What A Difference A Smile Makes

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photo by seanbjack on flickr

First day of class. Looking around the room full of new student faces, I see front and center a stern unsmiling young black woman.   Oh dear, hostility already?  As the days passed and I tried to work my reassuring charm, nothing changed.  She refused to smile and consistently challenged almost everything I said.  I began to feel that all my energy was going toward finding ways to graciously respond to her ongoing contempt.  It seemed that no matter what I did or said, I was wrong and I was seriously pissing her off!

I took my concerns to a friend, a black professor (I am white) who also has this young woman in a freshman orientation class.  He was shocked, as in his class she is very quiet and hasn’t made her presence known at all.  Okay, so what did that tell me?  That I just somehow have a pissing-her-off  personality?  Not much help in moving through this stuck place.

My friend and I talked about defense and survival mechanisms, about how issues of race and socio-economic status are often lurking in our black and white interactions, about how so many of our students come from segregated (both white and black) high schools and don’t know how to deal with mixed classrooms (it truly breaks my heart to write that sentence!)  Black students from our neighboring urban areas in particular develop defense and survival mechanisms that don’t necessarily serve them well on this predominantly white campus.

I began to speculate that her demeanor was designed to protect her from the slings and arrows of being a young black woman on a predominantly white campus.  It shifted my perception, and I started noticing that she was one of my strongest students, always on time, homework always done, willing to answer my questions in class.  huh.  Not the student I had created in my head at all (see another post on this same issue here).  Still stern, still unsmiling, but present in the class.

The real breakthrough came when we did a role-playing activity in class.  She was outstanding (though still unsmiling) and I complimented her acting skills.  She grinned (I cannot tell you what a joy that was to see!) and said she had always thought about being an actress but had never done anything about it.  She came by my office later that day to ask a question and I once again shared my enthusiasm for her talent.

She still doesn’t smile, but I have changed.  I smile inside every time I look at her, and we have found a working respect for each other that does not depend on her smile.  I don’t feel that I have the right to advise her to smile more –  there are so many bad echoes in that advice.  Also, see my previous blog about the stunning lack of success I had the last time I offered unsolicited advice to a student!

I haven’t let go of my concern entirely, for the lack of a softening smile can definitely be an issue in how we relate to each other.  I saw that clearly one day as I watched her interact with a young man in our class.  He needed a pencil, and she tossed him one which he didn’t catch.  She teased him with “Nice catch” but no smile, and he looked unsure as to whether she was kidding or criticizing.  I know she was trying to tease him, but he didn’t.  The cue he was familiar with to identify friendly teasing – the smile – wasn’t there and its absence made him unsure of her intent and the appropriate response.

We all moved on with no lasting problems, and I will remain alert to any possible teaching opportunities to share with the class what a difference a smile makes.  But for now, I am pleased to say that I am learning to look for the student behind the protective curtain.  Thank you, oh great and powerful wizard of Oz, for that!

2011 © HeyTeach101 & toreadtowrite.com

A Thumbsucker’s Manifesto


Was I right or wrong?

Early in the semester I have students introduce themselves by identifying one thing that is unique about them and probably not true of anyone else in the class.  One young woman’s claim to uniqueness was that she sucks her thumb.

My immediate response was to express my concern that thumb-sucking is a habit that can ostracize her. I shared a story about a student of mine a few years ago, who sucked her thumb all the time.  She sucked her thumb in class, as she walked through the dorm halls (where, according to her roommate, she also trailed a blanket along with her), in the cafeteria – everywhere.

Other students, not surprisingly, made fun of her.  Eyes rolled and giggles were suppressed when she walked into the classroom with her thumb in her mouth.  Students didn’t want her passing their handouts, which led to some awkwardness for me as she always sat right up front.  I had to reach around her to give the stack of papers to the student behind her.  Even though it made me feel rude to do so, I understood the concerns of the germaphobes behind her.

So…. I shared that story as a caution that my current student might want to work on breaking herself of her thumb-sucking habit if she didn’t want to be judged because of it.  Tensions immediately flew into the air.  Two students verbally jumped to her defense, one saying that she too sucked her thumb to go to sleep (I quickly agreed that was a different matter if you only do it to fall asleep) and the other making the point that since the thumb-sucker was from a dangerous neighborhood in a nearby large city she was tough enough to be invulnerable to the judgment of others.

We moved on that day in class, but I worried that exchange around in my head over the weekend, wondering if my automatic decision to give advice had created the adversarial dynamic that blew up so quickly.  Even though what I said was absolutely true, was I wrong to share it in front of the whole class?  My feeling is that the answer is a resounding yes.

I did have the opportunity to explore the issue a little more deeply a few days later.  I meet with each of my students individually in the first two weeks of class, and the thumb-sucker (I am so sorry to be identifying her like that – let me call her TS!) hadn’t been in class for two days.  I was meeting with another student and in passing she mentioned TS.  I expressed my concern that TS hadn’t been in class for a couple of days and that I was worried it was because of what I had said about her sucking her thumb.  This student (who was friends with her two defenders) laughed and said “No, I’m sure that isn’t it.  You know how some students just think they can miss this many days of one class, and this many days of another?  That’s her.”

So, maybe it wasn’t a soul-scarring moment for her.  Good to know.  Nevertheless, I am taking this as a cautionary lesson about advice.  Think once, twice, three times before I make personal comments disguised as advice.  It is a tricky call, because I do feel that as a teacher/guide for under-prepared college freshmen it is appropriate more often than not for me to share my wisdom and experience with my students.  Talking to students about their attitudes, their habits, sometimes even their appearance (and the worst – their odor) can be an appropriate part of my role if it is done with love.  I think my mistake was doing it in class, and I should know better than that.  My best guess as to what derailed my judgment was that the isolation of my previous student flashed up in front of me and blinded me to the fact that this was the wrong setting to share her cautionary tale.

From now on, I will not only be more careful about how I respond to personal statements in class, but I will also do my best to ease up on judging personal habits.  If it doesn’t hurt them or anyone else and  provides comfort, who the heck am I to judge?  It is time for me to let go and move on.

2011 © HeyTeach101 & toreadtowrite.com