Thursday, November 9, 2017

On being better

Photo courtesy of Edna Winti/Flickr

Ever have a week when you're feeling a bit– stretched? 

Like you try to land on a thought for a minute but immediately feel tugged to the next thing and the next thing before the first thing was ever completed? Your brain a whirring assembly line racing to build a rush order of poorly made whatevers. And that's just what's happening in the gray matter. 

Simultaneously, there's external input. The dog barking. The incoming work assignments. The questions about what's for dinner. The subsequent complaints about what's for dinner. The dishes piling up in the sink. The laundry piling up in the baskets. The requests for chocolate milk, for playdates, for a visit to the book fair, for help putting on socks, for helping tying shoes. The fighting about hair brushing and tidying up and who got to pick the last TV show. 

This is, of course, how life always is. It's always like this. The difference this week is me, I think. You know, my ability to deal with it all. That and maybe the weather. After the most mild fall ever this week it finally turned. It's overcast and rainy and cold. I can't get warm. 

Last night, after the kids went to bed, I'd planned to write. But instead, I sat down on the couch, wrapped a blanket around me and sat bundled in the silence. The assembly line shut itself down. Sometimes our brains override our own best intentions.

So here I am today instead. Still trying to land on just one thought. But coming up with a billion.

Brad and I started watching "This is Us" last year, hoping it could be a substitute for our beloved "Parenthood." We don't watch a ton of TV, but once a week we like to veg on the couch together watching something we can both agree on. It's no "Parenthood," though. I mean, we watch it every week and all and it's fine. It has its moments. But it's just not the same. Brad says the only character he really likes is Jack. He says Kevin belongs with Caillou and Map from "Dora the Explorer" on a list of TV's most annoying characters. I don't totally agree, but I know what he means.

People write all the time about needing entire boxes of tissues to get through an episode of "This is Us," but except for the episode where William and Randall took a road trip to Memphis, I really haven't teared up. Even without saying anything, William's gentle presence always has a way of warming a scene.

I kind of get annoyed that every episode seems to be a compilation of well-written monologues– the characters constantly sharing platitudes about life to anyone who will listen– unborn babies, the guy selling ceiling fans at the hardware store, strangers at a coffee shop or an urn of ashes. I joke with Brad that every week the director must assemble the cast shouting out, "You get a speech! And you get a speech! And you get a speech!" Like Oprah giving away cars.

These characters are all flawed and damaged in their own way, sure. But you wouldn't know that to hear them speak. They're constantly figuring out life for our benefit. The way they speak just glows. All the time. They seem to have wisdom the rest of us don't have. So I feel removed from them. 

In journalism we're trained to show, not tell. To find ways to illustrate what is happening in the story using words without explicitly spelling it out for the reader. Instead of saying a kid was being obnoxious, for instance, write about how they ran into your room at 5:45 a.m., jumped on your bed and demanded Honey Combs. RIGHTNOW!!! And then proceeded to shove their face in yours and lick your nose while meowing like a cat until you got up. It puts readers in the action. Makes the story richer, more relatable.

Anyway, sometimes I feel "This is Us" does more telling than showing. And I find myself wishing the characters were a bit more human. I miss William– who said so much just with his eyes. I miss the Bravermans from "Parenthood" or the Taylor's from "Friday Night Lights." They always managed to convey a deep well of emotion without having to say much of anything. 

But I was pleasantly surprised this week when we sat down to watch "This is Us." 

In the episode, Randall took his foster daughter to visit her mother in prison, only the mother refuses to see her daughter. With this as the premise, I immediately rolled my eyes– assuming the story was going to be about how lucky their foster daughter is that she landed with Randall's beautiful, well-heeled family. How terrible the girl's mother was. I mean, it's not hard to create conflict and shape heroes when you have the black of white scenario of prisoner versus foster parent. Good guy vs. bad mom.

These days I find myself struggling with these roles we create in society. This whole good vs. evil dichotomy just isn't serving us. And we see it so often in entertainment. And it's so tempting to organize our worldviews along these lines. 

I see this playing out in school, too.

Earlier this week I was in the library at the middle school with a class full of kids with learning disabilities and/or emotional needs. There were a couple students in the class who stuck out more than the others because of their quirky ways of speaking and behaving. One of the boys in the class–one who by outward appearances seemed more "normal"– was picking on one of these students, another boy. He'd mock the way the boy spoke or get into his personal space trying to provoke him. 

Generally, just being your typical seventh grade asshole. 

The kid who was being picked up got fed up and told the other boy to "fuck off." I had to take him aside and tell him that language wasn't appropriate. He told me that one of the ways he dealt with frustration was swearing. And while I totally related, I also maintained that profanity was not allowed in school (except, I thought to myself, for maybe in the teacher's lounge or in an empty classroom where teachers on their lunch break lament unfinished stacks of paperwork or when you have to ask a kid for the 20th time to put their shoes back on and to stop blowing on their classmates).

I also took the other boy aside and told him to back off. I asked him if he'd ever been picked on. He said, "no." But I didn't believe him. Not for a second. He was posturing. I told him I knew he wasn't a bad person and that I expected him to be better than the person he was being. That I knew he had a good heart. He didn't seem convinced. In fact, I wasn't entirely convinced either. 

The previous time I'd been an instructional assistant in a class with him he'd spent the entire period rolling around the room on the teacher's chair, periodically tapping the Smartboard to mess with the PowerPoint presentation that was on. He'd already talked to an administrator once that class– since the other students didn't seem particularly fazed by his behavior, the teacher and I let it go. I know this probably sounds crazy. But you have to understand, just about every kid in the class has behavioral issues. We're often in survival mode. There's a lot we roll with. Literally.

He is not an easy kid to teach. But my job as a substitute teacher is to teach him. And while it would be easy and probably justifiable and probably really satisfying to tell this kid (who I know nothing about outside of his behavior in this one class) about himself– what purpose would it serve? I don't know that his having one more person calling him a bully would make him want to be any less of a bully. Labels are really hard to escape. Especially the labels we get when we're 12 or 13. I don't think he needed to hear that he was a jerk. It think he needed to be reminded that it was never too late to be kind.

At the end of class that day in the library, he yelled an apology across the room to the other boy. It wasn't entirely sincere– but it was a step in the right direction. I made sure he knew I'd heard him, and that I appreciated the gesture. 

Watching "This is Us" I was relieved when Randall returned to the prison to talk to his foster daughter's mother. And while he started out with a kind of self-righteous, "I'm on this side of the glass" speech, the girl's mother– the one on the wrong side of the glass– got to have her say, too. She made sure he knew that life was messier and more complicated than he knew and that she loved her daughter and would fight for her. 

That's right, she got a speech, too.

I loved, too, that they returned to William. Sharing the story of his drug arrest and how he went in front of a judge and told the man he had nothing left to live for and that he was the most disappointed man in the world. Seeing the broken person in front of him, the judge opts to give him a second chance. 

Somehow these things– "This is Us" and the kids at school– somehow they go together. In my head anyway. 

We just can't give up on people. If we give up on the possibility of goodness in others, assuming they're just inherently bad, then what are we even doing here? Why are we bothering? 

Each of us is one poor decision from being the person on the wrong side of the glass either literally or metaphorically. And each of us has to potential to be better. Every day we do.

I'm working on a story for the United Way of York County about New Hope Christian Ministries, an organization that provides aide to people with all varieties of need in York, Pa. 

I just got off the phone with the ministry's executive director. I asked him what inspired his work. And the good Christian he is, he shared the story of the Good Samaritan, which is probably obvious and maybe cliche. But we all need a go-to story for being a better neighbor.

Why did he think his work is important to the community?


"I don’t know that there’s a better answer than just trying to be a good," he said.

I don't know that there's a better answer either. We just need to try to be good. Even if we bumble along at it.

As I'm sorting through the remaining detritus on the factory floor of my brain this week, I keep tripping over this incident from yesterday.

I was at the middle school (because it seems I'm always at the middle school). I was running an errand as an office aide when one of the special ed teachers, muttering something about Lady Godiva, nabbed me in the hallway and asked me to come with her.

One of her students had experienced some gastro-intestinal distress in his pants during gym class. He'd responded by stripping down in class and running through the hall. She asked if I'd go to the resource center to get him some clean cloths and deliver them to another instructional assistant waiting by the boy's locker room.

While delivering the clothes, I passed by the school's crisis resource teacher, whose job is, as far as I can tell, to race from one student meltdown after another. All. Day. Long. 

The teacher told me he had to deliver a student to a class but would be right behind me with some wipes.

When he arrived at the locker room door, wipes in hand, he asked who was going to clean up the student (while he was technically in seventh grade this particular student was developmentally much younger– just so you can understand why a 12-year-old boy might need assistance cleaning up after himself). 

The IA and I looked at each other and shrugged.

"Me," the resource teacher said. "I guess the answer is me."

He sighed, bowed his head and walked into the locker room.

While he hardly used any words, this teacher said so much. 

He told me what compassion looks like. 

He told me that it commands us to do the things we'd rather not have to do. It gives us a primer for how to be good. 

Life is complicated and messy. 

We are complicated and messy and imperfect, too.

We're stretched thin and it's noisy and everyone is whining. We're tired and annoyed and definitely don't want to be the person called on to clean up after the next disaster. But we do it anyway. And when we do– when we do we become better than we were before. 

That's the beauty of being human.

That's who we are.

This is us.  

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