Act of conversation

Today, I relieved for a colleague in  her Advisory class. At our Big Picture school, Advisory is where the same group of students with the same teacher for four years learn, pursue interests, go on excursions, present exhibitions, find internships and much more. It’s a group of kids who spend a lot of time together, around 12 hours per week. It’s a group that ‘know each other’. Back to my relief …

I was left no notes what to do with them. It happens, no dramas. I got the students to find a person or two they usually don’t talk to, interact with, and “spend 10 minutes in their company, talking”. Students were not allowed to use any digital technology (phone, laptops) and interaction with anyone other than their partner(s).

Well, this was awkward… It took about 10 minutes to cajole pairs and threes to even sit together. Conversations were hard to get going, so I suggested they talk about something they have in common. “It doesn’t have to be deepest, darkest secrets. Keep it safe. School, teachers (‘best ever’ or ‘worst ever’), pets … whatever, but something you share”. We got going, eventually. And it was fascinating to watch.

Body language was almost more telling than the words. There were little tears of discomfort. A few migrant kids clearly missing the local vernacular, disconnecting and looking up to me to help. But then some of the kids I least expected to interact did so. A couple of rough and tough boys genuinely tried to include the most fluent of talking and high-achieving, social girls, when with friends, who sat there quietly and almost stunned to be talking to this rag tag bunch. Small pockets of conversation everywhere, I simply walked around I tried to stoke things a little. Left to their own to figure out, fifteen minutes isn’t going to kill anyone.

For the last fifteen, they were allowed to go back to whomever they wanted to talk to. The “no exclusion, no tech” rule still on. Aaah, a sigh of relief for many. They talked, a few boys played arm wrestle while talking and expanding their energy in different ways. All good, safe ground. 

For the last part of the lesson, we debriefed a bit. We acknowledged how awkward, even difficult it must have been for some in this class to sit with ‘a stranger’. We reflected on the fact that we (well, this group) spend so much time together yet know very little of the person next to them. We noted the fact that in our lives, we will often be asked to interact, work with people we dislike and how incredibly childish is to think or hope that may not happen. We nodded that conversation, not the necessarily a ‘functional’ here-is-food-or-danger one, is a very basic and uniquely human thing. It is tricky, complex, hard, but ultimately a great way for us not to feel alone. On that, we recognised that we are social animals and that solitary cell is one of the worst punishments for a reason.

It was fascinating, a bit sad, revealing – but then not so either. It exposed how caught up we are in our individualist(ic) act, how hard we find to share something (not in a prophylactic social media way) in the flesh, unmediated, un-purposeful to our own goals, ambitions and perhaps fears. It touched on the increasing difficulty of seeing Other as a human being, not a ‘doing’, useful to us in some way. I didn’t share this last part with the kids but if we repeated this exercise long enough, I’m sure we’d peel open lots of layers. And I think we would all benefit from it.

I left the students with a great line by a colleague I heard yesterday: “Be nice to people. Not because they are or may be nice to you but because YOU are nice.”

We’ll see… 

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