I’m in the final weeks of the semester, teaching at Long Beach City College in the Human Services department. Over the past 12 years as an instructor I’ve come to embrace an interactive style. We are, afterall, serving humans so it seems logical to me that we should have some understanding of what humans feel, think and do and why.
In all of my classes there is an opportunity to hear the perspectives and stories of the people in the room and all I can say is that if you’ve decided to open the door and listen to people, you’d better be prepared to have your perception of reality blown on a minute to minute basis.
No matter how good you think you are at judging a book by it’s cover, one day in one class will prove to you that what you think you know about people is simply a reconfiguration of your past experiences and training. It has nothing to do with reality.
I’ll use one classroom as an example. It is filled with males and females, the age range is anywhere from 19-63, the skin color range is from light pink to pumpkin latte to caramel to espresso.
You would think we have a lot of “different” stories but in reality, the overlap is incredible. The details of stories about growing up, family and early school years are repeated over and over with only small changes in details, names, dates and places.
All stories include grief over a family member or life situation for reasons such as death, molestation, domestic violence, alcoholism, bullying, unemployment, divorce or time served in the military or prison. The feelings and reactions are very uniform overall. Most people will never realize this until they speak to someone who listens and listen to someone who speaks.
We talk about family dynamics and how some people who live in troubled homes become the scapegoat…the one the entire family blames their problems on. Yet that same person can go to work or the military and be the one who is top notch and a hero. We also talked about how some social workers can dehumanize clients when they lump them in categories with stereotypes like “crack addict”, “foster youth” or “homeless.”
We are doing our best to remove pre-existing stigma and stereotypes and see the whole person. The one beneath the surface of clothes, hair and skin; the one who’s hiding and in pain beneath the labels, the stories and the defenses.
I always stress to my students that you can’t tell anything about anyone until you sit and listen to their story and even before that, you have to earn their trust…which can take some time.
One example of how you can’t judge a book by it’s cover is Ted Williams, the man with the “God Given Gift of Voice” Check it out here, it will blow your mind and it will give you a glimpse of what it would be like everyday if you just listened to a real live person without interrupting or judging them first.