Tuesday, August 17, 2010

First Day of School

I wonder how many books, essays or stories have been written about the first day of school? Probably a daunting number, but no matter.  That's what was on my mind today as I was walking and that's what I want to think about here in this out-loud, online kind of a way that is a blog.

Today was the first day of school here. School buses were out early stopping traffic to pick up their passengers clad in shiny new everything - clothes, shoes, faces, book bags.  Everything.  As I watched those kids board those buses, I started thinking about all the first days of school that have been a part of my life and all the emotions that accompanied them.  And so I write.

That real 'first day of school' - the one with no prior experience of anything having to do with school other than what my brothers and mom said - was probably one of the most emotionally charged days of my life.  The pure excitement and joy about a new human experience.  The first steps of independence - of growing up and walking away to do and be without mom's help.  Anything could happen and everything could be accomplished!

Mom has a picture of me walking down the lane to the bus following my brothers like a baby duck with a handkerchief pinned at my shoulder.  I remember it so well... even the embarrassment of that handkerchief.  Climbing on that bus was entering a new world.  There were children of all ages.  A few were my age, obvious by the very wide eyes (and handkerchiefs or notes pinned at their shoulders).  Others ranged in age just like my brothers up through high school.  Even though I had a 16-year-old brother, the teenagers frightened me at first, but ended up being kind and helpful probably remembering their first day of school, too.

Our bus was driven by Charlie who owned a small country store and had been driving a bus almost as long as all the kids on it had been riding to school.  Charlie was kind and strict and everyone on his bus knew his rules and obeyed them so we all felt safe and our parents knew we would be okay.  I recently heard that Charlie finally retired at the age of 80. 

I wonder if anyone drives a bus anymore for 50 years?

That day was the first day of being in love with teachers and classrooms and circles of kids like me.  There was a snack time with graham crackers and milk, and nap times lying on the floor like little puppies on rugs with the lights dimmed.  Did we sleep?  Could we manage being still long enough?

I couldn't manage being quiet.  I was moved every day for the first I-don't-know-how-many days because of talking.  Well?  Everything and everyone was so interesting and I had something to say! Probably today little people like me are considered attention deficit something and medication is recommended to keep us still and quiet and focused.  Back in the once upon a time of my first days of school my teacher just loved me enough to quietly move me and remind me that talking caused that.  I talked therefore I moved!   A lot.

Then, subsequent 'first days' came into being, bringing sights and smells and sounds that are ancient history now.  Purple print on slightly damp pages being one in particular.  Brand new leather shoes.  Girls in frilly dresses and boys in dungarees.  Children playing red rover and on monkey bars.  I imagine the smell of freshly sharpened pencils and new boxes of crayons are still wafting through the classrooms today, but that may be obsolete soon, too.

I wonder what scents from today's classrooms will be remembered years from now?

And I wonder when it was we started being more worried about what others thought of us than of what we thought of ourselves?

Maybe for me it was when we moved from the house in the country to live in town with my grandmother.  The new school was only blocks away from our house, so we walked to school and even home for lunch because it was assumed that most moms stayed home.  My first day of school there was my scariest because this time everything was new to me, but known to the rest of my classmates.  And I was in a full length cast and on crutches.  That was the first time I remember feeling like everyone was looking at me.  Maybe they were.  Probably they weren't.  May be they all felt like they had something stare-worthy. 

That twisting, tugging, self-conscious phase lasted through middle school when on that first day of school I was more concerned whether the cute boy who sat behind me in home room would notice me (he didn't) than what class I was taking.

I wonder if that kind of preoccupation is the fodder for the life-long dreams of getting half-way through a semester and not remembering what or where the classes were?

Lots of 'first days of school' followed, through high school and, for me, college.  Music will always be a major anchor through those first days;  'War' (Huh! Good God, y'all!), 'You've Got a Friend', Brandy (I didn't say I always liked the songs!) and my all time favorite.... 'Let's Get It On'.......  because by that time, of course, I was.

Then the first days of school were those of my children (not immediately, though from the previous sentence it might appear possible...) and I was the mom waving bravely at the bus keeping the separation tears at bay until the little person I loved most in the world was safely on his or her way.  I wanted Charlie to be driving.  I wanted to pin handkerchiefs to their shirts.

I should have pinned a note to my little boy saying he was NOT a walker because his first day of school ended with him coming through the door having navigated the mile-plus of busy streets and no sidewalks on foot.  I learned what a courageous little man I had and hugged him hard against me, imagining all the things that might have happened but didn't.  Then I learned the touchy role of angry parent with a school system that could determine my child's attitude toward school for the rest of his life.  I trod gently.

I remember watching my pre-teen daughter walking into her middle school for the first time and tugging on the hems and tails of her clothing in obvious self-conscious discomfort.  And I remembered it again.  I remembered thinking I was the one others would be watching critically and determining 'un-cool' before I had a chance to prove myself.  I ached for her.  I wanted to run up and put my arms around her to tell her she was completely beautiful and, more importantly, smart and talented and didn't have anything to be self-conscious about.  I didn't, though, because that would have made it worse.

She wasn't alone.  I watched every other girl her age twisting and tugging and looking to see if anyone was watching.  And I knew there were other moms and dads out there remembering and hurting for their little girls.

And guess what?  My children were 'talkers' too!  Unlike the teachers or my mother from long ago, I knew that talking would NOT be the curse that was impressed upon me.  Their teachers were kindly told that, though I would indeed discuss appropriate contribution in the classroom with my kids, I would never see it as anything but a blessing.  I would always prefer that my children have the confidence and courage to speak out as opposed to sitting and watching silently on the sidelines.  And the teachers couldn't  - and fortunately didn't - disgree!

I wonder if I did the right thing?  I will probably always wonder if I did the right thing when it comes to raising my kids.

So, today was the first day of school and for the first time in my life (almost) I didn't have any connection with it.  My daughter is a college educated woman with a loving husband and no longer tugging on her shirt tails (mostly) and my little walking boy is newly graduated and now commuting to his job in a town more than a thousand miles away from me.  It is an end of an era.  And the tears are close to the surface.

Except.

This past year has been my year of being 4-years-old with nothing to do but wake up and look forward to a fresh, wide-opened day of discovery.  I loved being 4 now as I did then.  It has been a freedom and a joy.  And just as I was excited then about being 5 and looking forward to my first day of school, I am joyfully looking forward to this next great adventure, whatever that may be.

I am, though, entering this next stage with the full knowledge that there will be emotions of every kind to explore along with new ways of being in this world.  There will be fascinating people to know and love as well as so many places yet to explore.  And there is much work to do which I consider to be our love made manifest in this world.  

All this while I am still learning not to tug at my clothes and worry what other people think of me.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Woo is a Strength

The 28 years prior to this last one of me 'being 4' were spent in the belly of corporate America.  To get to the belly, of course, one must be chosen, tested, tasted, consumed then swallowed - sometimes whole.  And once in the belly, the corporation works on digesting the consumed into something useful to the corporation and, many times, unrecognizable to what that 'one' once was. 

This isn't being bitter.  This is just being honest about the experience.

I often wondered, after the many interviews for the various positions starting with the original and then slogging through the 'lateral' moves and the actual promotions that followed, why would they interview me, choose me, place me, then want me to be different?  My manner of 'being' in an interview was to always - always! - be authentic to the best of my ability.  I always figured - and later coached people - that if the interviewer liked who they saw in an interview and ultimately chose that person, no one would ever be disappointed in the hire or the resulting job - not the interview-er or -ee. 

But.

Invariably along the way the message came across 'we love you, now change'.....(there is a play with a similar title and I am not trying to usurp their creative product... it's just what I want to say.)

For a lot of years of my life this message just seemed to go along with the new job.  Once the new position was landed, the newly hired me went through some amazing metamorphosis that included getting 'less good' at what stood out so brightly in the interview.  (Many will recognize this strange tendency for employees to be less admired or heard , I am sure.  It is why consultants are so popular and so well paid and why so many people once they leave their company will be accepted right back as a consultant...probably making more money!)

And that just never made sense to me.  I didn't change.  I didn't embellish to get the job.  I knew I would have to grow to fit a new position, but a learning curve was an expectation of mine that I never thought unreasonable.  It sounds like I am saying no one was ever pleased with my performance, and that is far from being the case.  But there seemed to be a lot of trying to make me into something different -  something un-Ruth.

My loving husband just reminded me that for most of the years I was working my way up the ladder, corporations were trying to diversify; hiring something other than white males.  His comment is very astute.... they were hiring others but hoping for them to fit the same mold.  'It' looked different, but they wanted 'it' to act the same.

My last position -which I loved with a passion - was a training position which went hand in hand with a lot of different kinds of self assessments to be used in the classes that were given ranging on any number of different criteria from leadership style, emotional intelligence, communication style to personality style or conflict resolution style, etc.  You get the picture.

One of the last, hottest assessments we were using looked at what a person's 'strengths' were.  The idea was that working with strengths was a heck of a lot more productive than trying to 'correct' weaknesses and everyone seemed to agree with that!  Books were purchased, tests were taken, personal strengths were identified and workshops were scheduled to look at the individual's strengths to identify how teams were diversified and how best to work with those individual strengths.

The trouble began after the assessments started being taken and results disseminated.  It became quickly apparent that, in the opinion of many 'leaders', there were good strengths - the kind you wanted more of on your team and even considered interviewing for - and bad strengths - the ones that raised eyebrows and were considered risky or questionable.  Sidebar conversations could be overheard (easily) discussing who 'had' which strength and now having the easy answer to why people acted the way they did. 

Now to say that this was completely NOT in keeping with the intentions of the program is to truly understate intentions.

The workshops did let people know strengths could be over-used, which then made them liabilities, but the bottom line was the message that strengths were just that - strengths.  And when one worked to their strengths, really great things could be expected.  And joy. 

My number one 'strength' is identified with the simple, strange word of 'WOO'. 

So, what does it mean, to be strong at 'Woo'?  Allow me to explain further, and I quote; "Woo stands for winning others over."  Strangers aren't scary, in fact they can be enthralling (this was always a problem for my mom!)  A Woo-er loves getting into conversations, making people comfortable, making connections, then moving on.  There aren't strangers, only unmet friends.

Oh, that is me!

I loved getting this assessment!  For the first time I felt like some corporate one out there finally 'got' me!

Unfortunately, Woo was not a popular strength in my particular fold of corporate America, which was made clear in those 'overheard' sidebar conversations.   Managers said they would ask strength questions in an interview and if 'Woo' came up, would avoid it at all costs.  If a team member were struggling, 'Woo' might be the 'well, it figures' diagnosis, but with no real prescription other than weeding it out.  Jokes were made at the expense of 'Woo'-types, not realizing that a 'Woo' was in the room.

My strength started to become something I wouldn't divulge unless it was absolutely necessary.  Kind of like having herpes - if you were just flirting, nobody needs to know, but if you are going any further, better say something. 

Then I started doing my own self-assessing. I began to embrace this identified strength and listen to my heart and not the murmurings of others.  If others have a problem with someone like me, maybe it isn't my problem.   

Everything that made me who I am - the authentic Ruth that I had been praying for all these years - isn't a problem.  I am the person who loves to walk into a room and meet everyone.  I am the person who believes friends are around each and every corner. I am the person who understands that people want most to be seen - really seen - in this world and go about seeing them and loving what I see.  I am the person who listens - and hears - what others have to say and generally remember it after.  My family calls me 'The Governor' because we are always the last ones leaving church.

I never learned why my company tended to sideline 'Woo's, because I determined that being authentic was more important than being corporately acceptable.  On one of my last evaluations the comment was made that my  'enthusiasm can be overwhelming'.. and it wasn't meant as a strength. 

I am a Woo.

And that is good enough for me.