I’ve been thinking a lot about welcoming and hospitality recently. These concepts are an important component of my job, and IMHO they’re both sorely lacking in large segments of society.
Here’s an anecdote from my past that still has the power to make me go “hmmm” many years later:
When I first went back to work from being a SAH mom, I was a special education para-educator for 2 1/2 years. That was long enough for me to realize that being in a classroom but NOT being in charge of said classroom was going to drive me mad. So I renewed my teaching certificate and went back to teaching – half time kindergarten.
I taught one year in a school in our neighborhood. Everyone in the school was kind and helpful to the gal who had been out of “the biz” for quite a while. I was sorry when enrollment didn’t require an extra kindergarten class the following year and I was transferred to another building.
I was even more sorry when I got to that other building.
The full-time kindergarten teacher across the hall was a dear, sweet, grandmotherly-type who made me feel valued and welcome.
But the other half-time kindergarten teacher (I’ll call her Glynn), with whom I was required to share a classroom (she would teach mornings and I would teach afternoons)? NOT.
She’d been alone in that classroom for a few years, and truly had an excellent set-up. She’d obviously poured every ounce of her time and a lot of her own money into the room. I was very impressed. And as an incoming stranger, I went out of my way to be very accommodating and NOT demanding.
The one thing that was absent in this gorgeous classroom was a desk for the teacher. Glynn never wanted one. Fine – to each her own. But I truly needed a desk – a home base, a sort of “mission control.” Honestly, I’d never known a teacher who DIDN’T have a desk, so it didn’t seem like an outrageous request.
But Glynn was furious. At our first meeting, she railed at me for a full five minutes about how I was ruining not only her classroom, but her entire life. She didn’t ask to have a “roommate”, and she shouldn’t be required to modify her plans for me.
Let me back up just a bit and say that I am possibly the least confrontational person in the world. Strife makes me break out in hives. As I sat there, feeling like a rain of enemy fire had just been unleashed upon me, I considered what my response to this tirade might be (besides slinking away in tears, to lick my wounds). For a split second I considered firing right back and standing up for myself. I certainly would have been justified.
But a little voice in the back of my mind told me to handle it differently. I recalled a phrase from the bible that has always made me laugh, about “heaping burning coals” upon the head of an antagonist – something along the lines of “turn the other cheek.” I got an image in my head of the burning coals I could pour on Glynn’s head if I reacted in a totally unexpected way. Actually, my thought process was a lot more Machiavellian than Christian, if you want to know the truth.
So when she finished yelling at me (no exaggeration there), I unleashed a huge wave of NICE on her. “Oh, Glynn, this is so terrible for you. The administration is completely in the wrong for forcing you to make room for me. I just feel terrible. This is so unfair. I’d do anything to make this situation easier for you. Let’s just forget the desk and I’ll adjust. I would hate to make things difficult for you.”
Every word was a lie. And coolly calculated to heap huge piles of burning coals and induce killer guilt.
It worked. Glynn immediately apologized. She herself arranged for a desk to be delivered to our shared classroom. And from that moment on she was my best friend in the building.
Perhaps my method was a bit underhanded. But it worked. And the whole scene taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten. No, not the lesson that sneakily pretending to be nice helps you get your own way. That it’s REALLY hard to be the new person in any situation. A kind word, a warm smile, a little extra consideration can mean the difference in feeling like you belong and feeling like you’re a despised interloper.
Every time I’m in the position to welcome new people into a circle, I remember what it felt like to be rejected, and I deliberately choose to “offer the desk.” I think if more people went around giving out desks, the world would be a different place.