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One of the greatest things about being a teacher is that you learn as much as you teach. Especially when you teach adults. I don’t just mean learning about other cultures and other view points of life. In the English lessons I taught in Japan, just about any random subject could come up, even in the middle of a class I thought would be boring and predictable. I especially enjoyed teaching doctors. They meet a lot of people and thus have a lot of stories to tell. I once had a 40-minute conversation about testicular cancer with a doctor. Of the eight classes I had that day, it was the best one.
Naturally, when teaching a language class, you learn a few things about communication. The most important thing? The importance of being a good listener.
I do believe that listening is a skill and that one can get better at it with practice. Some people are naturally good listeners. Others need that practice. In teaching English as a foreign language, I often found that improving listening was one of the hardest things to get people to do. Not because they weren’t trying. Most of the time, they were. They just didn’t know how to do it.
It wasn’t that understanding the words was the problem. It’s that a bad listener has a harder time really listening to people. There’s a difference between hearing what’s being said and hearing what you expect – or want - to hear.
I had one student – great guy, nice attitude and very outgoing – who had the damnedest time trying to improve his listening. And I knew why – because he listened, but he didn’t *listen*. Know what I mean? He listened, but he didn’t hear. I could never fully explain why that was a problem. And then I overheard him having a conversation with our Japanese manager, and I realized that it wasn’t just a problem he had with English. He was just a bad listener. I asked the manager about it, and she confirmed my suspicions – she hated having to explain anything to him, because he listened, but he never really heard her. He would have the same problems and ask the same questions and make the same mistakes because he never thought about what was being said to him.
Listening is something that I’ve learned I shouldn’t take for granted. Understanding my students, at times, meant that I really had to listen to them. I had to listen to what they meant, not just what they said. It’s something I’ve found I continue to do here in the States.
And I’ve found that other people don’t always do it.
Starbucks Cafe at the Barnes & Noble I frequent. I go there once a week, at least, and 25% of the time, they get my order wrong, even when I’m the only customer there and they’re otherwise not distracted. Granted, I know 25% is not a large margin of error, but it’s there. And it’s not like I order anything complicated. A grande caramel latte. Sometimes iced. And the same girl has gotten my order wrong 3 times, which is 50% of the times she’s taken my order. I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe she’s not the best listener.
Okay, so what?
The what is that sometimes, you need to really pay attention, or you’re going to offend someone.
I’ve been going through the process of registering at the culinary institute (yes, I guess I’m going through with it!). A couple weeks ago, I had a conversation with the financial aid advisor. Nice girl, maybe not the most organized. We were just chatting, and then she asked if I had any kids.
The babylost know what a powerful question this is. Its seeming innocence is nonexistent with us. Every single time, it feels like a challenge: acknowledge your child or keep the conversation easy and light? Nothing brings a conversation down faster than a dead baby.
Because I prefer to do things my way rather than the easy way, I always mention Lauren. I cannot not mention her. I would hate myself if I didn’t. I believe most of the babylost would understand that.
This financial aid lady heard me, but she didn’t *hear* me. She blinked, her smile stayed plastered on her face, and she said, “Oh, then that’s good for you.” And then there was an awkward silence as I stared at her and thought, so you’re going to one of them, huh? One of the ones who asks without listening, who replies without having heard.
Immediately, I myself lost interest in the whole thing. I wasn’t upset, but I felt that the conversation had just become depersonalized. It was not about me. Clearly, it never had been. The small talk we’d been having had been nothing but a warm-up, an easing-in. A chance to build rapport.
I know how this goes. I taught long enough to know what an attempt to make a connection is, what an attempt to put the person at ease is like. The trick is that, to actually build that connection, you have to actively listen. Because if you don’t, you’ve lost them.
I haven’t been back to the school since then. The admissions director has been emailing me like a mad-woman, and I’ve sent one reply, offering up the holidays as an excuse for being busy. The truth is that, the more I think about it, the more I realize that I am a little offended. Maybe even more than a little. Enough that I’m more than a little troubled.
It’s not even all about Lauren. Yes, she responded to my dead daughter as “a good thing” for me, but that disturbed me only superficially, not deep down. No, what bothered me, deep down, was that she asked me a question without caring what the answer was. I hate that. I always have. It means you’re not listening, that what I have to say doesn’t matter in the least. She had an answer already in mind; what I said meant nothing at all.
I have never had much tolerance for small talk. Warm-ups were always the hardest part of class for me, because I wanted to get people talking and listening and caring about the conversation. You have to get in there and ask good questions, and then you have to really listen so you can get that conversation going. Once started, a good conversation carries itself. But you have to listen.
There are lots of places on the web where you can learn the proper way to respond to a dead baby answer. It just takes a simple search. And I’ll add to that by offering you the best response, the one that simple common sense suggests: “I’m sorry.” Most people I’ve mentioned Lauren to say that, and that’s really all I need to hear. While I do love to talk about her, I know it’s an awkward topic. I know dead babies make people uncomfortable. But I have to acknowledge her. I have to say that she existed, that I have a daughter. And once that’s done, we can move on.
That’s it, that’s all I want. But to give me that, you have to listen. And everybody wants to be listened to. Not just the babylost. Everyone.
October 15th is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, a day to remember the babies lost to miscarriage, stillbirth, and neo-natal death. Please join us in lighting a candle at 7pm (in your time zone) to honor the memories of babies lost too soon. The idea is to create a wave of light to remember these lost children and provide support for those families who have suffered such losses. Tonight, we will be lighting a candle for our Lauren Joy, born still at 38 weeks, and for all the children lost and loved around the world.