“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou
One of our runs last week took us past the high school where I used to teach. In fact, many of our runs go past the high school. My hubby and I begin most of our runs from the local rec center, located directly behind the school.
Passing the building often reminds me of my time spent there, but today, I was not thinking about my tenure as a teacher. I was remembering a time, in a different high school not too far away, when I was a student.
I was one of those students who spent every free moment of her day in the art room. I took as many art classes as my schedule would allow, and I spent every homeroom period, study hall, and club period there.
I used to think I wanted to be an artist until I realized I just didn’t have enough talent. Oh, I was creative, no doubt about it; I just didn’t have the eye-hand coordination necessary to convert my ideas into reality.
Looking back from a lens of many years, I now understand it wasn’t actually the art that I loved, it was my art teacher.
Miss Miller (not her real name) had been teaching art for many years when I arrived in high school. She was extremely overweight, wore her thin brown hair in a long ponytail, and perpetually smelled of cigarette smoke.
In all fairness to her, she may not have been a smoker. The faculty room at my high school in those pre-cigarette ban days was filled with a blue haze. You couldn’t see the far side of the room when you opened the door.
Miss Miller made everyone feel welcome in the art room, whether you were a budding Picasso or a talentless hack, like me.
There was just something about Miss Miller that made you feel good about yourself, like you were the only person in the whole world who really mattered. She immediately made her students feel special and at ease; we all felt like we belonged there, at a time in our lives when we were searching for a place to fit in.
What is it about some people that just being in their presence makes you feel like the best version of yourself?
Apparently, the way you make others feel is a measurable part of your personality, called the “affective presence“, your emotional fingerprint. My art teacher had a remarkably positive affective presence.
You might think that extroverts have the best ability to welcome others into their world, but Miss Miller was certainly not an extrovert in a life-of-the-party kind of way.
If a project went off the rails, she was there with a comforting word and a method to salvage the disaster.
She had a wonderful eye for detail. I remember one of my projects, in particular, an attempted sculpture of a seabird that did not turn out very bird-like. I was picturing sculpting the bird just at the moment it touched down on one foot, light as a feather. What I got was a heavy albatross who could not have flown if he was attached to 20 helium balloons.
I had spray painted the monstrosity gold during a light drizzle in the courtyard of our school. She suggested some tweaks I could make to the shape of the bird to improve his aerodynamics, then complimented me on the texture of the finish, the gold paint pockmarked with tiny rain droplets.
She made it clear through her language, both body and verbal, that she was open to real contact with you. She looked you right in the eye during conversations, turned to face whomever she was speaking to, and listened intently.
Oh, how I wish I had Miss Miller’s listening skills. No matter how busy she was, Miss Miller would stop what she was doing to hear what you had to say. She was the embodiment of theologian Paul Tillich’s command, “The first duty of love is to listen.”
If I wanted to describe a concept for a project, I always felt as if the spotlight of her attention was solely and directly on me. As I described my intentions, she would smile, nod encouragingly, and give me suggestions on how I could accomplish my goal.
I need to adopt Miss Miller’s example of how to be a good listener. Sometimes, as I am having a conversation with someone, I have the presence of mind to tell myself “Shut up and listen“, but often I get carried away with the importance of what I am saying, and forget.
My former art teacher wasn’t just listening to her students with her ears and her mind, she listened with her heart to what we were saying. She listened with compassion and empathy, aware of our fragile egos and dreams still in the early stages of formation.
That is how I want to listen to others, with sensitivity, and in fellowship. I want to learn from different perspectives and validate the feelings of others. Most of all, I wish to honor the most important lesson I learned from my art teacher so many years ago.
“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger”. – James 1:19
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