Sunday, November 23, 2014

CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL: A moment of classroom defiance, with good results

By AMY NEWMARK, Chicken Soup for the Soul | 8/1/2014

On her first day as a new professor, Elynne Chaplik-Aleskow faced a challenge to her authority. At the start of class, she asked the students to remove their hats. All complied except one young man. She repeated her request, this time to him directly. She was shocked when he said, flatly, “No.” As Elynne wrote in her story “The Hat,” published in our book on turning negative situations into positive ones, this was a crucial moment for her as a professor. Her reaction could shape the dynamic of the class for the rest of the semester. She kept calm and told the student, Mark, to see her after class.

In their brief meeting, she asked him earnestly if there was a reason he had to keep his hat on. He said there wasn’t and then took it off. The encounter puzzled Elynne. Mark didn’t seem the defiant type, and from that day forward he was obedient and a good student. Elynne simply filed the episode away and treated Mark as she did any other student.

On her first day as a new professor, Elynne Chaplik-Aleskow faced a challenge to her authority. At the start of class, she asked the students to remove their hats. All complied except one young man. She repeated her request, this time to him directly. She was shocked when he said, flatly, “No.” As Elynne wrote in her story “The Hat,” published in our book on turning negative situations into positive ones, this was a crucial moment for her as a professor. Her reaction could shape the dynamic of the class for the rest of the semester. She kept calm and told the student, Mark, to see her after class.

In their brief meeting, she asked him earnestly if there was a reason he had to keep his hat on. He said there wasn’t and then took it off. The encounter puzzled Elynne. Mark didn’t seem the defiant type, and from that day forward he was obedient and a good student. Elynne simply filed the episode away and treated Mark as she did any other student.

The class, which was a requirement, involved public speaking, which was a challenge for Mark. He had multiple sclerosis, which impeded his speech. Nevertheless, he performed well in the class and was even responsible for one of the class’s most memorable moments: a speech about stem cell research and how it could help people suffering from his condition.

At the end of the semester, Mark asked to speak to Elynne after class, just as they’d done at the beginning. He asked her if she remembered the incident with the hat — he wanted to explain. He’d disobeyed because he was mortified by the idea of speaking in front of the class and he’d hoped she would kick him out. Now he wanted to thank her. She had given him the benefit of the doubt and the chance to overcome one of his great fears. A few years later, he emailed to tell her that he had recently performed some of his poetry at an open mic night, something he never would have done without her support.

•••

Judith Morton Fraser’s yoga teacher told the class to do handstands. Judith was terrified. She hadn’t done a handstand in 47 years, and she’d been a dancer then. As the teacher insisted everyone could do it, Judith felt that this was karmic payback for all of those times she’d urged her daughter to try something new and scary when she was a kid, as she wrote in her story “Be Careful What You Tell Your Children,” for our book on mothers and daughters.

When Judith’s daughter was young, she had been nearly overwhelmed by stage fright before a performance, but Judith had urged her on, saying: “Just try. Do what you can.” Another time, she’d been afraid to try a walkover, a gymnastics move. It involved a handstand, followed by a back bend and then flipping up into a standing position. Judith had seen the fear in her daughter’s eyes as she prepared to do it, but Judith urged her on anyway. Once she got up the nerve, Judith’s daughter was able to do it, but she might not have tried without the encouragement from her mom: “You can do it. I know you can. Just try.”

Now the yoga teacher was saying the same words to the class. She told everyone to pair off so they could help each other get upright. Judith stayed near the back of the room, thinking about sneaking off so she wouldn’t have to try. But then the teacher approached; apparently she would be Judith’s partner. “You can do it, Mom. I know you can,” the woman said, and Judith felt obliged to try. It would have been terribly hypocritical to bow out now after all those years of telling her daughter, who happened to be the yoga teacher, to try even when she was afraid. With her daughter’s help, and despite her fear of embarrassment, Judith kicked her feet off the ground and managed to stay upright in a handstand. Apparently, her daughter had been right. She could do it. “You have to be careful what you tell your children,” Judith wrote. “The words may come back to haunt you.”

Syndicated by Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing, online at www.chickensoup.com

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