As I walked home today at the end of work, I overheard a man talking to my neighbor. I am a somewhat of an eavesdropper so I tuned in as I was walking by. I am also an eyevsdropper,* so I looked at what they were doing too. The man was leaning up on another neighbor’s car, which had a crate of bottles of Arizona Tea on top of it that were inadvertently left there. I had noticed the Tea bottles there when I left this morning, so they had been there a while. The two were gesturing to the items and were engaged in dialogue. I filled in the details in my head as I approached them, that the man was wondering what to do about the tea, if he could have one, if he should try to locate the neighbor to let them know, and he was soliciting the neighbor’s opinion.
How wrong I was.
As I got closer, I heard the conversation:
Man: Like I was saying, I really have to take a poop. You know how I am!
Neighbor: (unfazed) I know, I know, you’re just like me!
Me (in my head): ABORT! ABORT! Abort eavesdropping!
How many times in a day do we make assumptions that are completely wrong? How many times does this happen in the school system? I admit, I am sometimes guilty of this. I have to constantly check myself when I make assumptions about teachers, parents, and kids. I know I have looked at a kid in a classroom and jumped to conclusions about what’s going on for him. I have assigned motives to teachers and been totally wrong. I have made up reasons why a parent didn’t come to a meeting. I hear assumptions at work all the time about why certain kids aren’t learning. We all fill in the blanks with our own hypotheses.**
I remember a professor at Berkeley cautioned us against our assumptions about people. He used an example about making judgments that I still think about. He said that if we see a fat person eating a donut, we make an assumption that the person is fat because they eat donuts. But what if that is the first donut they’ve had in a year? What if they have actually lost 50 lbs already from their donut-free diet and were treating themselves that day? The point is, you never know.
So next time you are in a meeting at school, try to think of other ways to look at the current situation. If a parent didn’t show for a meeting, there could be hundreds of plausible reasons why not. I can’t assume that the reason I think they didn’t show is the correct one. Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that parents in low-income urban settings have many stressors that can keep them from coming to a meeting. It probably doesn’t help that we educators tend to make appointments for the middle of the day or at 3:30. Could it be they can’t take off work in the middle of the day? Might they even have a car to get to us? Maybe they worked a double shift and couldn’t make it? We cannot assume their not showing is always avoidance.
I mean, if I can be so wrong about what seemed to be a completely obvious interaction, I would be presumptuous to assume that I know the motives behind people’s behavior without probing into other ways to look at the situation. Today’s interaction reinforced my goal of not jumping to conclusions. Today’s interaction also taught me that I have inadvertently been left off of the neighborhood association’s memo list, as I did not get the memo that discussion of fecal matter has now moved into the “Acceptable Neighbor Small-Talk” category.
I think I’ll still stick to platitudes about the weather.
*What? It could be a word for sneakily looking at people.
**If you are interested in more info about this, the book “Stumbling Into Happiness” byD Daniel Gilbert has a chapter on the “blind spots” we all have, literally, in our visual perception, and in our perceptions of the world.