The Hot Seat – Part I

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?


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13 Responses to The Hot Seat – Part I

  1. Tom Watson says:

    Very interesting classroom experience, I’m sure.
    And here you were, all these years later, sitting in the chair in the middle of the classroom.
    Carlyle Marney used to say, “If you stand on the courthouse steps long enough, the parade will come back around.” and you were there to hear the trombones, all 76 of ’em, coming down the street.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – 🙂 I wonder whether that teacher could have imagined the reach of her lesson.

      • barbara says:

        Yes, because it was probably done for her and she remembered how important it was to her.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – P’raps. Even likely. Which just pushes the query back a level . . .

    • Dave Jobson says:

      Hi Isabel
      Makes me think of funerals when we eulogize about the departed one. Have you ever wondered about how the deceased would have reacted to all the compliments. So I guess you might say that this old colleague you speak of will not be there at your funeral so take it as a preview of what you will not be able to hear.


      • Isabel Gibson says:

        Dave – LOL I’m not sure how the dear departed would react: Maybe it depends who their grade-school teacher was. You make a good point: That’s an excellent way of reframing compliments: as a preview of our eulogy.

        • Dave Jobson says:

          In a sense that grade school teacher was asking the students to come up with contributions towards a living eulogy. I remember being taught that if you can’t say anything nice then do not say anything at all.
          So the teacher was imparting that lesson sort of.

      • barbara says:

        A good friend was dying, had only weeks if that, and didn’t want to be visited, but he called everybody in turn. We had a private conversation, his and our last. He thanked me for being his friend all those years and for repairing his very old, falling apart baseball cap. “I could tell,” he said, “by the very small, careful stitches you did it with love.” Sure did. (I even found a fancy hat box and set the hat inside surrounded with tissue paper. That hat was grimy and smelly but looked so precious in that box, I cried.) That was 20 years ago and it seems like yesterday.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – It’s funny how our circle constricts at the end – I won’t know exactly what drives it until it’s my turn, I guess. Your friend was unusual, I’d say, in having the (mental? emotional?) energy to talk to a larger group of people. But again, what a gift.

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    Sometimes compliments are more difficult to accept than criticism. Criticism you can deal with; compliments leave you between the rock of pride and the hard place of humility.
    But yes, Isabel, you do have wisdom, and you deserve an occasional compliment.
    Jim T

  3. Lorna P Shapiro says:

    The most helpful lesson I was taught about responding to a compliment was to simply say… Thank you. I appreciate your encouragement.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Lorna – Yes, I think it’s somehow equivalent to just saying, “I’m sorry” when someone’s hurting rather than offering “helpful” reframing. Harder to learn, though . . .

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