When my children were in grade school in Saskatoon, lo, these many years ago now, one teacher did a weird thing. Well, one teacher that I knew of.
Through the school year, each kid had to take a turn sitting in a chair in the middle of the class with all the other kids sitting in their desks in their usual jumble around the edges of the room. For five minutes, the kid sat there and listened to their classmates talk about them.
They couldn’t argue or talk back or deflect or dismiss or laugh it off. They just had to sit there and take it.
Sounds kinda vicious, doesn’t it? But what they were “taking” was compliments. Real, live, actual nice things being said about them. And at the end they were expected to stand up and just say, “Thank you.”
I don’t know whether the kids hated or appreciated that exercise, but what a gift from that teacher. For the givers of compliments, the gift of learning to look for the good in others, as well as the gift of learning a little something about how to do it. For the takers of compliments, the gift of learning how to accept them, as well as the gift of learning what others valued in them. The gift of putting a name on something about themselves: an appreciative rather than an all-too-common discouraging word.
Why am I thinking about a classroom from the 1980s? This week a notice appeared on a business social-media site about a new venture for a one-time occasional colleague, long since moved on to Big Things in the Big Apple. On a whim, I sent him a short congratulatory message, and he came back with something about how often he uses the things he learned from me when we worked together: my wisdom, he called it.
Oh no, a compliment. And there I sat, caught on that chair in the middle of the classroom. If I laugh it off and he’s sincere, I’m being rude: I might even hurt his feelings. If I accept it at face value and he’s speaking for form or making a joke, I look like an idiot. Been there done that. And, in this case, how can he not be making a joke? I mean, “wisdom.” Really? That’s a little over the top isn’t it? Yeah.
Should I deflect it or take it? I have to decide and so I do.
Now, I could have held off replying for a few hours, even for a few minutes. I could have waited for that knot of awkwardness in my chest to stop pounding so loudly that it drowns out everything else. But I’m not that wise. Not yet, at any rate.
Too soon old; too late smart.
Do you suppose that teacher is still giving classes?