The Usual Suspects Revisited by Provost Bill Bussey
When I was in sixth grade, my teacher Mr. Brooks announced to the class that he wanted to ask each of us a question in private. He stated that he would be waiting outside in the hallway, and with no more explanation, he left the room and closed the door behind him. Was he trying to find out who hid the school’s piano in the gym’s storage room? I knew there had been a growing concern among adults about foul language being used during recess. Maybe that. Were they trying to track down who nailed Mrs. York’s Cadillac with a snowball the previous morning? I thought I was going to throw up.
One by one kids left the room, and no one returned. Those who had nothing to worry about couldn’t wait to find out what Mr. Brooks wanted to know. They were excited and eager to help him out in any way they could. The rest of us, a handful of boys, were dying a thousand deaths attempting to whittle down our lives to the hard truth. Those of us on death row eventually grew still. It was every man for himself at this point. I didn’t like my odds. At the next opportunity I shot past an eager beaver and out the door.
Outside the room, I froze in my tracks. Two chairs fashioned for second graders paired up ten feet from the doorway. Mr. Brooks, an intimidating figure but otherwise immensely likeable, was scrunched awkwardly on one of them. No one was in the hallway. I sat down next to him and held my breath.
He balanced a legal pad on his lap and held a pen over the pad. Wasting no time, he looked at me earnestly and whispered, “I have a question for you. Ready? Here it is. What is eighteen times seven.”
Immediately, I could feel my toes again. I thought, “ What? That’s it?“ I felt reborn. I couldn’t get away fast enough, but I first needed to reclaim my balance. I made a half-hearted attempt to answer correctly, but in truth, if he had asked me to pronounce my first name, I would have murmured something like “Beelzebub.”
Instead, I searched the universe for any answer that sounded credible, but I couldn’t help but notice that he was really rooting for me to get this right. I hated to let him down, but I wanted out.
I answered, “ Two hundred and fifty-seven.” It sounded plausible.
“No,” he said quietly. He started staring at something on the floor for a bit, and then brought his head up, looked at me, and said, “That’s it. Go eat lunch.”
The next morning Mr. Brooks shared with the class the names of the kids who answered correctly (no surprise which ones they were). He also named a few others, including me, who surprised him by falling short. I wanted to tell him that I, too, was surprised that he didn’t tip us off that no one was in trouble. Didn’t anything about keeping us all in a room for a private interrogation or anything about our feral, mouth-breathing faces, suggest that perhaps an explanation was in order?
As best that I can recall, Mr. Brooks explained that the test was created by a small group of people who believed that they were measuring something of value. Mr. Brooks didn’t seem to place much stock in that assumption. It seemed more like a weak parlor game to him. Still, I found some solace that he thought that I should have answered it correctly. I found greater solace in knowing that I had escaped unscathed. The entire situation had scared the wits out of me and the other usual suspects.
Forty-five years later I’m waiting in my car for a student to finish up with a visit to his therapist. The student had no means of getting there, and he was amenable to the idea of me dropping him off and driving him back to school. It was his third visit, and the previous two times that he had returned to the car, he was flushed and fairly quiet.
This time he slipped quickly into the passenger seat with a deep, deep, “Whoa.” I said to him that I wasn’t looking for any details, but if he wished to get anything off his chest, be my guest.
He replied without any hesitation: “This guy has a way of making me feel that everything is going to be all right.”
I was thrilled for the boy, but almost immediately a gut-check forced me to think to reflect a bit. I thought about the various anxious students, parents, and colleagues with whom I had recently ironed some things out. I knew deep down that did they did not leave the conversation feeling that “everything would be all right.” I thought about those times when I, like my well-intentioned and otherwise terrific Mr. Brooks, got so caught up in managing the task at hand that I failed to pause and think about the bigger picture.
At the risk of sounding Pollyanna-ish, why do most parents, and I include myself, all too often assume the worst before we have fully understood it or overlook the obvious in order to cut to the heart of a matter? Too often many of us come out of the gate with stern language and laser eyes to make sure that all in the room digest what we expect from that moment on. Sure, there are moments in which the firm, direct approach is the way to go. Yet, speaking for myself, and I bet for most of you, the pivotal moments in my childhood were those few occasions when someone had me dead to rights, when I could barely breathe, and then they loosened their grip without explanation. Empathy rarely needs to be spelled out. And by giving me a sliver of well-timed compassion, they also gave me room to realize that “everything could be all right” and that I could make that so. By stepping back just a bit, just enough so I that could reclaim a bit of my dignity, they strengthened the odds for me to be more consistently true to myself and toward those around me.
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