Every morning during the summer, myself, along with my colleagues, speak to a group of strangers. They are the students beginning their orientation to college life and their parents sit at tables behind their offspring. I have been doing this for a long time now and this year looks like it will be my last being the director of our unique support program, as I contemplate retirement.
Although the faces change, the body language of these summer groups usually don’t. They are in a completely new environment, unsure of what the day might bring and who is worth even listening to. They are guarded, presenting walls of social protection. Why not? Nobody in these sessions know our staff or the people sitting around them.
I am always presented with a challenge during my talk. Do I give the ‘safe’ talk of a college administrator? They will certainly get many of those along the way. Or, do I take down my own shield and tell them the truth – the truth of who I am, what they will probably experience, the truth that we all need people, even if we act as if we don’t. The thing is, you can’t give the ‘real talk’ half way. It is all or nothing.
Sometimes, I will sit back with the parents before the presentation begins. They assume I am another parent. Some seem to assume that I am that obnoxious person who sits next to you on a long airline trip. I think if they had headphones with them, they would put them on. I think a lot of people wear headphones not to listen to music, but to protect themselves from engaging with strangers.
I have also noticed over the course of my life that these walls between strangers quickly come tumbling down when faced with an unexpected life threatening situation. People suddenly talk to one another. They need each other. I saw this in 1989 as I was in a hotel room in Santa Clara, California when a huge earthquake hit. People, who moments earlier would ignore my presence, suddenly became very needy people. I thought I might die in that hotel on that evening as the freeways and bridges collapsed in the Bay Area. I stayed in the hotel and helped some people during that time – the same ones who would have ignored me, and others, moments before – as I also was ignoring them.
I’ve seen this phenomena on airplanes too – when passengers go through tremendous turbulence…the really scary kind. Again, people begin talking to one another…finding their humanity. Headphones off. I certainly saw much more of this too during those hours when I was stuck in a small park with a group strangers-and neighbors who were basically strangers – during the fire last November in Paradise, California. People who just hours before might have been cursing the neighbors for their driving habits, now formed a supportive community. At the extreme end of all this wall elimination, people will even sacrifice their lives to save a stranger. And yet, we keep building up those social walls around ourselves when presented with an unfamiliar situation with strangers. We even build them in our familiar neighborhoods with longtime neighbors.
These observations and experiences make it nearly impossible for me to give those summer morning talks in any way but honest and authentic. It is risky, for sure. But,… who wants to hear just some more crap? Similar is how I prefer bloggers who don’t always present perfect little solutions for the complications of being human…beings, I much rather read real or hear real, even when it is messy. The Ted Talk formula with the gestures, postures, perfectly timed pauses and side glances remind me of that old Abraham Lincoln robot at Disneyland. The words are there, but something just ain’t right.
So this morning, what was my message to these new college students? I told them to make every day count. There are no throwaway days. Also, forget planning and start preparing. Prepare for those unforeseen challenges and opportunities. I told them we don’t refer to them as students, but as learners. The word student is often used without respect, more of a grouping, dare I say, like a herd. Recognizing them as learners makes it easier for us to remember them as individuals on their own unique journey. I suggested that the self-made person is more myth than truth. Most of us have been helped along the way. I told them it was a privilege to be part of their lives. I told them how much the university meant to me and my family. I also asked them if they liked the new shirt I had on? In other words, I told them the truth and I only could do it as my real self.
Now what will I say to tomorrow morning’s group? I won’t be sure until I get in front of them, but I am going to try to keep it real. There is no need to wait for a common crisis to be my real self.