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The Common Good

I don’t remember her name now, but I do remember her struggle and frustration. I remember our connection. She was a 9th grader reading at an elementary level and I had been asked to test her. In my experience of testing hundreds of students, I became very clear that reading ability and intelligence were not necessarily linked. What I had found was reading, and any type of learning for that matter, is an issue of individual diligence, patience, and self-acceptance--skills not often explicitly taught in schools or families. We first met when she arrived at the door of the cramped room where I was to administer the test. I greeted her and asked her to sit down. She took a seat across the table from me, arms folded, she looked around nervously and unsure.

I greeted her, introducing myself with my warmest smile. I asked, “how are you doing today?”

She replied, “Not good—I don’t know why I have to take this stupid test!”

“Well, it might seem stupid right now, but the truth is this test will help your teachers and I understand how we can best help you improve your reading ability.”

She rolled her eyes again, her agitation filling the room, stating “I don’t care about reading! It’s boring and its stupid!”

And by default, I got the feeling that she was implying, that I to was stupid too for trying to test her!

For a moment, I began to step over what was happening in the room, proceeding with the test, but instead I stopped what I was doing in my role as teacher, and instinctively brought my attention into my heart. In an instant, I noticed my chest was tight, muscles tense and my breath shallow. I intentionally took in a deep breath, making the space to be present to my physical response, the emotion in my body and mind. I silently inquired within: “what is here for me? What is this experience of life right now—the good, the bad, the ugly?” Surprisingly, what arose was hurt, anxiousness, and fear. I sat with it, there in the room like a small child, without a word. All in seconds, a sense of compassion flashed into the center of my awareness—an acceptance of the feelings there. And then, just as sudden—like an Etch—a—Sketch, my mental screen went blank with the tilt of my head. All that was left, was a complete awareness of the moment, in the room, and I was able to see, to understand, the student sitting in front me without a word. This understanding was not with my intellect, but with my heart and the grace granted by wisdom. With a flash, I realized she was the one who was hurt, anxious, and afraid. In that same, flash, her energy shifted—she softened and with a communication beyond words, she knew I had seen her, not to judge, but to allow. She then allowed me to complete the testing and she went back to class.

The connection granted me with this student was not the product of intelligence—at least not in a book smart sort of way. It was not a product of thinking, strategizing, or intellectualizing. It was a product of being present with myself, allowing my own experience without judgment, so I could then see her and what she carried without judgment, but with compassion. This is the same understanding that allowed her to start fresh, to try again, and to know that what I wanted for her was good. This is mindfulness in action.

There are many intelligent people in this world who fail to understand how their thoughts, words, and actions affect others. Intelligence is not just a matter of being book smart, or understanding complex theories of mathematics, or receiving a 4.0 as I had been led to believe most of life, but being open to the nuances of emotion and our connections to others. Being intelligent is not in opposition to kindness, respect, responsibility, or safety, but functions in service to these basic human values for the common good. These very same values having shaped the study of morals, ethics, and philosophy through the ages, serve as the foundation of the field and practice on which our democracy was built. The most elementary part, but essential to the fabric, of our society is built on empathy most often demonstrated in basic manners, politeness, protocols, consideration and decency. Intelligence, when tempered with wisdom is the lamp that allows us clear sight which leads us to clear action. True understanding allows us the ability to see our shared humanity and carry ourselves in ways that honor our common good.

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