Who is she?

A woman stands in the middle of a room

Like a sculpture

I sit, studying her

I know her.


I shift seats

I study her again

I see variations, but

the image holds.


A chill wind blows

She shifts her stance

Bracing herself

I see her face.


I don’t recognize her

Who is she?


Random thoughts and observations about relationships……

I’ve been thinking about how we know the people in our lives. And, I’m wondering: do we really know them?

Often our connections are circumstantial. School, work or our children’s activities may throw us together.  Is that enough to sustain a relationship? Sometimes it is. And, how well do we get to know the person when we only interact in a certain context.

Years ago, when I was in college, I read an article in a magazine that explored friendship. I don’t remember the adjectives the author used to label the different types, but one of the ideas was that some friendships develop because of a shared experience and when that is over, so is the friendship. I think the article mentioned college friends as an example. I don’t know if that fits for me. One of the things that was true in college was that I had a lot of time to devote to those friendships. We spent hours talking and sharing insights, our histories. I share a bond with those women. As an adult, busy with work, family and the mess and responsibilities of everyday life, I don’t have the luxury of spending time in that way.

It is true, though, that some relationships don’t continue beyond the circumstances. Sometimes it could be because you move on and don’t see the person any more. Though these days with technology being what it is, that may not be a legitimate excuse. Other times it can be because the friendship isn’t that deep. If you take a class with someone and bond during it, the connection may not be strong enough to sustain it beyond that. You may try to extend the relationship, socialize beyond the classroom, and find that you just don’t have enough in common. As you get to know the person, you may find that you like them less!

It is a rare and wonderful thing when you peel back the layers of a person and find out that you like them even more.

I’ve also wondered, how many friendships can a person sustain? It takes energy to keep up. I think I may be unusual in the amount of alone time I need, to contemplate, to reflect.

And, what about family? We need to tend to those relationships, too.

With some people, you can be out of touch for months and then pick right up as if no time had passed at all.

And, then, there is the situation where you thought you knew someone and they surprise you – and not in a good way.

Sometimes I wish I didn’t think so much! Relationships, and my interior life, would be so much simpler.

I bought this reproduction of Rodin’s The Thinker for Gary years ago because it had particular meaning to us. Columbia University had one on its campus and it was where we would meet. Given my nature, I better understand now why this sculpture resonated so much with me.

The Art (?) of Asking a Question

Graphic from Signalvnoise.com

Class ended. Mercifully, after two and a half hours of policy analysis and evaluation, it was time for lunch. A group of six of us, all full time graduate students at Columbia, had a habit of going to the diner a couple of blocks down Amsterdam Avenue after class.

I gathered up my stuff and started walking with the others to the elevator when Dan nudged me to get my attention. Dan, who wore crisp oxford shirts and chinos to class and spoke with authority, asked “Why do you always apologize before you ask a question? I don’t get it.” I looked at him blankly, “Huh?”

He continued, “You always start your question, in class, by apologizing for it. Like, ‘Sorry, but I was wondering…’ Why do you do that?” There was more than a trace of annoyance in his tone.

I felt defensive. I thought for a moment, as we continued walking, trying to come up with an answer. Fortunately, the others in the group were chatting amongst themselves.

“Well,” I began, “I can’t say I consciously knew that I did that….” I was thinking quickly, reviewing what had happened in class that may have triggered Dan’s observation, trying to come up with some kind of reasonable response.

“There’s no reason for it, you shouldn’t do that.” he said, emphatically. “Sorry if it annoys you,” I responded, and I sped up to join the others. I probably annoyed him again by apologizing again.

This happened over 35 years ago. I thought about it then, and I still reflect on it now. Asking questions, in class or in conversation, isn’t that simple. At least not to me.

As I thought about it, many things came into play. First, was self-consciousness and insecurity. Maybe I HAD missed something the professor said. I knew some students, as a result of those doubts, didn’t ask questions. I had enough confidence to ask, but not enough to not preface it by hedging or softening it. I realized, as Dan pointed out, that I likely did start with something like, “Sorry, maybe I missed this, but can you explain….” I wondered whether there was anything so wrong with that.

I don’t think it occurred to me at the time, but it did years later, that it also probably related to being female. I knew that as a woman there was a line to walk, of not coming across too aggressively, but not fading into the woodwork, either. I had a hard time with that. I wanted to ask questions, I wanted to express opinions, but I wanted to be feminine, too. I think I felt that asking a question could be threatening and that was the last thing I wanted to communicate.

Other things probably played into it, too. When I was in college, Merle, my roommate, and I volunteered to work at the campus hotline, called High Hopes. It was a resource for students to call if they had questions. The question could range from the ordinary, like where to get birth control, to the very serious, like what to do about feeling depressed. We went through fairly extensive training – we weren’t supposed to be counselors providing therapy, but the hotline was a first line of getting someone help if they needed it. Some of the training involved attending lectures, getting information about drugs, sexuality and other common issues of concern to college students. We also learned about non-judgmental ways of listening to people and we did role plays.

We were trained, in a basic way, to use Carl Roger’s technique of reflection, which meant listening to the caller and repeating back what you heard them say. This method was intended to help the person clarify what they felt. Sometimes a person didn’t know exactly what they felt, so by reflecting back what you hear, he or she can evaluate whether it is accurate.

In addition, in reflecting, we were trying to refrain from judgment. Sometimes just asking a person ‘why’ can insinuate judgment. If we needed to ask the caller for more information, we weren’t supposed to ask, “Why do you feel hurt (or substitute any other emotion, angry, sad)?” It was better to say, “It sounds like you feel hurt. Can you tell me more?”

This made so much sense to me. I had a number of opportunities to use that approach on my shifts at High Hopes and, generally, it worked quite well. It turned out to be useful in parenting, too.

Leah was quite an emotional child. Supporting her through the roller coaster of adolescence was a parenting challenge. I was most effective when I remembered to use reflection (full disclosure: I didn’t always remember). It validated her feelings, helped her clarify them and often led to insights. I recommend it!

While that technique doesn’t exactly apply to asking questions in a classroom, which is what my classmate Dan was calling me out on, in one respect it does. As a result of my High Hopes experience, I became conscious of not implying judgment in a broader sense – I didn’t want a professor to think I was questioning their expertise, or suggesting they were a lousy teacher. It seemed like a reasonable strategy to start by acknowledging that I could be wrong or uninformed.

Before Dan’s comment, I hadn’t thought about it consciously, much less considered that there could be a downside to doing it. But I was learning that there was. If Dan was any example, it could be annoying. It also diminished whatever came after the apology, I was devaluing my own contribution. I didn’t want to go around apologizing for my existence. As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve done it less.

This issue is relevant in another setting. As a school board member, and as a trainer of school board members, this aspect of communication comes up often. Frequently at board meetings a staff person makes a presentation and the board is given the opportunity to ask questions. This can be a minefield. A board member can, premeditatedly or thoughtlessly, embarrass the presenter by asking a pointed question. So much transpires in this communication. There can be history or baggage – is there goodwill as a baseline between the board and the staff? A particular presenter can be overly sensitive to questions. Some people are comfortable with public presentations and thinking on their feet and welcome engagement in the form of questions; others don’t. Even educators, who spend their day teaching, get nervous when speaking in front of the school board. We spend time at our workshops talking about modes of communication in order to raise awareness of potential pitfalls. I imagine this dynamic comes into play in many office settings. Who knew asking questions could be so fraught?

So, I’m still thinking about this issue. How do you ask a question?

A Surprising Friendship

I wonder sometimes how much of what I remember is real. This is especially true of my friendship with Susan.


Me, in front of my house, at the time I became friends with Susan

I didn’t have many friends on my block. Somehow East 91st Street had an inordinate number of bullies and I was a target of their ridicule. Here are just a few examples: I was riding my bike when a couple of kids chased me thrusting a stick at my spokes hoping to knock me off, I was spat on as I walked home from synagogue on Rosh Hashana and my cat was mistreated (I wrote about that here). This was all at the hands of the Italian kids who lived at one end of our block. My brothers were occasionally called into service to scare them off. I knew enough not to generalize, after all, each of my brother’s best friends were Italian. But given all that I experienced, my friendship with Susan, who was also Italian but lived at the other end of the street, came as a surprise.

Susan was popular on the block and in my class. She was blonde and blue-eyed, with an up turned nose. She was rail thin. She was everything I was not. She could do a round-off, cartwheels and handstands. I will allow that I was athletic, but in a different way. I felt rooted to the ground by my thick bones and muscular frame. I could run and throw a ball, and my balance was good, so I didn’t feel clumsy, but I was unwilling to hurl myself into space to do any kind of gymnastics move. I didn’t have Susan’s grace or fearlessness, which is why this next part is so surprising.

Susan and I spent long hours teaching ourselves tricks on our bicycles. The street next to her house which abutted the weeds had very little traffic, so we would ride up and back endlessly, perfecting our moves. Starting simply by riding with no hands, ultimately, we were able to stand on our seats in an arabesque, one leg extended behind, our arms outstretched. I felt like I was flying. When we thought we were good enough, we invited our parents to watch our circus act. My mother was aghast. I think back and wonder, did I really do that? It seems so out of character. But, I did.

Susan loved horses and would draw them again and again. I came to share her enthusiasm, learning to draw them and reading horse-themed stories like Black Beauty and Misty of Chincoteague. She and I would gallop around her side lawn, her corner house had enough property to be considered a lawn, unlike the postage stamp we shared with our neighbors.

I’m probably around 15 years old here, but that is the ‘lawn’ we shared with our neighbors – the bane of my father’s existence.

Susan and I were in the same class at PS 272. In 4th grade there was something called a ‘slam book’ that was all the rage. It was book made up of looseleaf pages fastened together, each page contained a list of favorites. Favorite TV star, favorite football team, but it also ranked the cutest girls in the class, smartest boys, etc. It was a measure of popularity and caused me great anxiety. The book made its way up and down the rows of the class while our teacher, Mrs. Feinberg, faced the chalkboard. For a while this was a daily occurrence. Kids ranked things and wrote comments anonymously. I was always afraid what I’d find when the book arrived at my desk. I think once I made it to fifth cutest in the class. Susan was always in the top three. In choosing to be my friend, I felt anointed, touched by her popularity.

Everything was so different about Susan’s family. Her mother, Maria, reminded me of June Cleaver. In my mind’s eye, I see her wearing a dress, with an apron, kitten heels and pearls. Her hair styled, lipstick applied. My mom and my Nana wore housedresses and slippers.

I remember one time Susan and I had a plan to practice our bicycle tricks. I rang her doorbell and was invited into the kitchen where her parents were each enjoying a bottle of beer. I don’t think I ever saw beer at my house. I can’t recall a single time. I knew what it was, I saw enough commercials during baseball games, but I didn’t know anyone who drank it. Susan was begging her father to let her have a taste. He relented. She took two quick swigs and we went out to our bicycles. Susan joked that after drinking the beer she wouldn’t feel it if she fell on her head. She giggled. I was shocked.

Susan’s Dad, Tony, was the executive chef at the Carlysle Hotel on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. The same swanky hotel where Presidents, Prime Ministers and celebrities stayed when they came to New York. Which raised the question: why did Susan’s family live in Canarsie?  I don’t know the answer to that, but, not surprisingly, they didn’t stay long.

At the end of 4th grade, Susan’s family moved to Wycoff, New Jersey. It might as well have been another country. We did see each other one more time. My parents dropped me off at their suburban house where Susan’s mom served, among other things, sliced homegrown tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese, dressed with basil, olive oil and salt and pepper. I had no idea tomatoes could taste that good. It was a revelation. At the end of the weekend, they drove me into the city to meet my parents at the Carlyle. We were given a tour of the kitchen. I was too young to appreciate what I was seeing. I know my parents were impressed. That was the last time I remember seeing Susan. We lost touch. She went on with her suburban life, not just drawing horses, but riding them. I went back to Canarsie, read the rest of the Chincoteague stories, and tried to find a place to fit in.




A Poignant Visit

Celebrating David’s 95th birthday last month

Gary’s mom and dad, Paula and David, will fly to Florida tomorrow accompanied by their son, Steven, and their live-in aide, Inna. The plan is that they will stay for three months. The fact that this is happening is a testament to David’s will and his children’s desire to make him happy. It isn’t easy given that David is 95, has health challenges (who wouldn’t?) and Paula is debilitated by Alzheimers.

Since they are leaving tomorrow, Gary and I went to visit them on Saturday. We drove down mid-afternoon to spend some time and take them to dinner. I brought the photo album from Leah’s bat mitzvah. Paula, many years into Alzheimer’s, may not recognize the people immediately, but she still enjoys looking at photos, being reminded of the people and events pictured and talking about them. It can be difficult to engage Paula in conversation otherwise, going through photographs is an activity she still seems to enjoy. Their apartment is lined with photos of family on all of the walls, which appears to bring comfort and pleasure to both of them. On most visits Paula and I will go through each and every one of them, sometimes more than once. I brought the album to switch things up a bit. David enjoyed paging through the pictures, too. It is bittersweet, of course. Some of the people in the album are no longer with us. But, as David pointed out, “that’s part of life.”

During our last couple of visits, to vary the routine, I have read blog pieces that I thought would interest them. I read Nana’s Table and Zada’s West Point story previously. This time, keeping with the Leah theme, I thought I’d read the post about her birth. That post included a portion by Gary, too. I didn’t remember that I wrote it in a prose poem style and when I saw it, I hesitated thinking that it might not be the most accessible choice. But since I didn’t have another one in mind and otherwise we’d be sitting numbly watching a meaningless football game, Gary doing labs on his computer, I plunged ahead. We turned off the TV, and I used Gary’s computer to read the blog post. Paula and David listened attentively. By the time I was done, there was one interruption for a phone call that David shortened by explaining that he had family visiting, it was time to go to dinner. Perfect!

It was brutally cold out, so we hurried to the car as quickly as we safely could. As we were pulling out, Gary jokingly said, “I won’t ask you which piece you liked better,” referring to the two accounts of Leah’s birth I had just read. David immediately responded, “You’re better off not because you won’t like the answer!” We all had a good laugh at that. I have to admit I was surprised and pleased – given that I wasn’t sure how he’d feel about the poem.

David asked Paula to remind him to call back Leon, the person who he cut off on the phone earlier.  “David, I won’t remember,” she replied. Paula is well aware of her memory difficulties. “We’ll remind you,” I offered.

We drove to the restaurant. Paula repeatedly asked where we were going and commented that it was a long ride. It seems that whenever things are unsettled, when we are preparing to leave the house or when we are in transit, Paula gets more anxious. Fortunately, the ride was only about 15 minutes and, as long as David was by her side, she was comforted.

During the meal, Gary explained to David his most recent medical test results, which weren’t perfect, but weren’t as bad as they could have been either. It wouldn’t interfere with going to Florida. Gary explained it in a straight forward way and asked if David had any questions. He said no, he understood that he would have the time that God provides. He added, “One thing we know, I won’t die young.” I started laughing – how perfect is that!?! We all agreed it was true. Gary expressed the hope that there would be more years ahead.

Funny thing is, David is younger in heart, mind and even body than many 30 years his junior. He stands straight, he walks with purpose, he watches the news particularly concerned about Israel, but mostly he wants to know that his children and grandchildren are happy, healthy and ‘on the right track.’

When the meal was winding down, Gary asked whether David had any objection to sharing his health status with extended family – Gary’s siblings were already aware. David said, “I’m not keeping it a secret.” Paula suggested that it didn’t have to be brought up as the first thing, but if someone asks, you can tell them. “Does that make sense?” she asked. “It makes perfect sense,” Gary replied, “good advice.” Paula smiled, satisfied. I nodded in agreement. Paula reached her hand out to me across the table, I took it, and we shook on it. I know it isn’t often these days that Paula gets to feel that she made a contribution in that way. Though she likely won’t remember, I’m glad she had that moment.

We finished the meal. Gary went to get the car warmed up. We took our time getting our coats on and walking to the car. We drove back to the apartment, walked them back in, gathered our things and said our good-byes. “We’ll see you in Florida – either later in February or maybe early March,” Gary reassured them. Extended hugs all around, and then we went back to the cold car.

We agreed it was a good visit.


Inanimate Objects

Do inanimate objects speak to you? Some of mine do. My bicycle, which sits dusty, tires flat, leaning against the garage wall, has been known to ask: Why don’t you ride me?  I spent a lot of money on that bicycle. I went through a phase where I rode it almost daily, but that was several years ago. I have every intention of riding it again. Not today when it is below zero and windy, but when the weather permits, I intend to hop on (key word: intend) and enjoy the view. For the time being, it sits silent. But, come Spring, it will start talking to me again. And I will feel guilty.

Then there is the treadmill sitting in the basement. Whenever I pass it, I hear it saying: do SOMETHING with me! The treadmill doesn’t work properly. We bought it years ago and it worked well for a while, but then it would just stop while you were in mid jog – which was less than optimal and maybe even dangerous. I had a service person come three times – replacing various parts –we even had an electrician put it on its own circuit. It still doesn’t work. I started the process of appealing to the manufacturer, but gave up. I didn’t have the wherewithal to force them to replace it. So, there it sits. A reminder of another thing I haven’t taken care of, left unresolved.

You might sense a theme here, but it isn’t just exercise equipment that speaks to me. The loose photos strewn about the study ask to be organized. My refrigerator screams that it needs a thorough cleaning, which reminds me of a story.

Photo credit: Today’s Little Ditty (blog)

Gary and I were living in Pittsburgh. He had just finished his second year of med school and he finally had a break. I was working full time for the City of Pittsburgh Finance Department. Since he had some time off from school, we had some visitors. First came Gary’s friend, Larry. They hung out for a couple of days, toured the city a bit and I joined them for dinner. Larry left on a Friday morning. Gary’s parents were scheduled to arrive later that same day. I left for work that morning telling Gary, “Please, just make sure you pick up the bedding in the living room before you leave.” Larry had been sleeping on one of our fold out chairs in the living room.

Our apartment was a nice size one bedroom, one bathroom unit, with high ceilings and big windows. It had a large living room that we divided with bookcases to create a spacious dining area. There was a small dining room off the kitchen that we used as a study. When our parents visited, we gave them our bedroom and we slept in the living room on the fold out chairs.

I left for work that morning with Gary asleep in our bed and Larry sleeping in the living room. I hoped Gary would leave enough time to straighten up before going to the airport to meet his parents.

In an unfortunate bit of timing, I came down with a heavy cold later that morning, it came on suddenly.  I was so congested my teeth hurt. I was nervous enough about Gary’s parents visiting, we were married less than a year at this point and they had not been to our apartment yet, without also having to deal with a horrendous cold. I left work early, thinking I could take some decongestant and maybe rest a bit before Paula and David arrived.

I opened the apartment door and took a quick look around. I saw the bedding still on the living room floor and our unmade bed. It looked like a mess.

To say I was in a rage is an understatement. One thing about fury, I forgot about my cold symptoms! I ran around the apartment like a lunatic. I put away the bedding and cleaned up the living room. I changed the linens on our bed and straightened up our room. I did the few dishes in the sink, wondering what the heck had Gary done all morning! It was good that Gary wasn’t home to hear me muttering epithets at him.

I heard the key in the lock and put a smile on my face to greet my in-laws. We gave them the grand tour of the apartment, which didn’t take long. While showing them the kitchen, Gary proudly opened the refrigerator. I have to admit, it was spotless. So that was how he spent his morning! It was true, the refrigerator was cleaner than when we first moved in, but it wasn’t that bad when I left in the morning!  That would not have been my first priority. Later, when I asked him about it, he explained that he spent the entire time cleaning the inside of the refrigerator – it took him hours. He didn’t understand why I was so frustrated with him.

I learned some Important lessons from that experience: Gary is a perfectionist, and his priorities frequently don’t match mine. This continues to happen today, with Gary digging a hole for a new garden when we already have a garden that seems perfectly adequate to me. In addition, if he takes on a project, it will take way longer than one would expect. It will be done very well, I will give him that.

As I was writing this, and given that my refrigerator was calling to be cleaned and I was tired of listening to it, I put down my pen (actually closed my laptop) and did it. I didn’t spend hours and it is not as spotless as if Gary had done it, but it will suffice. And now when I sit at the counter in the kitchen, I only hear the low hum of its motor.



Where were you? The Blackout of 1977

Who was batting for the Mets on July 13, 1977 when the lights went out in New York City?*

Photo from the New York Times

I can’t say I remembered the answer to this trivia question, but I do have some vivid memories of that evening. I was in the shower in my house in Canarsie. Home from college for the summer, working temp jobs in the city during the day, that particular evening, I was home alone. My parents were visiting my grandparents in Florida. I have no idea where my brothers were – but I know they weren’t around. Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara were living in the upstairs apartment in Canarsie, and they were keeping an eye on me while my parents were away (I was 17 years old). That particular evening they were visiting friends in Rockland County and weren’t home yet.

It was unnerving to have the lights to go out while I was in the shower. I shook off visions of Psycho and climbed out of the tub, slowly, carefully. Once I opened the bathroom door, there was enough ambient light to find my way to my bedroom just across the hall. It was about 9:30 pm, but not fully dark since it was still early in the summer. I got dressed quickly so I could check outside to see if my neighbors had power.

I went out on the front porch and saw that all the houses and street lights were dark. I went back inside and found some flashlights. The phone rang. It was Aunt Barbara telling me that they were on their way home. I was grateful for that. I was also relieved that the phone was working. I felt a bit less isolated. I think I spent much of the next hour on the phone, talking to the guy I was starting to see, waiting for Uncle Terry and Barbara to get back. Eventually they made it. Things were quiet on our block. The same could not be said for other parts of the city, though I didn’t know that at the time. It was probably a blessing that I couldn’t find a transistor radio or turn on the television.

After my aunt and uncle got back, the three of us sat on the porch for a while, trying to capture the scant breeze. Eventually we gave up, went in and tried to get some sleep. New York City was suffering through a brutal heat wave, the demand for power and some unfortunate lightning strikes caused the blackout.

When I woke in the morning, the power still wasn’t on. That meant I couldn’t go to work! I was able to make a plan to go to the beach with the guy who I was on the phone with the night before. I had my parent’s car, since they had flown down to Florida. It was a 1972 Impala, a behemoth, it was like driving an ocean liner. The car was so big I had a difficult time maneuvering it. A couple of weeks earlier I went on an outing in the Impala with my friend, Merle. I drove first to Kings Plaza, a huge mall in Brooklyn, where Merle got out of the car to help me negotiate the parking garage ramps which seemed entirely too small for the mammoth car. Then we went to Island Park to visit our college friends. We were like Lucy and Ethel on that trip, Merle trying to give me directions from the handwritten notes I had taken over the phone from Dianne, while I tried to stay calm in the traffic on the Belt and Sunrise Highway. Growing up in Brooklyn in a one-car family, I didn’t drive often. Merle and I made it to Island Park and back – I only bumped a garbage can while making a u-turn – we were otherwise unscathed. But, we were exhausted from laughing so hard.

Despite my driving deficiencies, my guy and I made it to the beach in the Rockaways. It was late morning and the heat was already oppressive. There was a lot of traffic on the Belt Parkway for a Thursday after rush hour. We weren’t the only ones with the idea of getting an extra beach day in during the workweek. It was one of those summer days that wasn’t sunny, but we had to squint because of the glare.

Listening to the car radio, we heard about the looting and violence of the night before. People took advantage of the power outage to smash windows and break into stores and generally commit mayhem, especially in downtown Brooklyn. The city, which still had not recovered from being on the brink of bankruptcy, had a reduced and demoralized police department. It was also the ‘Summer of Sam.’ It wasn’t just the heat and humidity that hung in the air and left us feeling unsettled. The threat of a serial killer was another ingredient in an already roiling pot.


It was an odd time for me, a time of transition. Although objectively the atmosphere in Canarsie was more fraught than in my years as a child and adolescent, I was not as anxious. I had more friends and was embarking on my first romantic relationship. I had a long way to go to quell my insecurities, work still in progress, but I had made a turn for the better. The blackout of 1977 didn’t derail me.

*Lenny Randle. If anyone knew this, you win a prize 🙂

Facilitation 101

Note: Names and details have been changed in the essay below to ensure the anonymity of the participants.


One of my roles, when I worked for the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA), was to facilitate board retreats. These sessions were designed to build trust and improve communication between board members and the superintendent, and to review their roles and responsibilities. Although I have retired from NYSSBA, I continue to take assignments to facilitate these workshops. I like to think that I can be helpful to boards that may be experiencing some dysfunction or just helping them improve their performance as a team, and a little extra cash doesn’t hurt either.

I’ve had some interesting experiences in doing this work. We usually begin with an icebreaker activity where we go around the room sharing some information about ourselves. We start with some straightforward stuff, where they grew up, how many siblings they have. And, lastly, they are asked to share their biggest challenge growing up. I often share the difficulty I had growing up with crossed eyes (which I have written about in this blog).

I had done this exercise many times. Participants usually respond in a range of ways, from offering very little by saying something innocuous, to making themselves vulnerable by sharing a private pain. In a recent workshop, an older gentleman, who was the first of the group of 12 to share, responded in a way that I had not heard before.

He began, “I’m not quite sure how to put this.” I got a little nervous, not knowing what kind of experience he was going to recount.

He went on, “I was an excellent ballet dancer.”

In the words of my mother-in-law, this I was not expecting.

My first impression of him would not have led me to associate ballet dancing with the short, 50ish year old man sitting before me. Without casting aspersions, he presented as squat and not noticeably graceful. He didn’t hold himself in that elegant, regal way that dancers typically do.

I also didn’t know where he was going with this. Being excellent at something isn’t usually a challenge, but then again, perhaps his experience related to gender stereotyping, or people like me making assumptions based on appearances.

All these thoughts were bouncing around in my head as I listened to his story. Hopefully I maintained a neutral facial expression, as all professional facilitators should.

He went on, “I recognized I was better than most and I needed to learn to hide that knowledge.”

Wait, what exactly was his challenge? To learn humility?

“I’ll give you an example….” He went on to explain that in high school he had a run-in with some members of the football team, who were teasing him about his ballet dancing.

Now the anecdote started to make sense, though, he certainly started the telling in an unusual way.

“There were three or four players, including the quarterback, in the room before class started,” he explained. “hassling me about being a ballet dancer. I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I get to hold an attractive girl, whose costume leaves little to the imagination. You, on the other hand, put your hands behind the butt of another guy! Who’s the gay one?’ That shut them up.”

There were 12 of us in the room, sitting around a rectangular conference table. Everyone was silent. I think we were all nonplussed. I’m not sure if he was expecting a response, but after a brief pause, he continued.

“Later, when the school day ended, I was heading to my locker. I saw the guys from the football team at the end of the hallway. We made eye contact. I left my stuff in my locker and turned to leave school and head home. The football players saw me turn and they took off, chasing me. I ran.

It was a distance to home and there were some hills. One by one the football players gave up, until only the quarterback was left chasing me. I was just outside my house when I stopped and faced him. We looked at each other. I said, ‘Let’s make a deal – you don’t do anything to me, you leave me alone, and I won’t tell anybody at school that I, a ballet dancer, outran the football team!’ After all, that would have embarrassed them. And, I would have done it, too. He agreed and that was the end of it. They never bothered me again.”

As he finished his story, he had a self-satisfied smile on his face.

I wasn’t sure how to respond. Was the story true? Was this a story he told himself? I looked quickly around the room to see if anyone wanted to say anything. After a bit of an awkward silence, I smiled and said, “Joe, thank you for sharing, sounds like a challenge you handled. Jill, how about you go next.”

I felt a mix of emotions. I was a bit incredulous, it all seemed too neat, almost scripted. But, it certainly wasn’t appropriate to question him. I was also offended by the casual sexism and homophobia in the way he relayed the story. Though this was an experience from many years ago, and talking that way was understandable and would’ve been acceptable then, there was nothing in his telling that showed any insight gained over the years. He was quite pleased with himself.

I also felt sad. I should have sympathized with him – it must’ve been difficult to be a male ballet dancer all those years ago. It likely still is. But, in how he framed his story and in his telling, he buried the pain of it. And that made it difficult for me to respond with genuine empathy.

Interestingly, as we went around the table and others shared, it was as if they, in response to his approach, revealed their childhood challenges without masking their pain. It was quite remarkable actually – in that small group, three had been abandoned by their mothers and one had a parent who died when he was in high school. Two revealed that they had a parent who was an alcoholic. I was reminded, again, how much private pain there is in this world.

The point of the exercise is to build trust among the team. I wondered if it had the desired effect.