A cautionary tale about teachers and potatoes

We teachers do a lot of talking, so we sometimes forget that listening may be an even more important skill - to practice and to teach. I have taught for more than 30 years.

Some of that time was spent mentoring new teachers. One of the first lessons I tried to pass on was the value of listening to students - a listening that goes deeper than just keeping still. Rather, it's a listening that involves full attention, curiosity, respect, and eventually understanding.

For the teachers who needed a little extra convincing, I'd tell them a story about my own first-grade year.

I was extraordinarily shy when I started school. I sat in the front row (for alphabetical reasons), perfectly behaved, attentive, hardworking - and silent.

Mrs. Mialetti never asked a question I couldn't answer, but I never raised my hand to volunteer an answer and lived in fear of "being called on."

One morning, Tommy Rowe, the class thug, walked by my desk, leaned over, and kissed me on the cheek.

Everyone in the class, except the teacher, saw what had happened and started yelling and pointing, "Tommy kissed Sharon! Tommy kissed Sharon!"

Mrs. Mialetti spun around from the board and said to me, "Is that true?"

I couldn't speak, but I did manage to nod my head once. I felt sure I was going to throw up.

"Well!" she said, "I want you to walk right over to Tommy's desk and do the very same thing to him."

I thought, "Whaaaaat!? Have you lost your mind?" but didn't say a word. I didn't move. The class stared at me in silence. Mrs. Mialetti took a step toward me and said, "Go on, young lady. March!"

I took baby steps down the aisle, hoping the teacher would regain her sanity and just kick the bad boy out of the room. I ordered myself not to cry. Tommy was grinning at me with his big doughy face.

I turned back to Mrs. Mialetti. "Go on!" she snapped.

I was tiny - not quite three feet tall - so I had to stretch up on my tiptoes to put my lips on his forehead.

The moment this happened the taunting began again.

"Sharon kissed Tommy! Sharon kissed Tommy!"

My life was ruined. Above all the commotion I heard Mrs. Mialetti squawk, "I thought you said, 'Tommy kicked Sharon!' "

"Get the potatoes out of your ears," my mother would scold when I made mistakes because I hadn't listened. I wish I could have yelled this at Mrs. Mialetti. What good is a teacher with potatoes in her ears who misses the point and commits crimes against kids?

Fifty years later, thinking about this still makes my heart beat harder. When I started teaching, I promised myself that no one who deserved a kick in the shins was going to get a kiss because I wasn't listening.

Sharon FitzGerald Carey taught high school at a private girls' school in Connecticut for 21 years and now teaches homeless adults in Boston.

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