Poem for a Sunday Morning

What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade 
{Brad Aaron Modlin}

Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,
how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark.
After lunch she distributed worksheets
that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s
voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep
without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—
something important—and how to believe
the house you wake in is your home. This prompted
Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing
how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,
and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
are all you hear; also, that you have enough.
The English lesson was that I am
is a complete sentence.
And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,
and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person
add up to something.


art background batch blackboard

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Ask for Help

When my daughter was in grade school, she had a tough time raising her hand in class to ask for help. She felt insecure about being exposed as “not knowing” and as a result didn’t get the support she needed when she needed it.

Once her teacher picked up on this pattern she suggested a strategy to help my daughter get more comfortable with the vulnerability required to ask for help. She gave her a rock to place on the corner of her desk, one side of which was painted green and the other of which was painted red.

When our daughter needed help with something, she would turn the rock to the red side, showing the teacher that she had come to a stop and needed help to get moving again. This allowed the teacher to quietly engage with her about the content and get her back on track.

The simple strategy of a painted rock gave our daughter a way to normalize her vulnerability and helped her learn that “not knowing” is precisely the “problem” that school exists to solve.

Sometimes, when I bump up against my own incompetence and the stubbornness that accompanies it, it would be a big help to have that rock handy.

I wonder if you would like one, too?


light road red yellow

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What is school for?

Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, put out a blog post this week called “Three Things Graduates Need to Know.” It’s his “two cents of advice…for preparing for the world of work.”

His three big ideas are worth repeating here, not only under the banner of “graduation advice” but as a way to answer the question, “What is school for?”

Our most thoughtful institutions of higher learning understand that they are in the business of providing rigorous academic instruction while also creating an environment in which students are challenged and expected to:

  • Develop an ethic of hard work.
  • Learn social skills, especially emotional intelligence.
  • Learn humility (That is, to add some wisdom to their stores of knowledge).

When this happens, if it happens, the downstream effects are positive and potentially profound for them and for the organizations they join. When it doesn’t happen, that learning still may occur in the early (mid?) stages of one’s career, but it is a much bumpier road and likely a less forgiving one.

Students, parents, faculty, staff, mentors and advisors – anyone invested in the best possible outcome of our educational endeavors – will be well-served to remember that success is one (small) part subject knowledge, and three very large parts work ethic, humility and emotional maturity.


 

What do you wish you had learned in school?

I was a fortunate college student. I had parents who didn’t care what I studied, maybe because I was set on Political Science and seemed to have myself sorted out, or perhaps because I am the youngest of six kids and concern over the choice of a college major was dwarfed by the real challenges of adult living.

Whatever the case, “Poli Sci” didn’t last long and I ended up in something even less marketable, “Humanities.” I can’t imagine a degree program any more broadly defined or open to my interpretation and application. It was a dream come true for someone who has an enormous appetite for both variety and learning.

I took language courses: Latin (to stretch the vocab) and Russian (cause I was going to help Ronald Reagan take down the Soviet Union. I was late to that party though my roommates and I did manage a toast to the fall of the Berlin Wall with some St. Pauli Girl).

I took history, literature, philosophy, theology, cinema, debate, music theory, a few poli sci classes for good measure and my favorite of all, art history. Art history was this magical, even combustible combination of visual beauty, historical/political intrigue, and biographical complexity. I ate it up.

For all of that diversity of subjects, teachers and disciplines, it seems a little crazy that I could have a “What I wish I had learned” list but I do. So here goes…

I wish I had studied psychology and human behavior. And that’s not just because of my current professional life. It’s because of this human being thing I keep running into every day.

I wish I had learned to do less, but better. I thought involvement was the key to a happy college experience but I overdid it, burned myself out and suffered academically. Which leads to…

I wish I had learned to value time with my professors and with the really smart students. I didn’t have to go far. I had a number of friends who were expert at balancing the work and the fun. I was capable but intimidated, so I just didn’t ask.

And I wish I had learned to trust the process, that “success” looks different for different people. I was hard on myself from about 22 years old all the way up to (almost exactly) my 35th birthday. Because I just couldn’t figure it out! And all those smart students I was busily avoiding seemed to be certain of their paths: medical school, law school, Peace Corps, grad school…look at ’em go!

I needed more time…for the yeast to activate, or the top to brown, or some other awkward baking metaphor. But I didn’t know it could…or even that it usually did work that way.

No regrets, truly. But I wouldn’t mind having some of that energy back. The energy I spent on worrying, doubting, kvetching…and the unkind way I “shared” some of those feelings with people who were in my corner and on my side.

Over time, probably right on time, I learned those lessons. And maybe, had I had them earlier, they would have been wasted on my younger self, as so much mature wisdom is (says the father of a college freshman!).

I keep learning and I hope you do too. And maybe the point of the exercise is to simply acknowledge that we’re never quite done; that “What do you wish you had learned in school?” can be better asked as “What do you want to learn today?”


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

 

Back to School

I don’t love studying. I hate studying. I like learning. Learning is beautiful.

– Natalie Portman –


Today is the first day of classes at Cal State San Marcos where I am a lecturer in the College of Business. Seventeen thousand students will make their way to campus this week to re-engage with friends, fellow students, faculty and staff as they pursue their educational goals.

As someone who spends the lion’s share of my time working with clients in the business world I have an advantageous position to see and hear what leaders have to say about the kind of people they want…they need…to employ.

Based on that awareness I consider it a privileged responsibility to help my students understand, commit to and practice the kind of learning that will help them make extraordinary contributions both during their school careers and in the professional pursuits that follow.

Here’s what matters most:

  • CREATIVITY – the ability to address complex problems from fresh perspectives and with novel approaches.
  • ENERGY – the ability to sustain an attitude of healthy adaptability in a constantly changing environment.
  • INITIATIVE  – the ability to notice and address opportunities that will help us to learn and grow.

Finally, and most importantly as far as I’m concerned, is the COURAGE to pursue radical self awareness, without which none of the above is remotely possible.

As you organize yourself for the lectures, meetings and assignments, the group work and the presentations, don’t forgot to take a few minutes to notice yourself. Take just a few moments away from the swirl of expectations and events to learn who you are as you learn who you are becoming.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.