The Right Answer

im_always_right_mug Carmen postBy Carmen Denia, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio

So I’ve had two interesting conversations on relationships and drinking in the past few days with older adults. Despite the difference in the topics, what struck me was how both ended with the undertone being you’ll change your opinion when you’re older.

Now that’s a very strange way to close a topic. I understand how it stems from the general rule that equates experience and age with wisdom, and I don’t dispute how that often can be true. However, I’ve always found it strange how many adults tend to steamroll an opinion with a knowing air and the claim that the other party will one day “find out”. (What exactly I’m going to find out, they often don’t say.)

What utter nonsense. My convictions and opinion aren’t invalid because of my age. I may change them one day when I get older, but that’s nothing to be laughed at and people should not sneer and go all, “I told you so”. I think people – especially young people – should have the opportunity to express an idea in an environment of respect and consideration, rather than fear saying what they think because they are in an environment full of judgment and condescension.

In the classes I taught earlier this year, I would often have an ideal way of answering a sample question based on my comparatively more years of taking tests as opposed to my students who had never seen what the previous cohort’s O-level paper looked like. (I’m not that good. Any number of years is greater than zero years, after all.) However, that did not mean that if they tried to suggest a different way of answering the question from how I would do it, I would immediately smite them with my trusty lightning bolt of knowledge. True, sometimes they were wrong, but sometimes – sometimes – they were right.

The secret to still hearing those times they were different but still correct was not to follow their explanation of their answers by trying to match these point by point to my thought process. Instead, I had to logically consider their answers as independently as I could manage from the bias that my personal opinion would cause – since the latter’s an undeniable part of human nature. Their responses could use more links, they could be completely outlandish, but whatever it was, essentially, I was trying to give space for the “wrong”. I did not want to stamp out the pupil’s ability to share an idea without doubting himself into a knot or break his conviction when holding an opinion. For a real educator, I think those were the best moments, the unforgettable moments when the kids came up with something good and different, all by themselves.

I think the point is to balance personal respect for others’ and one’s own experience with an appreciation for experiences different from ours. At the end of the term, most of the kids settled for answering questions like I did once I had explained my method, but some did not and that’s okay. They scored well enough and if they were happy with what they wrote, then I was too. I could try to help them refine their style, but at the very least, I taught them that since I respected them enough to sincerely listen to them and not just give that token attempt at hearing their answer, they should respect me enough to consider what I had to say in front of the class – and they did.

A similar thing I find strange is how some adults I have met complain when those senior to them don’t give them and their ideas due consideration, but then turn around and do the same thing to the ones they’re senior to. How odd. (A particular Sirius Black quote comes to mind.) People, I suppose, will tell me that’s the way of the world, but if we do not like it, why not do something about it? It’s not easy, sure, but at least we’re making a conscious decision to do something, however small.

It is not like it was easy for me to listen to my students. Sometimes you do have that urge to just drive over them and give them the right answer, but we collectively have to fight such urges. By making conscious decisions for ourselves in how we interact and listen, we pave the way for kids who’ll grow up genuinely listening to both those senior and junior to them. For them, it’ll be an unconscious considerateness toward others and wouldn’t it be great to leave the places we are in in a more respectful state than we found it?

I think one more thing that the adults in those conversations forgot was the idea of the exception. It’s an idea I’ve held close to my heart from young for reasons I can no longer remember, but I’ve always paid attention to the exceptions. There are exceptions to every grammar rule you read, there are species that do not follow the rule for this family or that phylum, there are painters who suddenly have that one piece different from the style of their generation. There will always be that oddball kid who says or does things differently.

And I don’t suppose, when it comes to people, that you can immediately tell who that is. I mean, it’s not like people walk around with blinking neon signs above them saying “I am an exception and my socially unusual opinion will last me for the rest of my life! Respect me! Rawr.” So the easy answer is to give due respect to each child – or any person, really – because you’ll never know who that child is going to become and which of their opinions that you’re downplaying they will continue to hold in the future.

I remember when one of my tuition students would talk to me about Disney celebrities and how much value the kids placed on them.  I would have to bite my tongue before I reacted negatively. I would remind myself as she prattled on that, one day, she might find out that she’ll feel, like me and most of society, that those details aren’t really important.  But telling her in a knowing air that one day she’ll find out that what she’s into is silly isn’t really going to help her think, is it? Shooting her down isn’t going to teach her to listen when others are sharing their interests with her. Now let’s think of all the things she might miss out on learning from others because she hasn’t been taught to give them due respect.

So instead I would talk to her about why she thinks these details are important, discuss with her the range of alternative opinions others might have, and affirm her for at least having an opinion. Maybe one day, for all I know, she will be the exception and she will become a celebrity analyst of some sort and those details will in fact be important to her career.

Or maybe she won’t, but either way, I listened to what she had to say and when the day comes that she looks back at the opinions she still has and used to have, I hope she’ll remember that I did not try to stop her from thinking for herself. It’s a far better gift than just giving her the “right” answer.

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