When was the last time you appreciated how beautiful you are?
Our actions may very well reflect our beliefs but they don’t not always reflect our desires. In other words, the way we behave isn’t always in our best interests.
This was brought home to me forcefully when I was working with a class of teenagers.
Let me tell you the story.
Shortly after leaving the role of Principal of a high school in order to start my own personal development company, I was asked to work with a group of teenagers who, to use the jargon of the time, were ‘exhibiting challenging behaviours’.
Indeed, several of these youngsters had been told their school careers may end prematurely if their behaviour did not improve and a number of them had just returned from exclusions for a variety of misdemeanours. (In the UK , when you’re ‘excluded’ it means you are not allowed attend school for a specified period. In some cases permanently.)
Their school was a very good one and there were many understanding teachers who had tried hard to engage these youngsters but they weren’t having any of it. And indeed, on the day I first met their class, it took several minutes to settle them, but slowly they began to join in.
Until the door opened.
And ‘she’ stood there.
Well, the door wasn’t exactly ‘opened’. It burst open, crashing against the wall and threatening to fly clear of its hinges .
And she didn’t exactly stand there, either.
Rather, she surveyed us all with disdain, the pupils and me alike, and then flounced into the room. Obviously she didn’t want to be in school let alone this particular class, but if she had to be she was going to make sure that everyone, me included, knew she would play by her own rules.
Now forget the fact that she was late; and ignore the fact that she had obviously been smoking heavily on the way to school (stale tobacco smells wafted from her clothes, her hair, her breath).
Forget, too, that her make-up may or may not have been appropriate for a night out but it was definitely way over the top for school rules. And overlook the fact that her mini skirt may well have looked great on the dance floor or the cat walk but it bore no relation whatsoever to the requirements of school uniform.
Yes, forget these facts; I certainly did.
For what grabbed my attention and sent a frisson of suppressed tension around the class, who could sense an air of menace had now entered the room, was the fact that she strode defiantly past me, ignoring me totally, perched on the closest seat and, once settled, shouted contemptuously to another pupil “Oh, God! What are you doing here?”
I remember thinking ‘what should I do?’
Reprimand her for her lateness and bad manners?
Welcome her, late or not?
Support the pupil she’d directed her remark towards? (Actually, he could more than take care of himself as his reply demonstrated! I won’t print it here for what may be obvious reasons!)
I did none of these things but instead I acted on automatic pilot, perhaps borne out of 35 years at the coal face of teaching and learning. I decided that since she had ignored me, I would now ignore her. Not something I would normally do but on this occasion – several minutes into the first lesson with a new class made up of hormonal fifteen year olds who thrived on confrontation yet who I was confident deep down wanted to learn, to be challenged and to experience success – I sensed it was the right thing to do.
Anyway, rightly or wrongly it was what I did and the class settled back into what we doing before she arrived.
She could hardly be described as an active member of the group but equally she seemed to have settled down after her dramatic entry and no longer appeared as combative, having instead drifted into a state of passive boredom, so after a while I decided to build a bridge in the hope of establishing something akin to a relationship with her.
My intentions were good; my results less so!
In fairness to her my opening gambit wasn’t exactly inspired, but in my defence it was at least relevant to what the rest of us were discussing: the power of appreciating yourself and showing appreciation towards others. This is often a starting point I use with new groups for I’m sure that the vast majority of people have a need to be appreciated, and that where there is an atmosphere where people are encouraged, accepted, supported and appropriately challenged, there exists also the possibility for personal growth and achievement.
Anyway, for whatever reason I came straight to the point and asked her when was the last time anyone had praised her; when was the last time she’d felt appreciated.
Her expression made it clear that she thought the question was crass in the extreme and well beneath her dignity to deign with an answer, so for that reason she felt neither the need to respond nor indeed even acknowledge that I had spoken to her at all. Instead, she looked through me. She neither liked me nor disliked me; I was simply inconsequential in her world and therefor an irrelevance to her .
Way to go, Mr. Motivator!
I carried on with the session. Then, and to this day I don’t know why, about ten minutes later I looked directly at her and asked:
“When was the last time you looked into a mirror and appreciated how beautiful you are?”
I continued in this vein for some seconds, without pausing for a response but simply and quietly asking questions such as “When did you last look inside yourself and recognise how unique you are and what amazing talents you have? When did you last tell yourself you were loveable and capable?”
The questions continued and I could see the other students were startled by the line I had taken, as indeed she was.
Her mouth dropped open, her chewing gum displayed for all to see! It was obvious not only that I had her attention now but that I had somehow crashed through her defences with my words.
I continued in an even softer but equally direct voice, noticing as I did that a single tear made a tramline through her make up. I only stopped when I heard her whisper, “I’ve never done any of that…and nobody’s ever said anything like that to me either”.
There was a silence.
One of those silences you can almost feel.
A pregnant silence, if you like – though what was to be born out of it was anybody’s guess.
The boys looked at each other, as did the one other girl in the group. They were puzzled but they knew something special had just taken place, even if they weren’t sure exactly what.
The bell signalled the end of the session. The other students left the room quietly, indeed almost reverently. They mouthed gentle farewells, not wanting to disturb the silence that had followed her words.
Soon, only she and I remained behind.
It was difficult for her but over the next few minutes, without any promptings from me, she explained how she was frightened of the future, how she would like to learn but if she tried she might make mistakes and would look “stupid” and how if the others thought she was stupid she wouldn’t look “hard” ( a colloquialism meaning tough, or not to be messed with).
I listened more than spoke as she told me what she would really like really to achieve given the chance and then, as she was leaving, she told me she would never forget me, that I had changed her life.
I was surprised in a way because I genuinely couldn’t think of anything I had done that would prompt her to say that. Indeed, I wanted to tell her that I had done nothing, that she was the one who had had the courage to respond to what she had heard; it was her who had recognised the emotions within herself. And that even though there would be others ready, willing and able to help her if she meant what she said, she would be the one, too, who would be doing the work in the months ahead if she really did want to change.
I wanted to but I didn’t; there would be time for that later.
Now was the time to allow her the security of knowing there were words that could enter the soul and provoke the courage to attempt to change, to ignite dreams, foster persistence and release talents. Words that could resurrect a hope which, if acted upon, could result in a changed life: her life.
When she left, I explained to one of the senior teachers what had happened and over the next few months continued to work with the group once a fortnight. To the best of my knowledge I didn’t work with her specifically but only as part of the group, although we had chats from time to time.
And little by little, and sometimes in fits and starts, she became a keen and productive member of the class.
There were other positive outcomes we celebrated in that group, both for her and the others, but they can be told on another occasion, perhaps. Suffice it to say for now that the course ended on a note full of possibilities. (Of course it wasn’t all playing sailing, but you don’t need me to tell you that, do you?)
A few weeks after our final session, an immaculately dressed young lady in full school uniform, with hardly a hint of make-up and no smell of tobacco because she had given up smoking cigarettes, politely interrupted a meeting I was having with some learning mentors in the school.
Yes, it was her!
I made introductions to those who didn’t know her and then one of the mentors asked her what she would like to do when she left school the following year. (It was highly likely, though not guaranteed, that she would survive the final year now.)
Without hesitation she replied: “I want to be a learning mentor – because I want to make a difference to people’s lives!”
Wow! Was I stunned! Three months or so previously it had been “Oh, God! What are you doing here?” Now it was “I want to make a difference to people’s lives!”
I knew she meant it but I was aware, too, of the challenges that lay ahead for her. My contract was coming to an end in her school and it was likely that I would never see her again, in that setting at least. Nevertheless, I was keen to see how things turned out for her, so I made a note to get in touch with the school at the end of her final year to find out how she was getting on. Assuming she made it that far, of course.
She was indeed still there nearly twelve months later when I paid a special visit to see her and catch up on news of the others, and I had the enormous privilege of talking with her just before she sat her final examinations.
She shared with me that she was now a peer mentor, on track for success in her exams with a place waiting for her at college if she passed them.
I asked her what it felt like. She thought a moment then smiled as she replied:
“You know, Keith; it’s as if all the anger’s gone from inside!”
And it all started when she began to appreciate herself then took the risk of appreciating others. As H. Jackson Brown says in his “Life’s Little Instruction Book, “Don’t forget, a person’s greatest emotional need is to feel appreciated.”
What about you? Is the image you hold of yourself a healthy one? Does it help you to continue growing, help you to be more and achieve more whilst helping others to do the same too. Or does it hinder you? Stop you from becoming all that you could be?
The good news is all of us are capable of changing, if we really want to. Regardless of what has happened in the past, we haven’t lost our intrinsic value. And who knows what if any limits there are?
For the young girl in this story, change started when she understood, perhaps for the first time, what she thought of herself and how she was acting, and realised that this was not who she really was or what she really wanted. Slowly, she began to realise that she could change the way she thought about herself and that she too could have dreams and aspirations. And she was willing to pay the price through effort and hard work to bring into being who she wanted to be and what she wanted to do with her life.
And so can you. So can we all.
If you have read this story to its end, you already have the skill, that has been hard earned, of being able to read. Don;t take that for granted; you had to spend many, many hours acquiring it. If you can learn to do that you can learn other things too.
Not only that, you’ve probably identified with the story at some level, so your imagination has taken the words and allowed them to touch you emotionally. Why stop there? Why not start the process of change that requires an honest appraisal of where you are now and the courage to dare to state where you want to be. And then go further: take one simple step in the direction of your dreams, because that step will lead to another, then another.
Of course there are no guarantees! Who knows what the future holds? You’re bound to face challenges and the way ahead will sometimes seem clouded in uncertainty. But starting the process will at the very least begin the journey. And we all owe ourselves that much.