“You’re sending a terrible message,” I said just over a year ago to a branch of the Latin Family who consistently, deliberately, loudly refused to engage with the joyful learning community and consistently, deliberately, loudly prevented anyone else from doing so, either. ”Your actions are screaming so loudly that your apologetic words can’t be heard.” It took a long time, and many conversations, and some anger and upset on all sides, but we all get along now and they’ve slowly, painfully learned how to manage themselves and, most important of all, how to parse the messages that others receive (or perceive) from their actions. U, B, C, and their friends weren’t “bad, lazy kids,” though I’m sure Ms. X and Mr. Y would have been quick to label them that way. They weren’t deliberately rude, either. But they were deliberately self-absorbed, and no one had ever helped them understand how their self-absorption was harming and limiting them. Ms. X just yells for quiet, and Mr. Y assigns extra homework, and everybody knows that despite the threats and promises, the test scores will be just fine in the end.
But in the past few days, I’ve been thinking about messages, about sending and receiving them. It occurs to me that I wasn’t entirely right about what I said to B, C, U, and the others last year. Sending implies a deliberate, conscious effort … and U, B, and C weren’t deliberately, consciously sending a message of rudeness, disregard, or disrespect. They were just unconsciously doing what they did, and the rest of us (fifteen Latin Family members or so, plus me, plus anyone who happened to wander by) were receiving or perceiving that message. It’s a small, but vitally important distinction.
There were “several incidences,” according to an email from a Relevant Power, where students had done inappropriate things when they weren’t in class last week. The details aren’t important, nor are the specifics of That Power’s response to the problem. What is important is the conversation I had with N, T, B, and their friends when somebody asked to go and do something and I said no, citing the new policy. ”Why are they punishing us?” someone asked … someone who certainly wasn’t involved in any of the “incidences.” ”Here’s the problem,” I told them. ”Whoever did these things probably wasn’t thinking about consequences; they were just doing what they did. But if you’re an authority figure, you receive a message from things like that, and the message is, they want to be treated like criminals.” That made sense, even to N. And I told them a story from Monday evening, when some Book Group members and I were talking about diversity in our congregation. ”Why do certain people feel welcome,” someone asked, “while others don’t stay?” I pointed out some demographic facts about our group, and I said “Just by who we do and who we are, we’re sending a message about who will probably feel welcome, and who probably won’t. And we don’t even realize it.”
But again, in retrospect, I question that word sending. No one is consciously or deliberately sending a message at all; we’re just doing what we do, and a message is perceived and received and interpreted from that. But until we become aware of that message, we can’t take action to change it … just as U and the others couldn’t last spring. Knowing Ms. X and Mr. Y as I do, I have a suspicion they just announced the new policy and didn’t talk about the reasons, leaving angry, confused students seeking loopholes or workarounds. Of course Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y may not know about the new policy yet; it was in an email, but they’re often “too busy,” or they’ “don’t have time,” or there’s “too much to do” to look at an email.
I’d been receiving or perceiving a message from One Ms. X, who usually wants to talk. But for the past several weeks, she’d been quiet, even abrupt, and I was pretty sure I had offended her somehow, without even realizing. But at lunchtime yesterday, as I was picking up a print job, That Ms. X told me about the mysterious medical problem, the unexpected household repairs, the long list of other concerns that had been distracting her. ”I’m just so frustrated,” she said, “because it’s been one thing after another!” And in a flash of insight and compassion, I realized that I’d been receiving (or perceiving) a completely inaccurate message. Ms. X wasn’t upset with me; she was upset with all these circumstances!
How often does that happen? And how often do different cultural expectations cause people to receive (or perceive) messages that were never intended at all? In a factory-school setting, in any hierarchy, the Powers That Be define the messages, and when they (we!) don’t like what’s received or perceived, unpleasant consequences follow for those who are perceived as sending an undesirable message. Quiet, intelligent T, who’s been coming in for tutoring sessions for a couple of weeks, was convinced that she didn’t understand and couldn’t do because, at some point, Some Ms. X or Mr. Y sent (or T received) such a message. It’s taken time, effort, and trust, but T is starting to see that she does understand and can do. ”This is the only thing I’m having problems with,” she said, and we worked through an example of this and talked about its purpose, and she seems to be feeling much better.
You can have those kinds of conversations in a joyful learning community; in fact, those kinds of conversations are how you build, sustain, and develop a joyful community in the first place. They aren’t easy, but they’re a lot easier than the mutual suspicion and angry recriminations that plague factory-model schools when there’s “not enough time” and “too much to cover.” On this busy Wednesday, I wonder what other new insights and opportunities await!