Tuesday, April 03, 2007
Last Saturday at a retreat for seminary students sponsored by the T.B. Maston Foundation, Suzy Paynter, Director of the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention, told a memorable story about her efforts to help a young boy learn to read. I think her story provides a good example of a process by which conscience is formed.
Suzy was doing some private tutoring in a reading recovery program that was designed to help school children who were behind grade level learn to read and write. She was assigned a particularly challenging child with a history of failing to meet expectations in school. Suzy knew that the child came from a poor family that could not afford to buy him play toys. Her strategy was to show him a toy and then use his interest in the toy as motivation for learning to read and write. She chose a jack-in-the-box.
Suzy showed him how the box made music when you wound the handle and how a clown would spring out from the top of the box. Then she put the clown back in the box, closed the lid and asked the boy if he would like to play with the jack-in-the-box.
"Oh, yes!" the boy said with glee. "I want to play with the jack-in-the-box!"
"First we have to write a story," Suzy said. "Let's write a story that says, "I like the jack-in-the-box."
Then she handed him a pencil and a piece of paper and together they began to write that sentence out in large letters. Suzy helped by telling the boy the letters that he needed to write. She knew that he only knew a handful of letters, so she also helped him by writing the letters that he did not know on his paper for him.
Slowly, as they wrote out the letters the boy's face began to light up as he began to make connections between the sounds that he knew with symbols that were being written and the meanings that were being signified.
When they got to the end of the sentence, the boy did not know the letter "X," so Suzy wrote it down for him. When she did, the boy's face suddenly flushed red with rage and anger.
"What's wrong?" Suzy asked.
"Nothing's wrong!" the boy responded and then he doubled up his fist and hit her with all his might squarely on her jaw.
At that moment, while wincing from the pain and the shock of the boy's blow, Suzy Paynter made a decision that would give her a much broader and deeper perspective on how to relate to others.
She had every right to dismiss the boy from her tutoring and send him to higher authorities to be disciplined, but that is not what she did. Instead, she determined to try to comprehend why the boy reacted the way he did. In her mind, using memory and imagination, she tried to look at the experience through the eyes of this young boy. In the process, she caught a glimpse of herself through the eyes of another.
She remembered that the tutoring experience had been positive until she wrote the letter "X."
The boy did not know the sign "X" as a letter of the alphabet. He knew the sign "X" only as a symbol of failure. It was the mark he received on every paper when he was "wrong," "in error," and had failed. In his eyes, when Suzy put an "X" at the end of his story, she was signifying that his story was "not right" -- it did not measure up, it did not meet standards, it was another example of him making too many mistakes. In his eyes, "X" was only a symbol for failure.
Suzy’s question, "What's wrong?" only reinforced the perception that she was condemning him. "Nothing's wrong" he said as he hit her. His verbal response was right, while his physical response was wrong. His physical response was a childish overreaction to his perception that he had either been deceived or was being judged a failure.
Suzy told him that he could play with the toy if he wrote a story. He trusted her and she deceived him. He wanted to write a story for her. He tried his very best. Then, in his eyes, Suzy was judging him and marking his entire being with the sign of failure.
Once Suzy saw herself through his eyes, she found a way to correct his misperception about her and taught him about other uses of the sign "X." Later, the boy successfully learned the alphabet and learned to read and write.
Suzy says this was "a life-changing experience" for her. I think it is an outstanding example of how conscience is formed. Conscience is looking at yourself (with humility) through the eyes of another.
Only a conscientious person would have the humility to look at herself through the eyes of an angry child and recognize that she has a responsibility to do better. That's one of the reasons why Suzy has been so effective working with legislators on social issues at the State Capitol in Texas.
Posted by Bruce Prescott at 12:47 PM