Getting the basis right

Day 2 writing challenge : 

When I’m teaching I find myself both assuming and then shedding an outer layer to reveal an inner strength that fosters growth in others.   The professional development courses I teach occasionally are generally two days leaving little time to engage and impart new skills and/or impact student learning. It’s why the initial impression and gestures I use matter but also assure I get the necessary feedback to be successful too.

So that boils down to lessons I learned as a kid about self-presentation and preparation. I’m talking about appearance and intention, as in good grooming, good manners, and good posture.  My parents made clear that my outward representation also includes conversational courtesies and firm greetings. This buttoned-up look my siblings I wore, we were reminded was for our own good.

On one level it assured that we didn’t stand out, or G-d forbid, be singled out. Our behavior was supposed to be exemplary, courteous and polite. On another level, the idea was to avoid doing anything that would reflect badly on the family.  This message was more complicated. We were encouraged to feel and take great pride in our family and identity without drawing attention to differences in our cultural identity that was part and parcel of who we were but not always accepted.

It’s funny as a kid, growing up in the 1960’s I never felt outwardly different though ample evidence should have clued me in. We felt like we were just normal suburban Chicago kids, going to school and playing with everyone in the neighborhood. Sure, Saturday mornings we didn’t get to stay home and watch cartoons. We had to go to Sabbath School, while our neighbors went to Sunday school. As one of five siblings, our immediate family was larger, but our neighbors included other large multi-sibling families too.

At home, my parents sent the subtle messages that we were special, and we should never feel embarrassed or anything short of pride in our family, our background and religion.

That’s what we did.

My parents made sure we were well-groomed, schooled, mannered and always dressed appropriately. My brothers were taught to dress and behave like gentlemen and girls were expected to be ladylike at all times.  Violations were meant with loss of privileges–sent from the table, or canceled parties and play dates, or more chores.

My mother would often say let boys be boys, but there was no corresponding understanding afforded my little sister and I.  Household chores divided conventionally between the heavy labor “dirty” outside maintenance assigned to the boys and the inside housework the responsibility of the girls.

As a kid dress codes were everywhere–at school, at synagogue, when we visited other people or places.  As I got older, dress code like so many things in the 1960s liberalized, but not the standards or expectations of my parents.

The irony was that my Father had always been a bit of a rebel. My parents had eloped and had done things that had not always meant with the approval of their own parents such as leaving the city for the very gentile Glen Ellyn. I was raised in a house that was known as the house without windows. The exterior walls looked industrial and the interior contained an inner courtyard with floor to ceiling windows that curiously enabled a life of inner reflection. It was here that my parents unwavering in their commitment to raising their kids to be fully independent as thinkers and financially.

They modeled independence for us too. Everyone was expected to read and no topics were off-limits.  The volume and range of reading materials that passed through the house made clear that being informed was as important as engagement in various social democratic activities. Just as I learned to check all the sections were included in the Sunday New York Times we drove 30 miles to pick up, I was taught to stand my ground when others held different social and/or political views.

In time, the outward polished look my parents demanded I discovered opens doors but not people’s minds. that takes good manners, kind words and extending genuine signs of warmth. This framing has indeed been good for me, Thanks Mom and Dad.  It seems your absence does not diminish your impact, or lingering signs of your commitment and engagement I strive to embody and pass long.

It seems the old school lessons from my parents and another era are not as time-bound as I initially thought. We all frame expectations and so appearing in the guise of the buttoned-up persona can put others at ease and that’s what allows the inner, thoughtful, considerate, strong independent me to reveal itself. A nice, but welcome surprise. 


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