Nothing is worse than not having a driver’s license as a teen. Other than having to wait around for your mom to pick you up. Which is my life right now. Waiting. Watching every other jerk get picked up from driver’s training. They’ve all been scooped up by their timely parents. All except me. And, John, some other kid I barely know. Maybe I can talk to him to kill time.
* * * *
The desks are lined up in three columns facing forward – each column with two desks, side-by-side. The lights are dropped low. The music is mellow and somber.
Students are floating in. They look at me in that typical, quizzical “What-weirdness-do-we-have-today?” Their biggest concern is where they are supposed to sit – Wherever we want!? Please!?
It doesn’t matter where they start. In a couple minutes I will mix them up – pair them with someone they do not know well. Today’s lesson is all about conversation – principles of creating good, even life-changing, conversations with anyone.
* * * *
John is the character left out in books and movies and history. He is not an athlete – nor a musician – nor any image of the “high profile” teen. If anything, he contributes to the homeostasis of high school : a target of more than a few aggressors. He doesn’t fit a mold. He doesn’t “look like us.” And, here I am with John with nothing but barren hallways and time.
* * * *
Projected, sober and thick, on my classroom wall is a quotation:
I challenge my students to look for personal meaning in the quotation. WhileMLK Jr. was talking about racial segregation, my students are quick to realize that we all have our own “assumed differences,” seeds of silence that grow into forests of fear and hate.
Now, it’s time for the task.
“For the next hour, you have one goal: Understand the person next to you using conversation.” Students are waiting for the “academic” objective. They will find none.
“The biggest challenge, and request, is that you have a strictly monogamous conversation with this person. Don’t cheat on them by having a conversation with someone else. If the conversation is awkward, it’s because you are choosing to think of it as awkward. In other words, if it feels awkward, it’s because you are being awkward. So don’t. Your time begins now.”
Students give crickety giggles at the mention of awkwardness, and slowly turn to their neighbors. Many conversations look awkward as their eyes dart around the room or to their phones and pauses in conversation look painfully long. They are still unsure how they will speak a whole hour with a complete stranger.
* * * *
I know two things about John:
1. I have had classes with him for the past few years. In these classes I have spoken to him a sum total zero times.
2. He understands grief more than most. John is the lone son of his parents – accompanied by three sisters.
A few years back, his sisters are in their car, en route to school. As they back out the driveway, it happens. I don’t recall exactly what caused it. Some people said the eldest sister leaned down to grab a hair brush from the floor. Regardless, of the cause, we all knew the effect. As the sisters backed up, an oncoming car struck them. All three sisters died. One moment, John has a full family. The next, he is an only child.
* * * *
Some students are relieved when I pause them for the first time – fifteen minutes into their conversations. Our first mini-lesson is about levels of conversation. People typically are at one of three levels when they converse.
Level 1: “Talks of Weather” – Safe, external things like weather, sports, television. Gossip is among the favored genres of Level 1. It’s easy because we can chat without any risk of revealing ourselves.
Level 2: “Talks of the Head” – Personal information. Where we live/grew up. Our hobbies and interests. The plot of past memories. It’s more revealing than Level 1, but still pretty safe.
Level 3: “Talks of the Soul” – The authentic core of our identity. Memories and the emotions attached. Our hopes, dreams, fears, aspirations, needs. Religion. Politics. Here we are vulnerable and genuine.
After eliciting examples of “topics” from each level, we go deeper.
In most of our conversations, we stick to Level 1 because its safe and easy. In long elevator rides, we break the silence with, “Geez . . . these elevators take forever!” or “Isn’t the weather something?” We pass colleagues in the hallway with a quick, “Ohhh Mondays. How long until Friday?” At lunch, it’s “Can you believe what she’s wearing!?” or “Did you hear about what happened to him in 2nd hour?”
We discuss research showing correlations between “deep talking” and “happiness.”
As a class, we debate if it’s okay to dive into Level 3 conversations with strangers. Students laugh when I share about a student who, when I casually asked her how her day was, she announced, “Not good. I’m pregnant!” freezing my feet and my mouth instantly.
I then offer a counter-example about a group of students who once asked strangers, “What has been your biggest regret in life?” A response from a sixty-year old man drops the gravity even deeper in the room.
“My biggest regret is not telling the woman of my dreams that I loved her. I never said it, and she got away.” Gravity drops even deeper in the atmosphere of the room.
It’s time for the next phase.
“I cannot require you to go Level 3 – nor even say what would be Level 3 for you. But, remember: your goal is to understand one another. Converse at your own discretion and enjoy the conversation.” I simply observe, letting the conversations happen.
* * * *
I don’t recall what lead me to make the decision – whether it was boredom, or curiosity, or the urge to end awkwardness’ weapon of silence. But, I strike up conversation with John. For the next half-hour, I ask about his life, curious to know more about him.
To this day, I don’t remember much of the details. I remember that he loved collecting swords and medieval weapons. He loved the show Highlander. People weren’t always nice to him at school. Although I regret not remembering more of the specific details, I do not regret having a conversation with John that day.
It would be the first and last conversation we ever had.
* * * *
On our next pause, there are looks of incredulity – almost an anger at my stopping deep conversations. We take a quick poll of what levels of conversation we mainly held. Most are at Level 2. Many are at Level 3.
We speak about nonverbals now – the disease of distracting cell phones, the role of eye contact. More importantly, we talk about mindfulness.
Each moment, we are either thinking of our past, our present, our future – or our elaborate, daydreaming fantasies. We will bounce quickly between these “places,” oftentimes not even paying attention to what someone else is saying.
“How often do we ‘go through the motions’ of a conversation without any attention to what is actually being said? Ever agreed to do chores for your parents, without remembering the conversation?” Students acknowledge with laughter. “Some of you have become masters at the ‘I’m-nodding-and-grunting-noises-to-fake-listening-so-I-can-keep-texting.” More laughter. And yet, we can’t stand when someone won’t listen to us – when our parents or friends or teachers are just thinking of what they want to say next, rather than rather than listening.”
The new challenge: Stay present. Students ease back into their conversations.
* * * *
Stretching between our high school and the vocational-tech center is about twenty miles of rural backroads, straight-shot stretches with corn and blueberry fields staring from the fringes. It’s no secret that students attending the tech center take their time leaving school, only to speed to make their tech classes on time. Most know that keeping to the backroads is the surest way to avoid speeding tickets.
It’s a couple years after I had that solitary, insignificant conversation with John. He and three friends are halfway to the tech center, John riding passenger. Railroad tracks cut across many of these country roads, raising natural speed bumps. Maybe what happened next was due to careless teenage obliviousness. Maybe it was due to careless teenage bravado.
The news reports stated that the car hit the steep hump of the train tracks at close to 70 mph. As the car scraped and bounced on the landing, it rolled, bursting into flames. The driver crawls over 100 yards to the nearest house, covered in 2nd and 3rd degree burns. The three passengers do not survive.
John dies that day.
In the span of three years, his parents lose all four children.
* * * *
Our final check-in is the most important. It is in this final moment of “feedback” that I tell them the story of John – of his sisters, of our conversation, of his passing.
“There is an assumption we make in every conversation. We assume that each conversation is just a single plot on an infinitely progressing graph of human interactions. We assume we will always have more talks. Any single conversation, though, could be our last.
What if we approached every conversation with family, with friends, with strangers as though it could be our last? How would the topics, the intentions, the responses change?
This isn’t to mean that we should pour out our souls in small talk with the cashier at the grocery store. But, to treat each minor moment as a gift not guaranteed by life’s unpredictability could make a critical difference, triggering us to be present, to avoid trifling small talk, to talk with someone and not at someone.
Every now and then I think about John, especially about that one day. I think of things I wish I would have said and questions I should have asked. I will never get that opportunity again. John taught me that in one simple conversation.
Your assignment is simple: Before tomorrow, have a conversation with someone and appreciate the possibility that it may be your last.”
The room is different now. Many thank their partners hugs. To this day, it is the only lesson in which I have ever received a “thank you for that lesson” from students. More than a few email messages of gratitude, remarking that they had deeper conversations with a classmate than they had ever had with family or friends.
Life is a gift not guaranteed. Share that gift through conversation that matters – with students, with colleagues, with family and friends. Sometimes the greatest lesson is just a reminder that each interaction can be a lesson and that each lesson could be our last.
Thank you, John, for teaching me that.