Thursday 20-2-2014 at Belthorn Primary – grade 7 class.
It’s a grade 7 class, co-education, from a challenged area of Cape Town. I had done a class on respect, excellence, peacefulness and how to handle difficult moments. I asked the learners to open their life orientation books to write the following:
I am enough
And I’m not perfect
And THAT is okay!!
I will strive
to be the person
I am meant to be
I asked them to write a paragraph on what they do that makes them feel proud. I also asked them to write a paragraph about their dreams for the future.
So the boy in front, who’d been kind of connecting with me, in between snarling at perceived threats from other’s comments, opens up to me and tells me he wants to be a singer. I acknowledge his courage and he turns to the girl 3 rows back and snarls at her, telling her to be quiet. I ask him what she said. “She said I am a liar”. Now I hadn’t heard her say a thing, so I tell him that. He explains with anger, “She made a sound like this (demonstrates a kind of snort nose and mouth, indicating “I don’t believe you, that’s rubbish”, and it means she’s telling me I’m a liar”. “Oh, I didn’t hear”, so I ask her. She denies it. He snaps back, “You DID!!!” So I ask her again, by saying, “Jon heard you make a sound when he told me he wanted to be a singer. He thinks that sound means you are telling him he is a liar.”
There are some key parts to this process, this is one: I didn’t dismissing her or his response nor did I disapprove or put them down for their ‘behaviour’. This approach would have ignored the feelings they were having about the situation. My response acknowledged the feelings in their different responses and their interpretations of what was going on. But the girl still needs to respond. In my communication I had framed what it could look like and this helps her. What is it? Well, she’s being heard with genuine interest about what in fact was going on for her. She is validated this way and now wants to tell her story by opening up. She wants to tell what was going on for her. At last she admits to making the sound, but I’m amazed, as I didn’t hear it. I think, wow, how sensitive the boy is. I ask her what she meant by it and she says, “Well I thought he would be a policeman, that’s all”. Suddenly there is an opportunity to clarify and heal a misunderstanding, an assumption and a judgement.
Another crucial part: He’s still very upset and she’s denying his accusation of her telling him he’s a liar. So I say to her, “Can you see that he is upset and thinks you sniffed and snorted at him to tell him you think he’s a liar?” This is a fair non-judgemental question, non-threatening and she reflects on it. He waits in trepidation, listening carefully for the outcome. He’s hardened already by his life of upsets and manipulations. He seldom has someone take this care and wait for him to speak, without the adult butting in and always being ‘right’. He’s lived a hard life and expects to struggle as he tries to find a place in the pyramid and pecking order of his social setting. She tries to deflect and explains with other things that she is thinking about. Each time I listen to her, acknowledge and then gently ask the question again. He’s still listening closely still feeling threatened and clearly doesn’t believe anything is going to get resolved. He’s been in this unfair situation as have all the learners, again and again. Again I ask her the question, “Can you see that he feels you told him he is a liar, even if you didn’t think that?” After about 3 attempts she quietly says yes. If my tone was threatening, forceful or judgmental, it is unlikely she would have opened up. My tone was matter of fact, but caring for justice, knowing that I was leading them to some form of restoration and making amends. It was supportive and non vindictive. It was restorative.
Another crucial part. I know that there is a step further to take. So I suggest, “He would probably appreciate it if you’d say to him that you are sorry that he thought you’d said he was a liar. You’ll try not to sniff snort at him again and rather speak to him to find out if it’s really true that he’d like to be a singer.” Still, he’s hard and looking fierce. But when she says yes and turns to him, a little embarrassed, he looks at her and softness comes over his face. She apologises as we discussed and he melts into the most beautiful smile of unexpected satisfaction. His eyes are glowing now and he feels an unexpected feeling of joy and gratitude for us both taking the time to find the truth and see it from his point of view. Empathy!!
Next crucial part: I ask if she’d shake his hand to show respect and understanding and she says okay. He is beaming now and smiling the sweetest smile of a boy, disarmed of his tension and blame, receiving respect and apology and they shake hands as she looks still a little embarrassed. I acknowledge them for their wise choice to listen and be honest and ask, “How has this made you feel about each other?” No words, only a look continued as before. I suggest, “Does it feel that you have more trust for each other than you had before?” Both beam at me, one with pure gratitude and a disarming smile the other a little embarrassed but definitely happy. She goes back to her desk and he looks at me with such pure innocent pleasure. He is glowing inside. He is totally satisfied that he has not been put down and instead he has been built up. For the rest of the lesson he is exceptionally cooperative, his virtue of excellence is surging and affecting his actions. Every time we looked at each other he just beams his feelings of softness and loving appreciation at me.
I was blown away again at how effective this approach to building bridges, restorative justice and growing trust is. Yes, I had pre-empted them at the end by guiding the language, but sometimes it’s about timing and the ability to use the language in the moment. The change in the boy was so powerful. He truly felt acknowledged and that justice has been done and the two of them were now more close to friendship than before. This is a way which gradually and organically changes the culture from a defensive mocking culture to a friendly high trust culture of respect, assertiveness and kindness. And as the language becomes more effective, so it spreads.
Once they had completed the work I’d set them, explored, read and shown to me with pride by most of the learners, I was able to acknowledge creativity, determination, excellence, purposefulness, respect and responsibility. I felt moved by the beautiful and heartfelt warmth flowing toward me. There was real wholeheartedness and mindfulness in that class and even some vulnerability. But I know they have a long way to go to change the culture of defensiveness and superiority because of their patterns of reactivity needed to bolster ego, esteem and self image. This is common in many cultures and most traditional approaches to teaching virtues and values just skim the surface when they only teach by telling learners what to do, compared to the experience of Jon and his girl friend. Their transformation was intrinsic and organic and supported in the way that like young saplings have a string tying them to a stake of stability in the ground. This event did just that. Both of their hearts and minds were transformed because the trust between them was boosted by their meaningful interaction.
I expect that they will return to previous patterns though and can only hope that the educator has taken the workshops seriously enough to implement alternative communication using the 5 strategies. In general though, the school is generating much confidence, kindness, courtesy, creativity and enthusiasm with a growing sense of respect for personal rights and taking responsibility to create peaceful and high trust environments.