not-heard, visibly relaxed. As the only one of our party of four who had set foot on British soil previously, she quickly settled into Tour Guide mode when she spotted the first official Point of Interest.

“Look girls! Out that side. That’s that back gate to Hampton Court!” Since she was apparently exempt from her own Thou-Shalt-Not-Speak edict, she proceeded to regale us with a condensed history of Hampton Court and its significance in the history of British royalty.

Look-- History!
Look– History!

The history lesson was interrupted briefly for a second Point of Interest—“Oh look, there’s the front gate of Hampton Court!”—and on she chattered.

Clearly we were making good progress towards our destination. At least it seemed so until, a little less cheerily, Mom ventured the observation, “Oh look, I think that’s the back gate of Hampton Court again.”

It was all I could do to suppress a giggle. I glanced over at my sister who looked similarly afflicted. Hastily I doled out more animal crackers in self defense.

Dad drove on for another ten or fifteen minutes, now without the backdrop of Mom’s historical commentary. Finally my mom broke the silence, with a catch in her voice that sounded suspiciously like suppressed laughter. “And…there’s the front gate of Hampton Court…again.”

In the back seat I came perilously close to choking to death on a mouthful of animal crackers. My sister wasn’t faring much better, and Mom managed to compose herself enough to glance back and shoot us a warning with her eyes.

I knew if I made eye contact with my sister we would both be doomed, so I firmly looked out the window and thrust the cracker box blindly in her direction.

Dad was not finding the situation quite so amusing, but he did acquiesce to Mom’s gentle suggestion that it might be time to ask for directions. He pulled into a service station, hauled out the map, and asked the young man working the pumps for assistance.

The young man working the pumps enthusiastically advised my father to go “straight down that road”—a directive that was repeated loudly multiple times, accompanied by great showers of spittle and wild hand gestures. There was, to our prairie-trained eyes, nothing “straight” about said road. Truthfully there is nothing “straight” about any road that wends its way about the British countryside. Nevertheless, after determining with some confidence which road our rescuer was indicating, Dad proceeded down it, as straight as the road would allow, only to discover that all we would find “straight down that road” was the local police station where, it was presumed, we would be able to get some real directions.

With the aid of the local constabulary we were finally able to get our journey properly under way. That was a relief to the occupants of the back-seat. We were running way too low on animal crackers to make it through another wrong turn.

Out of the Picture

1511103_10201417300176609_481493363_n[1]My friend posted our first grade class photo on Facebook for fun, and I was reminded that I’m not actually in it.

I remember lots of things about grade one. I have a vivid memory of being very scared on the first day when the principal’s disembodied voice boomed over the intercom, asking each teacher to send a “runner” to the office.  I was scared because I had brand new sneakers– which at that time were commonly called “runners”– and I was afraid the teacher might choose to send one of my runners to the office and I would never see it again and however would I explain THAT to my mom when she came to pick me up?

I remember having a little-girl teacher crush on Miss Rempel, who was young and sweet and could do no wrong.

I remember the word LOOK printed on a card hanging over the big green chalkboard. The O’s had been drawn like eyes to help us remember what word those letters stood for. I remember learning to read — See Dick. See Jane. See Spot. LOOK. LOOK at Spot! I remember the magic that happened when the jumble of letters coalesced into words, words into sentences, sentences into stories.

I remember little half-scap slips of lined newsprint and carefully printed letters. I remember spelling tests and stickers. I remember lining up two by two to go to the gym.

And I also remember sitting on the sidelines when we got there. I remember that many mornings my mom dropped me off to start the school day with morning recess, because the stiffness in my knees was at its worst when I first woke up, but by 10:00 I would be loosened up enough to walk up the stairs to the classroom. I remember that back then getting driven to school was not the norm as it has become in many communities today, and that not walking home like the other kids was one more reason to feel set apart. I remember always being picked last for dodge ball teams, because everyone knew I couldn’t run and was therefore not an asset.

I remember that we were supposed to sit, cross-legged, on a cold tile floor for music time. I remember feeling very conflicted about music time — I loved to sing, but oh was I uncomfortable. The music teacher’s only concession to my Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis was to agree that I could sit in another position if I couldn’t manage cross-legged. In an era before anyone talked about disability accommodation, it didn’t seem to occur to her that sitting on that floor was never going to work for me regardless of my position.

But in spite of all the reasons I had to feel “out of the picture,” I remember falling in love with school. Maybe because grade one gave me reading and writing: two friends that have faithfully kept me company on the sidelines for many years when the rest of the world is busy playing dodge ball.