I heard a story today and I think it’s worth sharing. Here’s my attempt at retelling it:
Quick Background before we begin: The original teller is an accomplished swimmer, works as a lifeguard, and teaches swim lessons at a local pool. He’s a thoughtful and kind 16 years old. He can be a bit distracted at times and he is incredibly curious. We’ll call him Andy today.
Andy was having a rough day. He’s been having a few rough days lately, but this one was special.
The other day at the pool there’d been a “fecal incident” with one of the younger kids, so they had to push up the chlorine level in the pool to a ph value somewhere near 13 in order to prevent people from getting sick. The chemicals made his eyes so red that when he got home his mom accused him of being high. Add to that his children’s year-old swimming class in which every single student seemed out to get him by complaining, trying to swim away, and generally not listening to him. (A multi-hour block with six 8-10 year-olds in a swimming pool would probably get to anyone even on a good day.) Beyond all this work related difficulty Andy has been having some issues in his personal life that are just plain frustrating.
With all of that working in concert against him Andy finished his swimming class frustrated, tired, and generally just feeling down to the point where he just zoned out in the locker room lost in his own head. In walks Paul. Paul is a disabled kid (somewhere around 12 years old. Maybe he’s autistic, maybe he has downs syndrome. Andy isn’t quite sure) and he’s pretty regularly around the pool. Andy knows him, but doesn’t usually have much to say to Paul.
“Hi Andy. Do you like Angry Birds?”
“What? Oh, hi Paul. Umm… I guess so…” Andy pretty deep in his own head and tried to ignore Paul, but Paul wouldn’t have it.
They talked about Angry Birds for a bit. Maybe a minute or two, but no more than five minutes. Paul was clearly pretty excited about the game and happy to have someone to talk to. Andy was kind of half talking and half still in his own head.
Andy interrupted with, “Hey Paul? … Are you happy?” Now Andy meant: is Paul happy in general. Is he a happy person? Andy wasn’t quite sure if Paul understood the nuance, or if Paul thought Andy was asking if he was happy in that moment.
Regardless of Paul’s interpretation he immediately and emphatically answered: “of course! You’re awesome Andy!” and then Paul left as inexplicably as he’d entered.
I asked Andy what he thought about the interaction and he broke into a huge grin. He said that Paul’s affirmation of Andy’s awesomeness turned his day around and he started to feel better. He was happy that he didn’t just blow Paul off, which would have been pretty easy to do.
I then asked him if he thought he had any impact on Paul. He didn’t really think so. He’d just talked about Angry Birds for a second. It’s not like he’d gone out of his way.
That’s when I told him the story of Renata, and how a simple note I’d written had a larger impact on her life than I’d expected. Andy didn’t think much of it at first, but Paul really meant it when he told Andy he was awesome. Having worked with many people with a range of developmental disabilities, I can tell you that most of the time people don’t take a moment and talk about Angry Birds. I would conjecture that most of the time, people hear Paul say something unexpected and either ignore him, blow him off, or (hopefully not, but I try to be realistic) tease him for it.
Andy did a very simple thing. He treated Paul like a regular human being and took his question at face value. Two minutes talking about Angry Birds was all the effort required. That’s all it took to brighten the days of two people. It made me think of how I treat the more socially awkward students I have. The students who, at the wrong time, say unexpected things.
Do I blow them off when they say these things, or do I take the time to honor their ideas and treat them like a human being? I’d like to think that I honor them more often than I blow them off, I don’t have any evidence. Moving forward I will be more mindful and I will choose to honor them more frequently.
The next time someone asks you if like Angry Birds take a moment and have that conversation. You have the time. Even if it’s awkward and uncomfortable at first, someone might think you’re awesome for doing it.