I still think about something I secretly witnessed one winter afternoon in 1989, to this day, almost every day of my life.
That day, during what was supposed to be a board-game-filled indoor recess, I peered through a crack in the classroom accordion divider, mesmerized by what was happening in the adjacent room.
“Libby! Come here! Check out this teacher training!” I no-doubt spit across a room full of kids, somewhere between blowing my nose and shoving my too-big glasses back up my sweaty face. Libby barely looked up from her “Girl Talk” playing cards. It’s a wonder that I didn’t have more friends back then.
On that day, to my curiosity’s delight, all of the Wales Elementary second grade teachers were huddled around a gigantic television on wheels, staring at a most-interesting picture plastered on the screen.
A woman’s voice on the VHS told the teachers, in a jarringly friendly southern accent, “Just try. Come on, you’all. Just tell me what it is you SEE in this photo. Can’t see it yet? Just try harder.”
The women stood with their hands on their corduroy hips and scratched their permed heads. Mrs. Kasmarik adjusted her red plastic-rimmed glasses. What the %#*@ was this a picture of?
“You’all! Try HARDER!” Growled the voice from the television. “NOW! Come ON! Look at it more CAREFULLY! HARDER! Come on! Just LoOK at it! What’s WRONG with you’all? You can’t see it yet?! Try HARDER!”
The booming voice jolted me so abruptly that my LA Gears started lighting up. I thought I saw a little sweat glistening below Miss Rooney’s aqua net tower-o-bangs.
There was an awkward pause while no one spoke and only this photo remained on the screen:
I held my breath and stared through the plaster accordion, watching the teachers flail, and wondering why won’t she just tell us what the picture is of already!? Oh, the suspense!
And then finally, a now-soft voice broke through the tense anticipation.
“It’s a cow, you’all. A cow.”
The teachers muttered to themselves in their huddle.
Yup, sure enough. Now that she mentioned it, I could see the ears and the snout. I smiled and exhaled.
“Now,” The debutant instructor continued, “I want you’all to remember this experience next time a student is not doing what is expected of him.”
The teachers leaned forward. I thought about the kid who flipped over his desk in anger the week before. He wasn’t doing what was expected of him for sure, so the teacher took away his recess and ice cream party. Simple punishment. What did a cow picture have to do with a kid misbehaving?
The woman on the video continued: “Most people want to see the cow. The want to please the instructor. They want to know that they are capable and competent. Did you want to decipher what was in th picture?”
I nodded along with the teachers in solidarity.
“Then why didn’t you’all see the cow?” The woman purred sweetly. Then she answered her own question. “You didn’t see the cow because you didn’t have an ounce of direction; you didn’t know where to even begin; AND because my screaming at you made you feel too flooded and flustered to think clearly.”
This was true. My LA Gears had just stopped blinking. Miss Roony wiped the sweat from her brow.
“Now. What if I assumed that it was my job to meet you where you are, even if you are lost and overwhelmed, and guide you from there? What if I were to, as your teacher, notice that you are getting especially disillusioned, and take that as a cue to explain that there are ways to calm down because when you feel constantly flooded with frustration, it’s normal to not think clearly? What if I then explained to you’all that you’all were searching for a large mammal and that some people find success by scanning the photo in search of a snout?” The voice paused for the trainees to consider her rhetorical question.
“What if I made a habit of recognizing that some of the kids in my classroom feel stressed- like someone is screamin’ at them and they can’t do anything right- ALL the time, and it just takes the tiniest additional pressure to make them shut down or explode?” The teachers muttered again to themselves, and I thought about the kid who threw his desk after the teacher reminded him six times to use his numberline. Come to think about it, it seemed like he didn’t know how to use his numberline or even how to explain that he was confused.
“And,” the Southern woman concluded, “It also just takes the tiniest moment of meeting a kid where he is cognitively and emotionally, to help him learn.”
And that, in my eavesdropping curiosity, was my first introduction to the cognitive and emotional effects of complex trauma (repeated exposure to stress, usually relationally, and usually in early childhood) AND three of the most central tenets of human motivation and therapy:
1) people want to succeed.
2) if they aren’t succeeding (or aren’t even trying), they lack direction, clarity, and self-assuredness (worth, competence, autonomy, power, hope, adequacy).
3) criticism, belittling, and pressure diminish direction, clarity, and self-assuredness; guidance heightens them.
Just something to think about, from the therapist who thinks this seems simple enough until you realize that it even applies to 10 year olds who lie because they lack verbal cognitive resources and am the ability to manage-fear enough to explain the complicated truth. Or until you realize it applies to husbands (or wives in my case) who will neglect to bring the trash in from the car even more so if he is walking on eggshells awaiting constant criticism. Or you have to acknowledge the baffling fact that your kid has no idea what “clean your room” entails until you make him a step by step chart with pictures… And until you have to implement empathy and guidance, yes even with YOURSELF, despite everything inside of you wanting to scream, “Try harder, idiot!”