A year of inspired insights #5: When reason falls on deaf ears

February 11, 2012

There comes a point in every teacher’s career where he or she is faced with a decision that could alter a student’s future.

Last week I shared a story about Zaina, the first deaf student I taught. A few years later, another deaf student showed up in my course. Kyle was a business student. Like Zaina, Kyle was focussed and determined, with exceptional people skills. Unlike Zaina, he was not multilingual. In fact, he did not know American Sign Language.

Kyle had been sent to an oral/aural school for the deaf. He explained to me that the type of education he had received had focussed on lip-reading, using contextual clues to understand spoken language, capitalizing on any residual hearing abilities and integrating students into mainstream education. Sign language is not used in this approach.

A fourth year business student, Kyle was not excited about the prospect of taking Spanish. It was a requirement of his program and he needed the course in order to graduate. This was not uncommon for students enrolled in certain programs outside the humanities. The difference was, of course, that Kyle was deaf.

He openly confessed that his English grammar knowledge was minimal and that he struggled with concepts around language such as grammar and syntax. He was also open about the fact that he didn’t spell well.

But you could tell, Kyle was sharp. He arrived to class every day dressed like a business student. He lived and breathed business. He had excellent interpersonal skills and a keen sense of how to manage his time and his priorities. He sat at the front of the class and despite his trepidation, he was determined to succeed.

Standing by as a student sinks

Every week he would visit my office during my posted office hours to review his homework and ask questions. He stayed after class to ask for clarification on points he did not understand. He arrived at class early every day, having made an honest, sincere attempt at his homework. Kyle was the epitome of an engaged, interested student. The reality was, he struggled. He struggled so desperately, it was pitiful to watch…

He found it almost impossible to form the sounds of Spanish words. His lack of knowledge about grammar made it hard for him to figure out the mechanics of language. His spelling was worse in Spanish than it was in English. His self-confidence plummeted. Yet, he persevered.

Kyle was a straight-A student whose performance on the first Spanish test of the semester was an undeniable failure. I asked him if he had an advisor in his program who might be able to make an exception for him in terms of the second language requirement of his program.

He shook his head, “I tried,” he said. “They said no. Every student has to meet all the requirements. I even asked if I could take sign language instead, because I thought it would be really useful to me to know it. But they refused that, too. Sign language is a continuing education course, not a credit course. They said that I could take it, but it would not count towards my degree. I still had to take another language that was part of the undergraduate program.”

I sighed and nodded my head. The university was strict about its rigorous program requirements. I thought to myself, “This is lunacy.” Here was a brilliant, engaged, focussed student who, despite his most sincere and eager efforts, was unlikely to pass my course.

If that happened, he would not graduate that year. He would need to repeat the course or try a new language in order to make the language requirement of his program. If that did not work, he would need to transfer into a program with no second language requirement.

It reminded me of the helpless feeling I had as I watched my mother die a few years earlier. Then, there was nothing I could do to prevent her passing. But Kyle was still struggling and still hanging on, if only barely. He still had a chance. I felt compelled to help.

I picked up the phone and made an appointment to speak with the head of program that Kyle was registered in.

When reason falls on deaf ears

Sarah Eaton literacy education keynote speaker Canada Calgary AlbertaAfter shaking hands with the program head, I said, “I’m here about Kyle Smith”.

“He’s one of our best students,” she replied. “… A shining example of what we wish every student would be.”

“I know,” I replied. “But this second language requirement is killing him.”

She nodded. “Yes, I remember that he came to us asking if he could take sign language instead, but there is no credit course in sign language.”

I advocated on his behalf. “It is not like he isn’t trying. This kid comes to class better prepared than any other student in the class. He does all his homework. He even pre-reads the entire chapter before we start it. It is not that he is incapable of learning. He’s smart. It is that the amount of time it would take him to get all this stuff is probably ten times longer than we have in our course. Is there anything we can do about this?”

She shook her head, “I am sorry. The program requirements are very strict. We can not make exceptions for a student just because he or she is disabled. This is a business program and it is our job to prepare students for the real world. The real world does not pander to people who can’t keep up. If he wants to graduate with a business degree, he needs a minimum of a C- in this course. End of story.”

The real world does not pander to people who can’t keep up?” I asked myself. Forcing a deaf student to take a second language when he has no background in languages and questionable affinity for the subject area is hardly a reliable benchmark for his overall success in life.

I thanked the program head for her time and left, angry. I realized that this was more about the program directors choosing to stick to their bureaucratic guns than it was about ensuring the success of their students. If there had been no other indicators of success, I might have agreed with her. But here was a straight-A student, with experience working in business, with great people skills, and that keen sense of determination and focus that is hard to actually teach anyone.

By that point, I had taught over 1000 students in my career. For me, there was no question in my mind that Kyle was going to be a success in life.

Paying it forward

I returned to my office and sat down to process what had just happened.

My mind was taken back a few years to my last semester of my undergraduate program, when I had been hit by a car. I missed the first month of the semester as I recovered from the accident. I returned to classes, determined to do whatever was necessary to graduate.

The words of my Spanish professor rang in my head, “You will get through this. I’ll do what I can to help you. Don’t worry about the grades. Just work hard,” she said.

She believed in me and my abilities at a time when my self-confidence was failing and my future was still uncertain. Her confidence in me lowered my anxiety and propelled me to work harder than I had worked before. At a time in my life when I needed it most, a teacher believed in me.

In that moment, I understood what she was really saying. The sub-text was, “You are safe here. Trust me. I am not leaving your side. You will succeed. I won’t let you fail.”

I sat back in my chair. Almost fifteen years had gone by since that conversation. I had never forgotten it. I knew that it was time to pay it forward.

Doing the right thing

I understood that the situation with Kyle was different from the situation when I was a student. This time would involve a bigger risk on my part. I did something that I had never done before, and have never done since. I adjusted the rules, in order to do the right thing.

Leadership and business guru, Peter F. Drucker said, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Assigning grades is one of the management or leadership functions of a teacher. We assess, evaluate and ultimately assign a number or letter grade to each student that goes on his or her permanent record as an indicator of performance.

I already had permission from my own department head to make Kyle exempt from the listening exams. I had permission to re-organize the percentage of marks for the remainder of his work so that they would add up to 100% for his final mark. We reconfigured the percentage so that writing counted towards his final grade.

Since I already had permission to adjust the distribution of marks for the work he did, I made one other adjustment that I knew would ensure his success.

This was a subjective element of grading that allowed us as instructors to award marks based on class participation. It was our way of preventing students who were not really engaged from getting an A if they never came to class. If a student never showed up to class and only came to write the tests, got 100% on all the tests, but got a zero for participation in the course, the best grade he or she could end up with would be a B+.

The saying goes that 80% of success is showing up in life. So, if a student never showed up, it was impossible to get 100% in the course. It may seem sneaky, but that’s how it was.

Kyle demonstrated evidence of “showing up” in every possible manner. He had perfect attendance at class. He showed up having made a sincere stab at completing his homework. He stayed after class to ask intelligent clarifying questions. He came my office hours every week religious for extra help. At one point, he had hired a tutor to help him, but the tutor had no idea of how to help a deaf person learn a language and it didn’t work out.

Kyle did everything within his power to “show up”.

Since there were no grades awarded for discipline, focus or homework completion, I made a strategic decision to increase the percentage of his participation mark.

Risky business

There are rules and regulations in institutions for a reason. They set the standards that guide our professional behaviour. We are obliged to act in ethical ways that demonstrate an understanding and respect for the traditions and honour of our profession. Individual faculty members are required to abide by the rules established by the institution.

But what happens when the rules do not fit the situation? We have a choice. We can play by the rules or we can break them. (Yes, re-writing the rules can count as breaking them.) If you break the rules, you can be fired. That is part of “the real world” that my colleague in the business program was talking about.

Was I willing to risk it all for one student, whom I had known for a semester? The thought of it left a big knot in my stomach. I wanted to vomit. I could lose my career over this. It was like playing Russian roulette with my own future.

Inspired insight: Use deep reflection and analytical thinking to drive a tough decision

I reflected more deeply. Would I want to look myself in the mirror every day, knowing that I had upheld the bureaucratic rules, knowing that Kyle was all but doomed to fail my course and that was very likely to change the trajectory of his career? (Do things right, according to the rules).

Or did I want to take a chance on a student who was almost guaranteed to succeed in business and in life, but possibly risk my own career to do it? (Do the right thing).

I had a deep sense of not wanting to look in the mirror years later and ask “What if?”

I firmly believe that when we are faced with the impossible choice between doing things right, and doing the right thing that ultimately, it is more honorable to do the right thing. The price you might pay for doing so is ultimately less than the price you pay, in terms of your self-respect, ethics and integrity, for not doing so.

I had significant evidence that Kyle was going to make it. He had a solid track record of stellar grades, he showed up in every possible way and he had those intangible qualities such as people skills and determination, that never officially get factored into students’ grades. My own deep reflection, coupled with the evidence of success that this student had already demonstrated, ultimately led me to analyze the risk and decide that it was worth it.

Kyle received a passing grade in Spanish. And he worked harder than any other student in the class for what would turn out to be the only C- on his transcript. The grade broke his straight-A record, but we both knew how much it was really worth. He graduated from his program and has gone on to work for major multi-national companies.

Looking back, I could say that it wasn’t just Kyle who was deaf, it was also the institutional bureaucracy…. a system that did not care to listen to or take into account all the possible factors that contributes to a student’s success.

Peter F. Drucker also said, “The best way to predict your future is to create it”. As teachers, we have the opportunity to help our or hinder our students in the creation of their own futures. There are times though, when doing so is risky business.

When have you been faced with the choice between “doing things right” and “doing the right thing”? What struggles did you face? What did you ultimately decide, and more importantly, why?

Related posts:

A year of inspired insights #4: How teaching Spanish to a deaf multilingual student opened my eyes

A year of inspired insights #3: Servant leadership in the scullery

A year of inspired insights #2: Conversations change everything

A year of inspired insights #1: There’s a silver lining in every ambulance

My 2012 resolution project: A year of inspired insights


Share or Tweet this post: A year of inspired insights #5: When reason falls on deaf ears http://wp.me/pNAh3-1ei

Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

A year of inspired insights #4: How teaching Spanish to a deaf multilingual student opened my eyes

February 2, 2012

It was two days before the semester began. I was sitting in my office preparing for class when the phone rang. I looked at the call display and saw that it was the department head calling me.

“Hello?” I answered.

“Hi, Sarah. I just wanted to give you the head’s up that you have a student with a disability in your class this semester.”

We get at least one student with either a physical or learning disability every semester, so this was nothing new. As instructors we were used to working with the disability resource centre on campus to help accommodate students with “learning needs”, as they were called.

“OK…?” I queried, wondering why this situation warranted a phone call.

The department head hesitated and said, “She’s deaf.”

I had taught a blind student once, but never a deaf student. I was a bit baffled. There are four primary skills in language learning: reading, writing, speaking and listening. I wondered how I was going to handle the latter two with this student.

The department head continued, “She would like to come to see you today if that is OK?”

“Sure,” I said. “Thanks for letting me know.” I went back to my course preparation, wondering how in the world I was going to teach a deaf student Spanish.

Little did I know at the time that Zaina would be the first of two deaf students I would encounter in my career and that experience later lead to project work in the area of Deaf  Literacy.

But at the time, I was apprehensive and unsure of what to do.

First contact

An hour later, Zaina showed up at the door, accompanied by her cousin, Hiba. She beamed a smile and waved hello. I smiled, waived back and motioned for them both to come into the office and sit down.

My first surprise was that Zaina was multilingual. Her native language was Arabic and she was also fluent in English, French and American Sign Language (ASL). Spanish would be her fifth language, she said, but it would be her first time taking a language course as part of her post-secondary education. She was very focused on doing well in school and so, had asked Hiba to enroll in the course with her.

Hiba, who was also multilingual and fluent in ASL was as interested in learning Spanish as she was in helping her cousin succeed.

Zaina, explained that she had been born deaf and had a cochlear implant, which allowed her to hear to some extent. She said if she did not understand something that Hiba could translate it from English in to ASL for her.

I said that since it was a second language class, that most of the class was to be taught in Spanish, though I began to understand that I would need to change things up a bit for this situation.

Learning from my student

I confessed that I had never taught a deaf student before and that I would rely on her to tell me what she needed.

She asked for 3 things. “First,” she said. “We’d like to sit at the front of the room so I have a clear view of you and can watch you as you are teaching. Would that be OK?”

A student asking to sit at the front of the class? Heck, yeah! That would be easy.

“Second,” she said. “It will help if I can see you while you are talking.” She said that she found it difficult when teachers would write on the board and speak at the same time.

I replied, “Well, that’s just bad teaching, regardless of whether your students are deaf or not.” She nodded in agreement.

“Lastly, it will help if I can ask you about things I do not understand. Would that be OK?”

Again, this seemed like a no-brainer to me. Zaina explained though, that she had previously had teachers who got impatient if she asked for clarification during the class. I replied that it would be helpful, in fact, if she did ask questions as we went along.

Within a few moments I figured out that Zaina was very much in charge of her own learning. She demonstrated self-awareness, discipline, high levels of interest and engagement and self-regulation. She knew what she needed and was not shy about asking for it.

Adapted learning (and teaching)

As a result of Zaina’s being in my class, here are actions I took:

More “prepared” visual aids. Previous to that point, I had incorporated visual notes and explanations spontaneously into the class. With Zaina there, I prepared more PowerPoints so that the visuals could stand alone as an explanation. It turned out that other students loved them, too.

I stopped moving around the classroom. I used to circulate around the classroom during  a lesson, talking as I went. Sometimes, I even taught for a few minutes from the back of the room. With Zaina in my class, I made sure to remain in her range of vision at all times.

I paid more attention to what I was saying. As a trained speaker and Toastmaster, I learned to become aware of the “um”s and “ah”s in my speech. With a deaf student I focussed on using precise, concise language.

I asked her what made sense for her. I knew that I was venturing into uncharted territory. I asked her to help me, help her. The end result was a collaborative approach to learning that proved successful.

I opened myself up to trying new things. I knew I had some teaching techniques that worked well, regardless of the group. At the same time, I was not so stuck on what had worked in the past that I was not willing to risk trying something new as we went along.

Inspired insight

Working with Zaina made me realize that no matter how hard I tried and how much I prepared, I would never know exactly how to teach every single student 100% of the time. There are some teachers who are deeply convinced that their techniques are superior to others’ techniques. They will say with seductive (if not a little dogmatic) charisma that their methods are really amazing.

In the early years of my teaching career, I listened to a few teachers like that. I even tried to be like a couple of them. They were so convinced of their methods that it was nearly impossible not to be seduced by their unwavering belief in themselves.

Working with Zaina, and other students I have had since then, showed me that it is impossible for a teacher have all the answers. In fact, thinking that you do have all the answers means that you necessarily are not willing to consider other ways of doing things. Being a leader or a teacher or a role model does not mean figuring out the one right way to do things and then convincing others that your way is right. For me, at least, it means a constant and unrelenting search to learn more techniques and strategies and adopting the practice of “resilient adaptability” in my professional practice. That means being resilient enough to deal with unexpected challenges and adaptable enough to figure out new solutions as you go along.

How about you? How have people you have worked with prompted you to try things differently, open yourself up to new ways of doing things and improve your own professional practice? What worked? What didn’t?

Related posts:

A year of inspired insights #3: Servant leadership in the scullery

A year of inspired insights #2: Conversations change everything

A year of inspired insights #1: There’s a silver lining in every ambulance

My 2012 resolution project: A year of inspired insights


Share or Tweet this post: A year of inspired insights #4: How teaching Spanish to a deaf multilingual student opened my eyes http://wp.me/pNAh3-1do

Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Webinar: Harry Potter in Translation: Make language learning magical

January 18, 2012

Harry Potter in Translation by Sarah Elaine EatonDid you know that the Harry Potter books have been translated into more than 70 languages? A project through the Language Research Centre brought together dozens of native speakers who recorded a portion of the first Harry Potter book. These recordings are available free of charge for language teachers and students everywhere.

In this professional development webinar for educators, presented by ISU Workforce Training, you get an introduction to the Harry Potter in translation project at the University of Calgary’s Language Research Centre. You also get ideas on how to use this free service in your own language classes.

This program includes 5 lesson plans for teachers to help them use Harry Potter as a teaching tool for second languages.

Make your language class magical by using Harry Potter in translation!

Webinar date: January 19, 2011

Webinar time: 4:00 p.m. MST

Register here.


Share or Tweet this post: Webinar: Harry Potter in Translation: Make language learning magical http://wp.me/pNAh3-1bZ

Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

A year of inspired insights #2: Conversations change everything

January 13, 2012

So there I was, in Spain for the summer, about to take part in my first ever study abroad, language immersion experience. The Spanish embassy gave away a limited number of scholarships each year to different countries. There were a few hundred students in the program, from all over the world. I was one of two Canadians selected that year. I thought I was prepared for the immersion experience. I was wrong.

A lesson in humility

On the first day, all the students took a placement test. I had just graduated with an honours degree. I had good grades, despite having been hit by a car a few months before graduation. I was confident that I had done well on the placement test.

There were 18 different levels of classes. When I saw that my placement test determined that I would be in level 17, I thought, “It isn’t the highest level, but I guess I can live with the second highest level. Some of these Europeans seem to speak the language pretty well, so there are some people here who are better than me.”

As it turned out, level 17 was the second lowest level. Level 1 was the highest.

I was starting to realize that there were many things I did not know.

Living in an international student residence

Students were divided by nationality, gender and faith in the residences. While my classmates were from Europe and the Middle East, I was in an all-female residence with other young women from North America, Europe and Christian and Jewish areas of the Middle East.

The only language we had in common was Spanish. We found that if we wanted to make friends we had a choice: only associate with other people who spoke our first language (in my case, English) or try to make friends in Spanish.

The result was a linguistic hodgepodge – people ended up communicating however they could, in whatever language they could. We communicated what we could in Spanish and helped translate for each other in whatever language we could… English, Danish, French, Arabic or whatever we had to help each other understand and bridge our linguistic and cultural gaps.

Friendships with foreigners

I quickly developed friendships with English girl, a couple of Danish girls who lived in the same residence and two fellows from Jordan. Having grown up mostly in Canada, I had been immersed in multiculturalism since birth. I thought nothing of chatting with people from other cultures. I had an open mind.

Salim and Imad were the two Jordanians in our circle of friends. Salim was in my class and Imad was in the class of one of my Danish friends who was much more fluent in Spanish. We toured the city, went for coffee and helped one another with our studies and mostly, tried to practice our Spanish language skills together.

Struggling together, bridging the gulf

It was July of 1992. In the scope of world events, the Gulf War was still fresh in everyone’s mind. I remember the day earlier that year when they announced the war. As I watched TV, I thought, “But, there wasn’t supposed to be a war in my lifetime. World War II was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Isn’t that what our parents fought for?” But the Gulf War happened and I was pinned to CNN through most of it, just like everybody else.

In Spain that summer, I had developed friendships with people from “that part of the world”. These were good people. We had shared experiences. We struggled together to learn Spanish and cope in a culture we were not familiar with. The bond that develops when you struggle side-by-side with someone, through an experience that is both your own and shared is unlike any other bond. You can not explain it because to do so would mean explaining the depths of your vulnerability, your fears, your hopes, your dreams and the very process of living. It is hard to explain the process of living, which, if it is done right, includes some struggle.

Near the end of our program, after a few weeks of gaining language skills and solidifying friendships with the people who had come together in our social circle, I summoned the courage to ask Salim about the button he wore every day on his lapel. It was a photo button showing Saddam Hussein’s face.

I was curious about why anybody would wear a button of Saddam Hussein, especially someone who I’d come to call “amigo”. It was strange, really.

After all, Saddam Hussein was a maniac. But Salim wasn’t a maniac…. I just didn’t get it. When I asked him about it, he said, “Mi heroe. Ayuda a mi gente,” he said. We both had horrible Spanish. It took a few tries before I could wrap my head around what he was saying: “He’s my hero. He helped our people.”

From there, the conversation took off, in broken Spanish. We discovered each other’s point of view, the perceptions we had gained from the media, and our stereotypes about each other’s part of the world. It was an amazing conversation that I have never, ever forgotten. It shattered my stereotypes, challenged my world view and got me deeply engaged in a discussion I never dreamt I would ever have.

The conversation took place on the steps of the Muslim students’ residence. The Muslim students were segregated to accommodate their dietary needs and to provide for quiet at regulated prayer times. The males lived on one side and the females on the other.

Foreign students were not allowed in the residence, so if we wanted to visit, we did so on the steps of the building. Some nights there would be students out there with guitars, singing. Other times, there were groups of students chatting and studying. That night, a small group of us talked about war, terrorism, our heroes and our opinions, stereotypes and attitudes.

By the end of the night, none of us had actually changed our opinions, but we did learn a lot about each other and about ourselves, as we gained perspective, listened and shared.

Despicable me

Through the course of that conversation that night, I got another surprise. I had been puzzled about why none of the Jordanian girls would speak to me. They’d speak to my European friends, but not to me. When we went to visit with our friends on the steps of their residence and sit outside talking, the girls would move away from me. I had no idea why.

That night, armed with the courage fueled by an open conversation, I asked Salim and Imad what was going on. They looked away sheepishly.

In the same way I had stereotyped people from a certain part of the world, based on information that I had learned from other sources, so too, had my Jordanian female counterparts. But in their eyes, I was the reprehensible one. It finally came out that they thought I was promiscuous.

Me? Promiscuous? Excuse me?! Where in the heck did they get that idea? I was raised to be proper and respectful, not some tramp.

I was, however, a Canadian first. That summer there was a drought in Spain and the thermometer hit 40 degrees Centigrade. I was melting.

I wore Bermuda shorts and sleeveless T-shirts and sandals to class. My shirts did not have “skinny straps”, they were just sleeveless. My shorts were not “hot pants”, they came to just above the knee.

In the opinion of my Jordanian female classmates, I showed too much skin. I was shameless. They were comfortable in their head-to-toe covering and did not want to associate with someone who “dressed like a prostitute”.

Needless to say, none of them had experienced the harsh, cold climate I was used to. Nor did they seem to understand that I was struggling in the heat.

It was 40 degrees. That’s almost half way to boiling. Humans aren’t meant to be boiled. We are not even meant to be half boiled.

To be honest, I expect that most of those girls had never actually seen a prostitute, either.

The power of conversation

Unlike the boys, the girls we met were unwilling to engage in conversation. The question that started our dialogue about the Gulf War, our values and ultimately, our stereotypes of one another, was “Why?” I took a leap and asked “Why do you wear that button on your lapel?”

There was a willingness to ask, a willingness to answer and a willingness to listen. I learned a lot that night… about the Gulf War and what it meant to these people who had become my friends, about how other people perceived me and the culture that I come from and about what it means to be human.

The Jordanian girls were not willing to ask me why I wore shorts or had sleeveless shirts. I guess I can’t blame them, really. Who wants to have any kind of deep conversation with a prostitute?

As it turned out, I would end up doing just that a number of years later, but that is a story to be saved for another day.

A life transformed

After returning home, I decided to return to university to study Spanish, which my family didn’t really understand, to say the least. I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school. Graduating from university was an even bigger deal. That I had been accepted into a Master’s program in English was off the charts.

So when I came home from Spain and said, “Actually, I’m not going to grad school, at least not just yet. I’m going to spend a year doing nothing but learning more Spanish,” that did not go over very well.

Suddenly I went from being the big family success story to a “flop about” who had no proper job. A university graduate is someone to be proud of. A “professional student” is a drain on society. My family all but wrote me off that year.

What I couldn’t explain was… why. Like the Jordanian girls, members of my own family were not open to having a conversation.

Immersed in change

My life had changed. I had changed. The immersion language learning experience in Spain had changed me. My head had been blown open. I don’t mean that in the sense of someone whose head is literally blown open by a bomb or something, but intellectually, everything I thought I knew had been shattered.

I had not just been immersed in a new language. I had been immersed in change and in challenge.

That is what is hard to explain to people who have never immersed themselves in another culture or another language… That it isn’t really about the language at all. What changes us is not the verbs or vocabulary that we learn. It was not the grammar that we cram into our brains so we can pass a final exam.

It the connections we are able to make with other human beings because we can communicate with them. We reach out. They reach back. We meet somewhere in the middle. When we retreat back into ourselves again, we have seen a bit of the world differently. Then we re different. Forever. Changed.

Just like our communicative abilities when we are learning a new language, our thoughts and assumptions are jumbled and are not very fluent. As we understand the world more deeply, so we understand ourselves more deeply. We begin to know what we do not know.

Related posts:

A year of inspired insights #1: There’s a silver lining in every ambulance

My 2012 resolution project: A year of inspired insights


Share or Tweet this post: A year of inspired insights #2: Conversations change everything http://wp.me/pNAh3-19V

Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

A year of inspired insights #1: There’s a silver lining in every ambulance

January 5, 2012

Sarah Eaton - blog imageI was in the fourth and final year of my bachelor’s degree. I’d been accepted to several Master’s degree programs. I had a boyfriend. A job. Life was grand.

Then, the night before final semester classes were scheduled to start in January, I was hit by a car.

My boyfriend of a year-and-a-half was with me at the time of the accident. Actually, he had been holding my hand until seconds before the accident. We were in a cross-walk. He saw the car coming. I did not. He let go of my hand and stepped back to avoid the car, which ended up hitting me.

For a while, I didn’t move. An ambulance came. I remember looking around the inside of the ambulance and thinking, “It’s grey inside here. Or maybe it is silver. A silver lining to an ambulance, that’s good.”

My train of thought was broken by the paramedic asking, “Can you feel that?”

“Feel what?” I asked.

He was palpating my leg. I couldn’t feel it. I couldn’t feel either leg, actually.

It turned out to be shock and nerve damage. By the time we got to the hospital, sensation in my legs had returned. They gave me the full work up anyway. No broken bones, but extensive soft tissue damage. Probably some nerve damage.

Sarah Eaton - blog image - www.drsaraheaton.wordpress.comBones: OK, but… Heart: broken

I was sent home, with instructions to rest, take Tylenol 3 and start moving again as soon as possible. There was no physical therapy, no follow up, no further instructions.

The next day, everything was swollen and bruised beyond recognition. Even lying in bed hurt. I took Tylenol 3’s like they were candy, but doing so with as little water as possible, since going to the bathroom meant getting out of bed. It took about 30 minutes to get from the bed to the bathroom, which was seven feet down the hall.

There was a niggle somewhere in the back of my mind. The accident did not make any sense to me. Why had my beloved let go of my hand and stepped back when he saw the car approaching? I mean, isn’t it more normal to try to get someone you love out of harm’s way?

Three weeks later I could walk well enough to make it to the university and start going to class. I had missed a quarter of the semester already. Some professors were compassionate, others ambivalent. My grades were sliding. Graduating that year was no longer a sure thing.

I was depressed. To make matters worse, I just couldn’t get that niggle out of the back of my mind. The whole sequence of events didn’t make any sense to me. I mean, you hear these stories about complete strangers running out into the road when there’s a car coming to whisk someone to safety. In my case, someone who supposedly loved me, made no attempt to even warn me of oncoming danger, let alone offer protection.

A week after I returned to classes, my boyfriend broke up with me. He said, “When I saw you get hit by that car, I really couldn’t have cared if you lived or died.”

He moved out the next day.

A life unwinding

The next day, I was fired from my job in a retail gift store. I had missed three weeks of work while the soft tissue injuries were healing. I went into the store to pick up the pay cheque from the last two weeks of December.

The boss said, “If you can’t stand on your own two feet, then you’re fired. You haven’t been in for three weeks.”

“I called you the day after it happened, to say I had been hit by a car,” I replied. “I couldn’t walk properly until all the swelling went down and some of the bruising healed.”

She replied, “I don’t see any crutches. Take your cheque and get out. You’re done.”

I wondered how I was going to pay the rent and buy food. Panic washed over me.

I felt like my life was unwinding before my eyes.

And now for something completely different

It had been a month since I had been hit by a car. My boyfriend had dumped me and my boss had fired me. All I had left was school. I buried my head in my books and tried to catch up on three weeks of missed classes.

My Spanish instructor had been supportive and encouraging through the ordeal. She said, “You will get through this. I’ll do what I can to help you. Don’t worry about the grades. Just work hard.”

Not long after that, she arrived to class one day with a sheaf of forms in her had. asked,  “Who would like a chance to study Spanish in Spain this summer?”

My ears perked up. A chance to get out of town for the summer? That sounded good to me. With her help, I filled out the form to apply for a beca or grant, compliments of the Spanish Embassy. It was a lottery, so the chances of actually getting the bursary were slim, but at that point, a chance was better than nothing. Really, what did I have to lose?

I spent the rest of the semester trying to put my life back together and at least pass my classes so that I could graduate.

It turns out that not having a job or a boyfriend can seriously help improve your grades. (Who knew?) I passed all my courses with straight A’s.

My future in an envelope

One day in May, just before graduation, I got a letter from the Spanish embassy. Of course, I couldn’t read very much of it, but I guessed that it wasn’t a rejection letter, because it wasn’t just one sheet of paper. (Ever notice how letters telling you that you didn’t get something are only ever one page long?) There was a whole bunch of stuff in the envelope. So, I took it to school the next day and asked my Spanish professor to tell me what it said. “You got it!” She said. “You’re going to Spain!”

The bursary covered tuition, books, residence and food. I didn’t have the money for the plane ticket, so I sold everything I had and gathered the money to go. A week after graduation, I was in Madrid.

I had lived in England as a child and had travelled through Europe, but I had never really travelled on my own before. It’s a life-changing experience, to travel alone to a country where you don’t speak the language or know any one. It is terrifying. I highly recommend it.

Being in the moment is over-rated

There were so many times that semester that I wanted to give up that I lost count. There were a few people who were sources of endless encouragement and support. I listened to them, mostly because I had no one else to listen to by then.

At the time I could not see that my life path was not to work in a shop. I only saw that I had been fired from a job – and I was humiliated. I could not see that a man whose break up line is “I could not have cared if you lived or died” was not worth my time. I only saw that I was rejected and alone. There are so many things that we can not see when we are living through them.

Spiritual gurus tell us to “be in the moment”. Sometimes, when that moment stinks you would really rather be anywhere else.

Forgive me if I sound sacrilegious, but I think sometimes that “being in the moment” is over-rated. Getting through the moment, is sometimes more important. “Keep on keeping on” is a better mantra, I think, for it is only when we look back at certain moments that we see the value in moving ahead even when you are not quite certain that there is any reason to do so.

Be demanding, gently

One of my anchors of sanity that semester was my Spanish teacher. I have never forgotten the support that she offered me. Other professors were skeptical. Some were even jaded. One even said, “If I had nickel for every time a student said they were hit by a car, I’d be rich by now. Teachers hear so many excuses, it is easy to become hardened and lack compassion when students face real crises.

My Spanish teacher said to me, “Don’t worry about the grades. Just work hard.” She helped me focus my attention back on my studies. That helped to keep my mind off the break up, the lost job and the pain from the contusions. Those words were enough to get me back on track and re-focus.

As a teacher, you may not know who is telling the truth and who is whining. It’s not our job to figure that out. I do believe that it is part of our job though, to ensure that they keep up with their studies to the best of their abilities. The point is not to let them off the hook, but to help them help themselves. As teachers, we can be compassionate and strict at the same time. Learning to do both at simultaneously is the mark of an exceptional teacher.

Gracias, Profesora Santos, for being exceptional. You were a beacon of hope, leading to a wonderful silver lining.


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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