Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Right Words At The Right Time

The Right Words At The Right Time

The best life lessons are a few words on the right subject, at the right time.
- Bill Allin, Canadian life coach and author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems

My now-deceased first wife was a far better teacher than I was. I was an educator.

What's the difference? A teacher teaches a prescribed curriculum, a manageable collection of facts and skills, testable and widely accepted as part of the general education of a child. An educator grows children.

I joined the profession because I admired her skill as a teacher. I learned later that her teaching skill was greatly helped by her knowledge, which she gained as a voracious reader. I was a non-reader at the time, in fact in today's terms I would be known as functionally illiterate.

On a break during a summer job I had in my sixteenth year of life, while sitting on a factory loading dock I overheard two older men talking in the yard below. One said "I never have conversations with young people. I find that until they are at least 25, they don't know enough to talk about."

Thinking about that I realized that I knew almost nothing. I had no skills that derived from hobbies or training from my parents. I couldn't claim to know much about any subject at all.

That prompted me to start learning on a grand scale. As I knew nothing about anything, I learned everything I could on every subject I could, be it on the radio or television, as a fly on the wall while meaningful conversations were taking place among older adults, or reading cereal boxes.

Thirty years later people were calling me a human encyclopedia. I finally knew something others could respect me for. Two decades after that, I am sharing some of that with you here.

One overheard snippet of conversation changed the direction of my life.

During my grade ten year, my geography teacher bought a new Volkswagen beetle, a new import to my native Canada. While casual conversations between teachers and students in those days were few, somehow I got into a casual debate with my teacher over the merits of the VW. Based on overheard conversations from others, I took the side claiming that the Beetle was junk.

To my shock, my teacher raised the issue of his new car in our next geography class and asked me to bring forth the points I had made the previous day and add more. What I knew was more rumour than fact. I had never ridden in a VW and had seen more of them advertised on television than on the roads around my neighbourhood.

While the classroom debate added nothing to the knowledge based of my classmates about Volkswagens, the experience made me realize that teaching can be more than conveyance of facts and mastering of skills.

That teacher tried to get a shy kid to speak up in a class situation by engaging a teacher in an unplanned debate in front of the whole class. I didn't lose the debate because my teacher wanted to give me an experience I had never had before, not to squash (albeit deservedly) the poorly founded opinion one of his weakest students held.

A year or so later, in a different high school, my all-business geometry teach went off-topic in class for some reason when the subject of drinking alcohol came up. He said "If I have to depend on an artificial stimulant to get enjoyment out of my life, then I had better rethink and reformulate my life so I can get more enjoyment out of living it."

After that I understood that many people willingly accept such a poor quality of life that they need alcohol or drugs or gambling or shopping sprees or any number of other addictive habits just to make them feel better about life for a short while.

Today, by what I have learned, by what I have read, experienced and thought about thoroughly, I feel so in touch with everything that exists that I can feel higher than any drunk or junk addict all day long. My high doesn't go away and it has no backlash sobering-up period.

In 1995, a couple of years after my long-divorced wife died and my children refused to see me or let me see my grandchildren, my daughter wrote me a letter in which she said "My two daughters are well and happy. I have told them that all their grandparents are dead and I don't want to upset them by having them learn otherwise."

To know that the children I helped raise I will never see again and my grandchildren will never know the wonderful experiences available to kids who know their grandparents set me on a quest to learn something new.

Why or how could a child ever come to feel that way about a parent? To me the effect was like losing your whole family in a fire, all at once, only it was worse knowing that they would all carry on their lives without me. I had something to give that was more valuable than money.

As an educator and sociologist, I had the skills to research how kids learn and develop. I learned more than most people could even imagine.

Mostly importantly, I learned that what children learn in the first six years of their lives molds the kind of people they will be for the rest of their lives. As I was a feral child who never had any toys or experiences with other children for my first six years, I was frightened of my own kids when they were little.

I thought "I'll be better with them when they are old and I can teach them stuff I know." Their mother taught them virtually everything they learned for the first six years of life of our children.

Lo and behold, our children grew to become like their mother, not like me. I'm not sad for me so much as I am sad for my children and grandchildren. My grandkids will grow to be like their mother as she grew to be like her own mother. It's how life works.

Today we have parents who are too busy to teach important life lessons to their kids. They react when the kids are bad, but they teach little when their kids need it.

Instead they give them video games and sit them in front of the television for entertainment. Think about that. Would you want a child to grow up believing that real people in their lives are just like the people they see on television? How twisted and perverse would that be?

Teaching critically important life lessons is relatively easy and fast. In most cases it's a matter of saying each one in a few sentences and allowing the kids to talk with the adult about the lesson.

If we don't teach positive life lessons, children grow to become like the people they see on television and in video games. Look around you and think about what kids in your community are doing with their lives. Sadly, this is one case where life imitates art.

We are all the worse for it.

We need to learn how and when to do the job of parenting well.

Broken people are hard to fix. Better to give them the knowledge and skills they need to prevent them from breaking.

Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for teachers and parents who want to teach their children the right lessons at the right times in the right way.
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