Sunday, August 7, 2022

The Art of Praise

One of many fine ceremonies at The San Francisco School is an 8th grade graduation in which select teachers talk about a student. After years of trial and error, we refined it to a written statement with two minutes to capture the essence of the student. The hope was to avoid cliché (“She’s cool! She’s awesome! She’s so smart!”) and find some kind of resonating image (“Fire and water. On the outside, calm as a jeweled lake, but inside, the fire of passion is aflame!”) Teachers got much better at it and would work for an hour or so to do their two or three chosen students justice.


Everything I learned and practiced at the school resonated further out into my workshop and course work— and back in the other direction as well. So I was well-prepared to talk about the 24 Level III students who graduated on Friday. But instead of talking about three students reading from paper, I free-styled with each of the 24. Without a single one pre-planned. Just talked about one and then looked to see who was next and hoped the right words would appear. And they did! A risky venture, especially if I happened to find just the right thing for one person but floundered with the next. In full public view.


But it never happened. Because of the three to four hours daily for ten days with these lovely people, every day fully immersed in the practice of revelation, I certainly saw them and felt the particular facet of the beauty we all share. And so I made it to the end of the 24 and feeling the sobs as I hugged each one after each little talk, it seemed that the words had hit the mark.


A few hours later, I gathered with ten fellow teachers and four interns for our farewell lunch and having written thank you cards to each that morning, I decided to read each out loud instead of have them read them privately. After all, praise and witness is fine as a private gesture, but reaches its full flower in public acknowledgement. And so off I went again, reading each out loud and then giving them the card along with the other envelope with their check. More tears and laughter.


When I got to the bottom of the stack, there was one left. Mine. No one stepped forth to gift me with their words, so I made a quick short speech, “Doug! You’re a kick-ass teacher! But your best quality is learning how to praise others.” 


It took me a long time to get there, but I believe that’s true. 


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