Sometimes, just when you least expect it, a powerful theme appears and helps you see connections you’d never seen before. The Latin I classes are reading the stories in Tres Columnae Lectiō XI this week – we’ve finally reached the almost-disastrous dinner party where Sabina the weasel and Ridiculus the mouse wreak so much unintentional havoc – and the upper-level group has reached the stories of Valeria Caeliola’s almost-but-not-quite marriage to young Curtius Rufus in Lectiō XXXVII. Even though I might have noticed thematic connections when I was writing the stories, somehow I hadn’t noticed one that’s really speaking to me – and to the Latin Family – this week.
We’ve been talking quite a lot about the power of first impressions, and about how hard it is to change someone’s first impression of you. That’s one obvious life lesson from the escapades of little Quintus Flavius. He doesn’t seem to intend to be rude, unpleasant, and frightening to the other boys at Fabius’ school, but when he starts running and chanting – and when his paedagogus starts chasing him, and when both of them receive much-deserved punishments from Fabius himself – he sends a powerful impression about the kind of person he is. It will be difficult indeed to change those impressions … and everyone is surprised when grown-up Quintus Flavius really has changed in significant ways.
But it’s also an important lesson that emerges from the interactions of the Valerii and the Curtii. When Caeliola meets Marcus Curtius, he seems like a nice young man … and she seems like a “typical” young Roman woman of the sort he’d like to marry. No one thinks to bring up the subject of Herculaneum and Vesuvius until it’s – almost – too late. In this case, the first impressions weren’t so much inaccurate as they were incomplete … but changing the impressions, reframing each other in a more complete, more accurate way, is still a painful process for everyone.
We’ve been talking about impressions – and changing them – partly because it’s a theme in the stories, but partly because it’s an important theme in our daily work together. Ms. X and Mr. Y don’t ever seem to talk about making and changing impressions; there’s “too much to cover,” after all, and it’s “easier” to yell and label or change seating arrangements or threaten to call a parent than it is to engage A, B, or C in a conversation about how their behavior is sending a message about themselves. I keep discovering how new and unfamiliar this notion is for the students who get labeled “loud and disrespectful” or “bad and lazy!” Apparently nobody – at home, at school, wherever – has really taken the time to make sure they understand how others form an impression of you, and how hard it can be to change that impression once it’s formed.
Apparently “I’m sure you don’t realize this, but lots of people observing what you’re doing would think that …” is a bit more of a mouthful than “Sit down and shut up, you bad, lazy kids! I am so tired of this rudeness and disrespect, and you are making me look bad!” Or at least Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y seem to think so. Maybe it’s more of a brain-ful (if that were a word) than a mouthful – it’s a paradigm shift to move from negative to positive presuppositions, after all, and it’s easier to teach how you were taught than it is to look critically at those methods, select the ones that seem effective, and discard the ones that don’t seem to be working.
It’s hard for Quintus Flavius, too, to stop running and chanting long enough to realize he just terrified people he wanted to befriend. It’s hard for the paedagogus to manage his anger and fear (after all, the consequences of making your master look bad are dire when you’re a slave in the Roman world), and it’s hard for T. Flavius Caeso, the infuriated paterfamilias, to see that his own actions toward both his son and his servant might have contributed to the problems. Years later in narrative time, perhaps the Curtii Rufi blame each other for what happened – seemingly by chance – on that street in Mediolanum, and perhaps they’re even grateful to have been spared a “terrible fate.” The Valerii certainly are grateful, and with good reason!
B, C, B, U, and E were sort-of working on their assignment yesterday at one point, but they were also very much involved in a conversation that got louder than they’d realized. “Did you notice?” I asked – and they really hadn’t. “When you do notice that there’s a large-group thing going on, something where everybody might want to be able to focus, how long are you usually able to keep that focus before you get distracted and start doing something else?” I wondered. About ten minutes, they said … probably not more.
And yet, next year at this time, B, B, and U will be in college Somewhere Or Other, where Professor X and Dr. Y probably assume a 50-minute attention span for their Extremely Important Lecture. And when B, B, and U can’t focus that long – because no one really can, and because they haven’t learned the subtle cues of sending an impression that you are, even when you really aren’t – who will get blamed? They will, of course, and perhaps their parents and teachers, too, if Professor X and Dr. Y bother to assess blame along with bad grades.
I’m hoping the picture for B, B, U, and the others is different from the one I just painted – but first impressions are powerful, and it’s hard to change them once they’ve been established. Somehow, even within the factory-paradigm walls, there must be a way that joyful learning communities can help our members understand impressions and change, self-management and social cues. It’s challenging, but vital work for us to do with, not for each other!
I wonder what specific aspects of that work await us today!