With Apologies to Ronald McDonald

19 Jan

A larger 20-something, guy, lumbering stature. A 30-something  woman, tall, stereotypical Midwestern mom-like in appearance.  A man of about 50 years, short, with a ready smile and laugh, a feisty attitude. An 18 year old girl, thinner, quiet, pretty.

“Everyone take one quick step backwards and try to land in a good, balanced stance. Again. One more time. OK, now two steps back; remember, pay attention to your stepping, landing and balance.”

The Midwestern mom does rather well. The smaller, feisty guy not too bad. The girl is very tentative and her body stays rotated awkwardly. The lumbering guy steps and lands with his legs too twisted up, appearing uncomfortable, almost teetering on the edge.

This could be any taekwondo class. People come in with all variety of physical habits and capability. Our job is to overcome those, move things closer to a functional norm, and yet also realize that unique habits, differences and limitations always come out, sometime always stick around. A lifetime of habits and movement patterns become our status quo. It’s tough to change the status quo.

The situation I described above, however, is less typical than I implied. Those four participants, and others not mentioned, are all blind.

If a standard Taekwondo class brings students of a variety of backgrounds, abilities and status-quos, the classes of blind participants brings an even greater variety. There are already more instructional challenges to begin with, and then the variety comes into play, Completely blind since birth. Only blind the last two years due to a tumor. Legally blind but sees through a fog. Very narrow “tunnel vision,” like looking through a drinking straw; otherwise, pitch black. Blindness AND deafness. Each person is unique in what they bring as their lifetime-accumulated status quo.

As much as I have to account for the unique and varying physical limitations, each of those folks comes in with their social-psychological-emotional status-quo, evolved because of each person’s unique life circumstances and their interplay with their physical abilities.

So, I listen, watch, assess, adapt, interpret, translate, seek to understand, seek to help, strive to empower. As a group, but more so one by one. Particularly with the class of blind students, these understandings and customized responses are both more challenging and more important. If our regular weeknight classes are a hodge-podge of uniqueness, then this class is traits and circumstances magnified and scrambled in a bowl.

After my most recent session with the blind folks, I had a three-fold insight. One: I can teach best if I realize that I don’t know anything;  I have to be an open vessel, willing to listen, watch, learn, take it in, and then respond in a way that will accept and respect the person, and also be effective. Two: To be most effective, that process must occur with each and every person, AS INDIVIDUALS, not just some group conglomeration. (More later.) Three:  The more I do this work, the more empowered I am to — and the more I MUST — approach all of my interactions with other people in all of my life in the same way. I must listen ever-better and continually seek to understand. I must honor and respect each unique person, their history, their personality, their gifts and limitations. In doing this, any skills, ability or power I have can be better applied to make things work well. If I don’t do that, then I can’t expect the best of situations.

At the Rotary leadership camp in our district we use the Myers Briggs Type Indicator as a way to help participants get insights into, and validate, their unique selves, and to recognize and value the difference of others on their team (or “family” as we call it there). I’ve come to appreciate the MBTI as a useful tool for those purposes; it gets as who you are, the place you inherently start from, operate from and return to in all realms of life — a place perhaps quite different than your spouse, your boss, your teammates or your students. Knowing, honoring and valuing my type is important. Doing so with others around me, and learning to work with that uniqueness, is key to truly being effective and bringing out the best in situations, relationships and people. Without doing that, we easily end up with mediocrity, if not failure.

I heard a master chef talk about the ingredients going into a recipe. He explained that one can’t simply take ingredients and mix them together to make a masterpiece. One has to know the ingredients. One egg is not the same as another egg.  A vegetable or spice — grown in one manner, in one place or at one time of year — is not the same as another. The master chef has to know each and every ingredient individually and use it, interact with it, adapt it, work with it, in a particular way to get the most out of it and have it contribute to the final product. The common chef simply pays attention to how they whip the eggs and how they mix the eggs into the batch. The master chef whips the eggs a particular way based on what are those exact eggs, and mixes them into the batch in a way that must respect what type of egg they are and how they’ve been worked with before integrating them. The quality of the final product is a result of the particular ingredients and how they are individually known and worked with.

Whether a soufflé, a class of students, a cross-functional team, or the love of your life, each person, each ingredient, is uniquely different. If we want to create a masterpiece of achievement or relationship, we must recognize, appreciate and work with each particular person in a unique way, understanding and incorporating, even honoring, their particular contributions, views and mode of contributing and interacting. Short of that, all we’re eating is a Happy Meal when we could be enjoying courses of world-class cuisine.

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