Friday, March 8, 2013
What did you do?
Yesterday when my young middle school son got in the car, he was a basket of tears. He was so upset he couldn't even get the words out in any order that made sense in the English language. My older son and I sat in the car trying to calm him down enough to figure out what made him so upset and after a good ten minutes, we got the drama filled story: a kid who had been his friend suddenly announced that he was only pretending to be his friend. This boy also colored his announcement with obscenities and when my son went pressing for more answers, this kid started kicking and hitting him.
We had heard my son talk about this young boy, and he had always compared him to Loki from his favorite Thor comics - the jokester who loved to be the center of attention by creating chaos. My son has always had an appreciation for humor (as a baby, he used to tip over laughing at his brother), so I can see how this kid was an instant draw for my son. This reversal in friendship seemed so sudden, so I knew there had to be more to the story.
And, as my kids know, being a teacher for as many years as I was, I can't pass up a teachable moment.
I know from learning classroom management, that there is ALWAYS two sides of the story, and the truth usually lies in a homogenization of the two stories. I also learned years ago to ask the one question no one wants to answer "What did you do to create this situation?".
WHAT? This kid was picking on my poor son! He kicked him, called him names, punched him in the arm and I am asking what MY SON DID? Am I such an uncaring mother that I BLAME my son???
No, not at all. It isn't about blame, though that is what our society is good at teaching us. There is always someone to blame, but rarely is it ourselves. We are being taught to victimize ourselves. What we have been missing in our societal teachings is the art of personal responsibility.
Years ago, I was hired to run a private school with an enrollment of 120 kids and 8 full-time teachers and 2 part-time teachers. It was one of a several sucessful schools owned by the same man. It was first time running a school, and I was book-learned, but not expereince-learned. I was also in my mid-twenties, working with teachers that had been teaching longer than I had been alive. It was very daunting.
I jumped in with both feet though, and was doing well for the first few weeks until I had a major conflict that occured between two teachers spilled over into my office and as I tried to mediate between the two women, the one teacher turned on me and got in my face. She was yelling and screaming at me and I was so taken aback, I didn't know how to handle it. I tried to defuse it, but it escallated to the point that I had to fire her on the spot.
I had never fired anyone before. I was so upset. It blew my confidence out of the water. I started second guessing all the decisions I was making, questioning whether I even belonged in the job at all. I felt like I was some kid trying to do a grown-ups job.
Shortly there after, things began to unravel at my school.This is never a good thing. It wasn't long before the owner knocked on my office door. I had never met him before, but I had heard about this Danish man who was often seen, but not heard. He would float in and out of his schools, without warning, observing but rarely talking. The other school heads were afraid of him because you never knew what he was looking for. When he actually did talk with you, it rarely was positive. When I saw him outside my office door, I knew trouble was in store for me.
My boss came in and sat down next to my desk and just stared at me for a moment. I was so flustered, I remember that I just started rambling on about the two teachers and how unprofessional they had been, and how they their actions had caused such a divide among my other teachers and how that had trickled down to the parents and the kids were now reacting badly, and ...and ...and....
The man said one sentence that made me stop talking instantly.
"And what did you do to create this situation?"
What? Me? I didn't do this, the two teachers did this? Why are you blaming me?
I was stunned. I was going to take the blame for the other two teachers actions. I know I was supposed to be their boss, but still, I hadn't been the one who started this. I was so mad, but all I could do was look down at my hands and not say anything. I was so afraid that anything I said was going to hammer the last nails into my coffin.
When I didn't answer, he explained his question. He said that one of the gifts that we are given is free will. While there are things that as humans we do out of instinct, the fact that we are blessed with higher reasoning skills than many of our mammal counterparts gives us the ability to make choices based on several options at any given time. Based on that gift, he said it is our responsibility to then own those choices.
I interjected immediatly reminding him that the teacher I fired didn't give me a choice. Her actions were in direct violation of the code of conduct that she signed and I was forced me to fire her. There wasn't a choice here!
"So, you are a victim here?"
I couldn't believe that is what he was asking me! No, wait, I am not a victim, I protested. I just followed the rules...I just did my job... what else was I supposed to do? Not fire her? But what she did was totally wrong and if I hadn't have fired her, wouldn't I have been fired? This was going to come back on me, and I wasn't the one who did something wrong! I didn't have a...choice....oh crap...I am sounding like a poor-me!
I was so flustered. I felt like I was in the rock-and-a-hard-place scenerio. I was getting in trouble for what I did do, but I would have been in trouble if I hadn't done something!
Calmly, my boss explained that the moment we don't take responsibilty for our choices, good or bad, we are allowing ourselves to become victims. Once you do that, you become powerless. He then added that no one can let someone take thier power - we give it away.
Now I am not only frustrated, but I am utterly confused and on the border of losing my cool. I lay out this scenerio in my attempt to prove him wrong:
"So I am driving down the street on my way to work, and some guy runs a red light and slams into my car. How did I do something to create that situation? He ran the red light, not me!"
His answer was simple: I CHOSE to go that way to work. I CHOSE to leave my house at a certain time, and CHOSE to drive a certain speed that made it so I was in that place, at that time when the man ran the red light and hit me. I could have CHOOSEN to stay home that day, or to have gone 5 miles an hour faster or to have made a left turn down a side road. The choices I made brought me to that place at that time and I own those choices.
My head was swimming. So he is saying that I am responsible for this man hitting my car?
No, but the moment you accept YOUR side of the equation, then you don't lose your power to the other person. If you walk around all the time saying that this person did that TO ME and that person did that TO ME, then suddenly, it becomes that you have no control over your life at all. You are just a series of random events, which is simply not true. So in this situation with your teachers, what did you do to create this situation?
I had to sit back and think about this one for a moment. What did I do? Did I create the situation? No, the two arguing teachers did. Well, but, I called them into my office and tried to mediate. That was the right thing to do though. Okay, and I got involved in the arguement and then I allowed the teacher to brate me. And then I made the choice to fire her.
I explained my reasoning to the man, and he nodded his head, then said that I had forgotten something. He added that I need to take it to the simplest thing first, the simplest thing I did to create the outcome.
I was puzzled because I thought I had. Isn't brining the teachers into my office to talk about it what started the whole thing? I could have waited until after school, but I didn't think that it could wait that long.
No, even further back than that, he prompted me. He said you created this situation when you made the choice to take this job. The moment you were offered the position, you had two choices: to say yes or to say no. You CHOSE to say yes. So in that choice, you created the situation that you are the boss and sometimes, you will have to make hard decisions like this. And the moment you forget that, you have lost your power and will no longer be able to do this job effectively because you will always see yourself as the victim of other people's choices.
It took me weeks to let this sink in, and even years and years afterwards, I have to rethink this. I have never been a good math student, and to me, this goes back to taking a number to it's least common denominator. In practice, it is a very good lesson though. Learning to take personal responsibility, good or bad, gives you the ability to feel like you have control even when you think you don't. It helps you wrap your brain around the tough choices we sometimes have to make and gives us strength when we feel we have had our choices taken away. Never are we in a situation where we don't have some responsibility we can take in a situation. And knowing that, being able to break it down make us strong. It doesn't mean the other person is without blame, it doesn't mean that there aren't consequences that need to occur, but realizing that we are governed by our ability to make choices means we can stop giving our power to others.
For my son, who, by the way, knew this talk was coming, he was able to break it down to take responsibility in this situation with this bully. He said that he made the choice to engage in verbal insults with the boy. He also made the choice to not tell a teacher when things started to get out of hand. Going even further back, he had made the choice to be friends with this boy. While this last thing seems like a good thing, that is one of the keys to this process. Instead of looking for what the "good" or "bad" choices are, it is just taking an inventory of all the choices made that helps remove the feeling of powerlessness in a situation. Chosing to become someone's friend is not a bad choice per se, but the fact that HE made that CHOICE then led into a personal relationship that for whatever reason went south. It isn't good or bad - it just is. And my son owns it. While none of us are okay with what the end result is, he is okay with and takes responsibility for any choices he made.
And while he is still mad and hurt at this child's actions, he is no longer walking around like he is the victim of this child's bullying. It is not about taking blame, but for accepting responsibility. He has the power to deal with it and hopefully end it with the help of his teachers. And his teachers aren't looking at him as a victim either, as the first thing he said when he spoke to his teacher was
"I understand what my responsibility in this situation was. Now, let's make it stop."