The Stranger

I recently had an intriguing interchange with a stranger.

First let me say, I love talking to strangers. I talk to them in the grocery store while I am picking out my produce. I talk to them while I am waiting on the interminably long deli line each week. And I will start conversations with them when I am out walking. I don’t apologize for my boldness. I am cohabiting this earth with others, and I would like to get to know them. Besides, strangers are only strangers until you get to know them.

So the other day at work, I was minding my own business. It was Friday afternoon around 3:00, and I was trying to finish up some tasks so I could actually leave for home at a reasonable time. My phone buzzed, and I received a text message from a number I didn’t recognize. “All done. When I get to better service, I’ll send a pic……” The number was from my mother’s area code—the area code in which I grew up and still have a friend or two.

Maybe it’s someone I know, I reasoned. I decided to wait and see if the person texted me again. I put my phone back on my desk, and I promptly forgot about it.

Nearly two hours later, my phone buzzed again. This time, my screen displayed a picture of a white horse, his nose in a feedbag. “This is how he was waiting for me,” the message read. The picture made it very clear that the texter was not someone I knew. Though I felt pulled to hear the story of the horse.

“Cute picture,” I texted back. “But I think you might be texting the wrong person,” I informed the stranger.

“Oops. Thanks for resending… glad I made you smile.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is a part of me that wanted to keep texting. To probe deeper. To find out about this random stranger who texted me at quitting time on a Friday afternoon. To tell her about the coincidence of the area code. To find out about the horse. And to make her smile, too. There is a part of me that longed to make that connection.

Because a stranger is only a stranger until you get to know her.

Then she is a friend.

{Photo by Nikki Jeffrey on Unsplash}

Step Away

We were talking about writing, my daughter and I, about writing to an assignment when you’re not really sure of what to write. How do you not only answer the question, but write a three-page paper?

Without even thinking, I started tossing ideas at her. What is the story? Who’s involved? What is happening? Have you Googled the story and read through the summary/analysis online as a way to spark some ideas? Starting points… all things she had thought of, but approaches that weren’t helping her.

For me, talking about writing is nothing new—in fact, it is a daily conversation. This is what I do. I write. I talk about writing. I work with writers. It’s important that I include the phrase, “I write,” because if you don’t actually sit down and do the tough work of writing, it is difficult to talk to young writers about writing. And to speak authoritatively about the process of writing.

Our banter was getting us nowhere except frustrated. Sleep on it, I finally told her. The assignment wasn’t due for a couple days, so she had the advantage of time on her side. She agreed that was a good idea, and put the paper away for the night. However, she came back and texted me a bit later. “I took a shower on it, and I think I figured it out!” she told me.

That was it. She just needed to step away. In order to connect with the subject, she had to disconnect from it. Sometimes, that’s all it takes. Not just in writing, but in the process of daily life.

If you step away, your thoughts can become clearer. Let your brain rest and move on to other tasks. Because sometimes, when you’re not putting demands on your brain, it will continue to process on its own terms. In fact, it is often when we are not thinking about something that it works itself out. When we are not focused on a problem, more varied solutions—those that are lurking on the periphery—become evident.

We all have situations we need to step away from. If you step away, often the things you are wrestling with—the problems, the situations, the frustrations—they all become easier to figure out, and your brain will come up with a solution you hadn’t even considered!

Step away, and have confidence the answer might come to you. If not, at least you will return refreshed and ready to dig in.

{Photo credit – my amazing daughter}

Connections

We need to teach our children how to connect with others. I don’t mean teach them how to connect via social media—they are experts at that already. I mean we need to teach them to connect with other people face-to-face and one-on-one.

This thought struck me the other day after a couple things happened. First of all, I realized the new version of Google’s gmail is now offering me the option to click on a pre-determined email response. Essentially, it is “reading” my email and formulating a quick response that I can send to someone like, say, my boss, to thank her, let her know I will check into something, or make her think I am following up on her response or a request. In reality, the pre-determined one-click response allows me to not think. I don’t have to think about my response, and I don’t have to think about following up.

Now, I appreciate the time and effort Google has put in to formulating this algorithm, but shortcuts like this are the reason true communication skills are dwindling to non-functional levels. Seriously.

In order to have functional communication, we have to think about our responses. We have to consider whether an email deserves more than just a cursory glance. We have to think about the person who is receiving the response, and we must choose our language (and tone) based on our audience. Effective communication requires us to engage.

People are no longer engaged with communication. They are no longer engaged with others. They simply hit the reply button, send a one-to-ten word response, and they are done. That brevity does not encourage individuals to connect with other individuals. It demonstrates the power of technology to pull us apart. Yes, it does.

The second thing that gave me a glimpse into our need for better communication occurred when I was picking up a pack of colored chalk for some student tutors. I wandered into a local craft store. When I located the chalk and made my way to the check out, I was greeted by Ted. And when I say, “greeted by,” I mean Ted was working the register. He did not talk to me. He did not make eye contact. He did not speak in a voice that was loud enough or clear enough to be heard and understood. I am not sure why this corporation thought Ted was the best choice for this position. Then again, given the lack of any other visible workers in the store, I suppose their choice was limited.

Friends, we need to teach our children how to connect with others. We need to reinforce the importance of communication in all forms—face-to-face, through email, and over the phone. We need to teach them to look up from their shoes and make eye contact. We need to model and reinforce the conventions of carrying on a conversation. Being able to connect with other people is so important for living a healthy life. If our children have this skill—the ability to connect and communicate—they will have a strong foundation as they move on to “adulting.”

Classroom Etiquette

As a teacher, I spend some time in the front of a classroom. Because of the nature of my full-time work—one-on-one academic support—I generally teach only one face-to-face class each year, but it is enough for me to track the changes in educational engagement through the years. Or is it?

As I stand in front of the class, with students working away on their computers, I (used to) make the assumption that they are taking notes or otherwise engaging in educational activities that will ultimately enhance their learning. That’s what I want to believe, so I create that reality in my head.

Fast forward to this summer, when I am taking a face-to-face class. This is the first time I have been a student in a physical classroom in many years, though I won’t say how many. I mean, I have attended various trainings (as recently as this past February) which mimic a classroom situation, but in those “classrooms,” it always seems as though people are interested in learning the material so they can bring it back to their own workplaces and put it to use.

This week was my second class in a summer-long Masters-level research class. I am not in a degree program; I am taking the class because I have research I want to conduct, and I don’t really know the best way to start. At this week’s class, one of my work colleagues was seated on my right. She and I were actively taking notes, discussing the topic, and beginning to get excited about our research projects.

On my left sat a fellow classmate, a young woman I have seen before, but I don’t know. She arrived right before the class started, took out her computer, and immediately picked up a message stream that she had left mid-conversation. To her credit, she also opened a document window where she could take notes during the 2+ hour class.

Class began, and she continued to occupy herself with messaging. Somehow this new generation of students hasn’t learned that they can say, “Hey, I’m in class right now. I’ll message you later,” and they don’t find it important to do so.

But this woman wasn’t engaged in class at all. Before 4:30, she removed a glass container from her bag and opened it on the desk. Inside was a nice looking dinner salad. She removed another container from her bag, opened it, and poured dressing onto the salad. Then she spent the next fifteen minutes crunching away on her dinner. (Did I mention this is a two-hour class? Have a snack before class, and you can have dinner at 6:15). When she was done, she dropped her metal fork into the glass container (not even attempting to be quiet), snapped the cover on, and put the container back in her bag. Then, she promptly returned to messaging her friend.

While I was trying to pay attention to the professor and concentrate on the material, I had developed a deep curiosity as to this woman’s non-stop in-class extra-curricular activities. Weren’t these activities just as effective when done from one’s couch in the comfort of one’s living room? Why would someone commit the time and money to a class when she wasn’t going to exert any effort beyond being physically present?

When I looked at her computer screen again, she was browsing the Crate & Barrel website, scrolling through dishes. The woman sitting to her left was commenting on the ones she liked best. In class. While the professor was lecturing. Clearly, taking a class means something different to these women than it does to me.

Perhaps I have an archaic notion of classroom behavior, left over from my student days long before the advent of portable computers. However, I don’t believe that respect for someone teaching a class has completely gone by the wayside. And I know for certain from all the studies I read that the best way to learn is to actively engage with the material.

We are only two classes in, and this experience has been eye opening for me. When I stand in front of my class in September—a class that is designed to help students make connections, discover how to learn, and serve as a foundation and resource for college life—I will tell my students that our classroom will be technology-free. Because sometimes, the best way to learn how to make connections is to disconnect.

Painfully Obvious

Yesterday morning, I awoke from an odd and somewhat unsettling dream. At first, I wasn’t really aware of what was unsettling, only that something wasn’t right. The dream was one in which I was interacting with people—one, a friend from childhood who I hadn’t seen recently, and the other, a woman I knew of but had never met.

I was sitting between the two of them. The woman to my right was wearing a bright sweater—striped in bold blues, yellow, and teal—and I noted that it was knit from the same yarn I had used to make a scarf. This fact intrigued me, and I got stuck on the bold colors and the coincidence. I listened as she talked, and I responded, but through our conversation, I never looked directly at her. Somehow, I just knew who she was.

As I looked back on the dream, I realized that I was unable to look at either of these two people, unable to see their faces. It wasn’t that they didn’t have faces in my dream. It was that I couldn’t look at their faces. This one small but important fact made the dream very unsettling.

As I moved through my day trying to process this strange dream, I came across an article in the New York Times that discussed Smartphone addiction and its effects on us and on our children. Sherry Turkle, a social scientist, “found that children now compete with their parents’ devices for attention, resulting in a generation afraid of the spontaneity of a phone call or face-to-face interaction. Eye contact now seems to be optional” (Popescu). If we are not making eye contact, if we are not looking at the people we are interacting with, we are not fully experiencing the moment, the conversation, the relationship.

And this article brought me back to my dream. No doubt, the dream emerged from the stress of adjusting to the hectic schedule of a new teaching assignment added to my other responsibilities. The need to juggle so many different pieces often takes away from my ability to be in the moment, experiencing interactions and relationships as fully as I might. This juggling ties me to my computer and keeps me connected to technology.

If we pay attention, our dreams can tell us things we didn’t already know, but sometimes they hit us over the head with the painfully obvious. The other night, I had one of those dreams and I woke up confused, but as the day wore on, I began to see how this dream fit into my life and the message I needed to gain from it.

I am a creature of habit. I do things because they work in some important way. Or maybe because they have worked at some point in the past, in some other iteration of my life. Perhaps, if I were to really examine what I have been doing, these things might not be addressing my current needs. They might not be feeding my soul. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate and restructure in important ways that will permit me to grow with the changes in my life.

And maybe it’s time we all recognize that by not interacting with others—over dinner, over the phone, standing in line, etc.—we are doing our children a disservice. It is up to us to teach them how to interact with us, with each other, and with the strangers they will encounter on a daily basis. Perhaps it’s time we recognize that technological connection is minimal and human connection… it’s everything.

Tools for Online Pursuits

As a mom, I feel it is my job to make sure my children know everything they need to know when I send them out into the world, but there are two problems with that. First, how could I possibly know all that they will need to know? And second, I can’t keep up with the ever-changing world to make sure my children are fully protected with an armor of knowledge. I can only give them tools they will need to build their own armor and change it as necessary. And the tools they will need are constantly evolving.

Take the recent situation of one of my students as an example. She did everything as she thought she should, yet she still got stuck in a situation that seemed a bit sketchy. Thankfully, she recognized enough signs of danger to seek advice.

I entered the situation as she was negotiating feelings of mounting unease around a potential job opportunity. She had responded to an interesting job posting she found on a professor’s course site, a seemingly legit opportunity because of where she found it. She applied, and—through communication completely via text message—was asked to attend an interview, which she did. But the interview situation was a bit off. First, the student was greeted by the father of a client (here is where age and experience are beneficial—those of us who have been in the real world for any amount of time know that a professional organization would never have a client greet a potential worker in the first interview.)

When the interviewer finally did show up, she was dressed in leggings and a t-shirt and made excuses about the work not being conducive to business attire. Both of these things caught my student off guard, and made her more attentive to her feelings about this job.

It wasn’t until the following week that she dug in her heels. The woman texted my student that she had scheduled an orientation session before the second interview—in fact, it was before she had officially been offered a job—and it would be that afternoon. The student was given an address and a time and told to bring her identification documents.

It seemed like an odd turn of events, and this is where I started asking questions: What is the name of the company? Where are they located? What will you be doing? When she could answer none of these questions, we sat down and did some research. We looked up the address that she had been given for her “orientation.” Google maps gave us a nondescript office building on which there was no company name. We Googled any and all information the student had, but we came up with no more answers than when we started. At that point, I advised her to forgo this particular job and look for something more certain.

A few days later, she and I sat with the Career Planning director to figure out where the job posting had originated and how best to deal with it. The director had the same advice that I had already given the student. Even if this was a legitimate job offer, the company was so unprofessional that she didn’t want to work there, anyway.

In truth, there is no way of knowing what might have happened if my student ignored her instincts and went to the orientation session. However, this situation got me to thinking about how best to guide my children as they navigate the tangled web of the “business” aspects of the online environment.

Teach your children—and any young people you are in contact with—to be aware of fraud and scams such as this may have been. Teach them to look for inconsistencies, to be alert to potential problems, and help them to determine when something is legitimate and when it is not. The fact that there was no searchable company information on this job posting was the first of many red flags.

Let your kids know that the rules of safety in social situations also apply to any other situation that is unknown—professional opportunities, buying/selling items off Internet sites, meet-up groups, etc. Bring a buddy, let others know where you are, check in, and meet in a neutral and public location.

If things don’t seem to add up, don’t pretend they do or dismiss any warning signs. It is easy to excuse one issue. Okay, the interviewer is dressed for comfort because the company works with children. However, when there are two things that don’t add up, three, or four, pay attention. The pieces don’t fit together because the situation may not be what it seems to be.

Encourage your teens/young adults to listen to their instincts. That “bad feeling” you have? It’s there to warn you. Too often, we encourage ourselves to deny our gut reactions to situations. Animals are equipped with instinct to protect them from harm. We, too, are animals, and if we pay attention to our instincts, they will help to guide and protect us.

Teach them to ask for help when they need it. If young people need advice about a situation, or they are feeling threatened, they shouldn’t hesitate to seek help—even if that means making some noise. And likewise, if you see a young person who seems to be struggling or needs some advice, step in and offer to help them out. So many young people are left to figure out the subtleties of life, of growing up, on their own, and they may welcome the guidance an older, more experienced adult.

Talk-to-Text

Writing 101, Day 7: Let social media inspire you. In this case, texting rather than tweeting.

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On Friday night, my boyfriend discovered the talk-to-text feature on my phone. He was texting my daughter who had just finished her evening performance of “Our Town,” and I needed to let her know we were on our way to pick her up. “Oh look, I can say something!” he announced as he pushed the microphone button and recorded his message. Because he had been privy to J’s iMessage voice recordings to her step-sister on her iPad, he thought he was familiar with this feature. I believe he thought it would send a recorded message that J could listen to.

Instead, it translated his recording into a text message, one that made little sense. He read the first to me. “Hello just seen we are on our way the by.” I glanced over just as he hit “send.”

“Did you just send that message?” I asked, watching his reaction while trying to keep my eye on the road ahead. He looked at me sheepishly and nodded.

“It’s fine,” he said. “It’ll be fine.”

I turned back to the road, shaking my head. “She doesn’t know you’re with me, so she won’t know why I am texting,” I said. The thought was meant for him, but it was pretty clear I was speaking to myself. In my peripheral vision, I could see him playing with the microphone button, holding the phone near his mouth again.

He was like a kid with a new toy. He recorded a long message, then read it back. “Is a new place not called our house call to you or town whilst turn it I am actually talking English probably my accent I’m not sure goodbye a deal spot lab what’s in.” And as soon as he finished reading, he hit send again.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING??” I laughed. I wanted to take my phone back, but I was actually somewhat amused. By this point, I knew that J would realize it wasn’t me texting, so I was exonerated of all responsibility. He recorded another message and sent it, then another. “Are those messages even making any sense?” I asked. He had stopped reading them to me before he sent them.

“Not much. She’ll figure it out.” Yeah… I doubt anyone would figure out those messages!

When we pulled up in front of the high school, the last few drama students were out in front waiting for their rides. It was a beautiful night, unseasonably warm. I rolled down my window. J was holding her phone. “Guess who discovered talk-to text?” I asked, and we all burst out laughing.