Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Why Not?

It was June in 1964 and the last day of school at Harrison Elementary School in Roselle, New Jersey. The year before, when I finished 6th grade, they decided to extend the school to 7th grade and so I stayed for one more year. Now it was time to graduate and we had a little assembly. I don’t remember much about it. Certainly no caps or gowns, no diploma acknowledging the completion of my eight years of serving time. But I do remember sitting there thinking that maybe they’d call us 7th graders up and say something about each of us, a little appreciation for who we had become and what legacy we would leave at school.

Naturally, it didn’t happen. What was I thinking? But I thought about this last night after our Intern Appreciation Dinner. Even though I had never seen such an appreciation ceremony modeled, some part of my 12-years old developing value system figured out that maybe this would be a good idea. And lo and behold, I was right!

After dinner last night, we had a little ceremony to acknowledge the end of a glorious four months together with these extraordinary human beings seeking to fine tune their teaching and expand their horizons. Seven of us took turns speaking about one person and not a single one resorted to tired clichés—“You’re awesome.” “You’re so totally cool.” “You’re a really nice person.” Even with English as a second language for both, people dug deep and found just the right combination of words to capture a bit of each person’s magic. And as you can imagine, that took some time. We finished two people at dinner, two people at dessert in a café and when they kicked us out at 11:00 pm (this process began at 8:00 pm!), we crowded into Sofia’s car to speak about the last. There was love coming from the back of the station wagon with fogged windshields. (We decided to forego including James, Sofia and I for now, which probably means it won’t happen given the painfully limited time we have left. Would have been nice to complete the process, as the teachers are part of the vulnerability and the milestones, but no worry.)

This is the kind of thing that happens in the communities I’m so fortunate to be part of. We give deep graduation speeches for the kids, I speak about the Level III graduates from our Orff course, we host workshops where dinner afterwards includes an appreciation of the teacher. A habitual ritual of praise based on real evidence, which means the person being praised has to do something worthy of notice and the fellow community members have to take time to notice it. It’s a ritual of public love and appreciation based on coming to know and understand a person and say it out loud within the hearing of others.

And this got me wondering how many people are missing this in their lives? How many people work at a place for ten, twenty or thirty years with no time or space for ritual appreciation, only to get a gold watch and jokes and someone roasting them at their farewell dinner. The one likely place for such talk is at one’s funeral and then it’s too late.

Consider. If this was part and parcel of our cultural practice, might all the shooters and looters (Wall St. variety, not the riot kind), the mean-spirited privileged hurting with their power, the low-life poor making bad choices in survival strategies, might all these folks have turned out just a little bit kinder and caused a little less harm? Mighty a steady diet of earned and sincere praise be just the ticket to stop hurting “the other” and begin to glimmer a shared humanity? I well know it’s not wholly enough to create paradise on earth, but hey, it’s not a bad step in that direction and you just have to wonder, “Why don’t we do it more often? I mean, really, why not?”

I’m sure I’ve failed to say this well, but I do have the equivalent of the music teacher’s Super Bowl tomorrow (a.k.a. The Holiday Play) and not all the brain cells are firing correctly. But I hope you get my meaning. Let’s make a habit of praise. What’s to lose?

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