Category Archives: listening
When Lady Wisdom speaks, I listen.
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I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.
Psalm 6:6, RSV
Unlike the person who wrote Psalm 6, I’m not weary with my own moaning. I’m weary of listening to someone else’s moaning.
The young third-year teacher across the hall complains a lot. He comes into my classroom during my lunch break and recites a litany of grievances against his job. “I’m going to be honest with you,” he says. “I don’t want to be here today.”
I listen politely, saying little. He continues.
“I can’t wait for this day to be over,” he says. “I just want to go home.”
Almost daily he tells me how much he doesn’t want to be here, how much the kids annoy him, how low-functioning they are, and how he tells them to shut up and get to work.
Sometimes I think I should take this young teacher aside and ask him, gently, “Why did you go into teaching? The kids seem to irritate you. Have you considered another career?”
But then I realize that he doesn’t want me to say anything, especially anything that will call his career choice into question. All he wants from me is a listening ear, and as long as I keep listening, he’ll keep complaining.
Finally, I weary of the daily gripe-fest. I slip out of my classroom and find another place to eat my lunch. Sometimes I even run home for a quick bite to eat, because eating alone is better than being subjected to a constant barrage of negativity.
In one of his letters to one of the churches, St. Paul writes (in venerable King James English): “But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth.”
It’s easy to make the connection between “filthy communication” and four-letter Anglo-Saxon words. Yet I think “filthy communication” also includes the negative things we say about others or our situation: “I can’t stand that kid” or “I don’t want to be here today” or “I hate my job.”
Advent is a time when people of faith cultivate hope and joy and peace. Negative thoughts and feelings—and speech—can crowd out hope and joy and peace, leaving me feeling empty and distressed.
So here’s my Advent aim: to moan less, to listen to less moaning from others, and to find ways to turn “filthy communication” into words of hope and joy and peace.
Miss M, my teaching assistant, disappeared after lunch yesterday. She is conscientious and thoughtful and superb with the kids, so I was puzzled and disappointed by her apparent irresponsibility. She could have at least let me know that she’d be gone for the rest of the day.
My disappointment turned into smoldering resentment as the afternoon progressed and the 6th-graders became more and more surly and unruly. It was obvious that they, too, missed Miss M—but they are not articulate, so they acted out.
It wasn’t until after the students had been escorted to the buses that I learned that Miss M had rushed home at lunchtime after someone had spotted her dog in distress and called her to come quickly.
She was too late. By the time she got home, her beloved pet was dead.
Today Miss M was back in my classroom, a shadow of her usual exuberant self. She was red-eyed and sniffling, but the same children who were surly and unruly yesterday were gentle and solicitous today.
“What happened to your dog?” one student asked.
“We left him on the deck and he decided to jump,” said Miss M, “but his leash was too short and he broke his neck.”
“Was he a good dog?”
“He was a very good dog,” Miss M said, “a very, very good dog.” Her voice faltered as she wiped away tears.
Several of the children told Miss M how they had lost beloved pets to various tragedies.
As they spoke, an ancient proverb seemed to spring to life: “Heaviness in the heart of man maketh it stoop: but a good word maketh it glad” (Proverbs 12:25, KJV).
By sharing their stories of loss and grief—which are, mysteriously, “good words”— healing began, both for the children and for Miss M.
The hearts of children of poverty, the children with whom I work, stoop with heaviness. Unimaginable things, unspeakable things, happen in their homes and to their families every day.
That’s why it’s so essential for me to be lavish in giving out good words. I want to be a teacher who makes heavy hearts glad.
Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
Everybody needs somebody to listen to them. I found my listener in Mrs. Thelma Hill, who taught me English at East High School.
Mrs. Hill terrified most students, because she brooked no nonsense in her classes. I was attracted to her, however, because of her formidable intellect and her rapacious appetite for reading, and I found reasons to hang around her before and after school. During my senior year, I became one of her student assistants, hoping that she would invite me to visit her at her home. (I had heard about these “home visits” from other student assistants.)
When the invitation finally came, I was afraid to reveal much of myself to this woman with the almost perpetually scowling visage. Yet Mrs. Hill won my undying devotion when I told her that another student had stolen the paper I had written for English and passed it off as her own. With Solomonic wisdom, Mrs. Hill discerned the truth and meted out an appropriate punishment to the thief. That’s when I finally felt free to pour out my wildest dreams to her without fear of ridicule or rejection.
“I want to be a writer,” I confessed one day as we sat on Mrs. Hill’s living room floor, sipping iced tea and listening to Mozart.
“You can do it,” she said.
Those four words of hope have sustained me for many years. When I abandoned my dream for a while, thinking it was foolishness, I could hear Mrs. Hill reminding me: “You can do it.” When I finally started writing again and rejection slips outnumbered letters of acceptance, I could hear her encouraging me: “You can do it.” And when an unexpected divorce shattered my heart and my self-confidence, leaving me wondering if I’d ever be able to write—or love—again, I felt Mrs. Hill cheering me on: “You can do it.”
I believed Mrs. Hill then and I believe her now, not because she mouthed platitudes she had learned in How to Handle Students 101, but because she listened to me.
Everybody needs a good listener. The author of Psalm 116 discovered that God is a good listener. To have someone listen to him changed the psalmist’s life.
Listening is not something that most of us do well. We are easily distracted by cell phones shrilling, Twitter “tweets” chirping, and the voice or bell that signals the arrival of e-mail in our in-boxes. Many of us find it easier to incline our ears to our electronic gadgets than to the humans with whom we live.
Advent is a time to rediscover the lost art of listening, first to God, and then to our families and friends, co-workers and students. Listening is a priceless gift, one that will outlast all the toys and trinkets under the Christmas tree. By listening, I am saying, “You are important to me.” By listening, I just might change someone’s life.
They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.
Whoever wrote Psalm 115 wasn’t thinking of students—he was thinking of little idols made of silver and gold—but he surely could have been! Even though my students have ears, many times they do not hear a word I say—or else they practice highly selective listening!
“J-Boy, get back in your seat!” I say to one of my most active students at least three dozen times a day. I wish I were exaggerating, but I’m not. (Does this kid have rocks in his ears?)
“We did problems like this together ten minutes ago,” I say to T-Girl, as she asks me—again—how to round numbers to the nearest hundred.
“If you’re talking, you’re obviously not reading,” I say—for the third time—during the daily ten-minute period of SSR (Silent Sustained Reading).
And then there is the phrase I use so often during the day that I sometimes get sick of hearing myself say it: “How many times do I have to tell you ____ [fill in the blank]?”
Two of my students do have hearing impairments—but what about the other twenty? What’s their excuse? I’ve come to the conclusion that they are like the idols of silver and gold, contemned by the psalmist: They have ears, but do not hear.
Lest I become too smug, however, I need to ask myself: How’s my hearing? Am I listening for the voice of the Spirit throughout the day?
Do I hear the Spirit telling me to be gentle with the child who heard his mother getting beat up—again—last night?
Do I hear the Spirit telling me to be patient with the child for whom math is a struggle, and who may need to have a concept explained and illustrated fifteen—or more—times until she finally “gets” it?
Do I hear the Spirit telling me to figure out ways to get these kids out of their seats and on their feet, because once the bottom goes numb, so does the mind?
Am I able to hear the almost imperceptible whispers of God throughout the day?
Advent is the season of preparing a place for the Holy One in my life. One of the ways I can do that is by listening to the Spirit speaking to me through the actions of my students.