First Encounters


 We’re heading back into the regular school year rhythm and there are quite a few folks facing some first day jitters – students, staff, and even school leaders.  Those first moments – and what happens in them – have ripples beyond the immediate moment.  Let me share a few of my own examples with you.
It was 1971, and I stood at the door to my new nursery school room wondering if anyone would want to talk to me, eat lunch with me, or even play with me.  The teachers took me to a group of girls who were laughing and playing together, obviously great friends.  Introductions were made and the teacher left, but I didn’t look quite as cute or act quite as perky as the other girls and they quickly excluded me from their game.  Confused and sad, I stood there wondering what to do.  A little boy at the next table looked over at me and smiled.  He was finger painting with the old stand by of liquid starch and tempura paint on butcher paper.
“Want to finger paint with me?” he asked, looking friendly.
“Sure!” I smiled back gratefully as I pulled up a chair next to him.  He nodded toward the paper and paint.
“Grab some paper and stick your fingers in the paint,” he explained.  “I’m trying to draw my dog, but I’m not very good.  Kinda looks like a pig,” he said as he frowned critically at his picture.
I was inclined to agree with his assessment, but I grabbed some butcher paper and said instead, “It looks just like a dog to me,” and sat down next to him at the table.
We remained friends through junior high until he moved away.
Fast-forward to second grade and it was my first day of ballet class.  The teacher looked like the epitome of the ethereal ballet dancer and the other girls looked like beautiful wisps of grace.  I didn’t know anyone and by contrast I looked more athletic than willowy (I think it’s those sturdy Irish genes).  As I looked around, wondering what I’d gotten myself into, I noticed a girl coming towards me with a smile that lit up her whole face and an energy that just radiated enthusiasm and pizzazz.
“Hi! Are you new too?” she gushed in her dramatic yet charming way.
I nodded shyly, smiling hopefully.
“Great! I’m new too!  Let’s stand at the barre together.  That way, if we mess up, at least we’ll be together!” she laughed with gusto as she grabbed my hand and pulled me along with her.
She is still my oldest friend.
Fast-forward to two years ago when I joined my new school district after spending eleven years in my previous one.  It was my first professional development with my new colleagues, and I paused as I walked into that big room alone.  Although I’m quite a ways from my childhood, those old familiar jitters floated to the surface like the ghosts of first encounters past.  Will anyone want to talk to me?  Will I make new friends?  Will I find my place in this new community?  I put on my cheerful, brave face and was prepared to go it alone, at first, when I saw a kind, smiling face wave me over to her table.
“Hi!  Come sit here with us.  I’m Becky.  Are you new?” she asked kindly.
“Yes – thank you.  I’m one of the new elementary instructional coaches.  I’m new to the district – this is my first day!” I shared in what I hoped was a confident and cheerful voice (because my insides felt a lot like they were in a blender).
“Great!  I’m an elementary coach too!  Don’t worry about a thing – we’ll get you all squared away.  Welcome to our district!”
And just like that, I felt like a weight had been lifted off and the day was just a little less scary.  With a few kind words, I felt like I was a welcomed member of a team and maybe I’d found a new home.  Thanks, Becky!
So what do all these stories have in common?  They’re all about how a smile, a kind word, a coming alongside, can make scary or anxious moments feel a little less so.  And the more experiences we have where we are on the receiving end of those actions, the more compelled we feel to pay it forward and provide those moments for someone else.  Never underestimate the power of those small acts of kindness or those few words of camaraderie – they are powerful beyond measure and can echo over decades.  Those moments – giving and receiving – change who we are, how we see the world, and how we see ourselves.  They help us define ourselves and our place in the world.

As we start this new season, I encourage you to keep an eye out for those opportunities to be that ray of sunlight, that voice of kindness, that breath of relief and hope to those you serve and with whom you work.  Though the seed is small, the tendrils that extend out from it can and will reach far beyond that single moment.  So when you see one of those moments this season, smile . . . be friendly . . . and see what blooms – for both of you.

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