I remember the moment as if it were yesterday. I was eight years old and in the third grade at Heard Elementary School in Macon, Georgia. The beginning of a new school year. The beginning of a new school day. The beginning of a humiliating experience.
“Neal,” the teacher called out, “Please stand up.” I obeyed. “Didn’t you do something wrong this morning while you were getting ready for school?”
I froze in fear and frantically began to try to discover what she might be talking about so I could sit down.
“Young man, walk slowly to the front of the room, please.” I started the long trek up to the front. “Now, class, can you help Neal figure out what he did wrong this morning?”
The other students were so glad that they weren’t me that they relaxed, then a few started to giggle.
“I know! I know!” big-mouthed Mary Beth shouted. “It’s his shoes!” And she was right: As I looked down, I realized that I had my new black and white saddle oxfords on the wrong feet! The shoes were pointing in the opposite directions. For a very shy eight-year-old, how embarrassing. And how I despised that teacher for destroying my sense of safety in her classroom. I never thought of her the same again.
Just a few doors down the hall in the domain of Heard’s drama department lived Mrs. Ligdon. Oh what a different species of teacher she was. I remember just as clearly as the shoes episode my first feeble attempt at acting. And why? Because I was the STAR of the third grade play. My mother made my little hispanic costume, and I performed with a small group The Mexican Hat Dance.
As I stood in the auditorium’s wings, nervously awaiting the play’s opening, Mrs. Ligdon came up to me, leaned over and whispered, “Neal, you really are a star! And your sombrero looks spectacular! You were chosen for this part because you are the very best actor and dancer for it. NOBODY could take your place.”
I felt special, and I performed, well, spectacularly–at least that’s what Mrs. Ligdon said. And I believed her! It wasn’t until several years later when my little brother was in one of Mrs. Ligdon’s plays that I discovered the secret to her success as a teacher and a motivator. Mrs. Ligdon somehow made every student that she worked with feel as if he or she were the star.
Two very different teachers. One little boy. Two very different learning and living experiences
Psychologists tell us that we all need the Three A’s in order to live happy lives: Acceptance, Affection and Approval. I believe they’re right. We thrive off of encouragement. And the clearest illustration of encouragement (and its opposite) I’ve ever seen is in the metaphor of “Balcony People” and “Basement People.”
Balcony people are those folks in your life who encourage you, lift you up, give of themselves to you in some way. They make you feel valuable and important. They climb the steps up into your balcony, lean over the railing, gaze back down at you as you struggle through life and yell, “You can make it! Keep going!” I love running (okay jogging) (okay maybe fast walking) 5 and 10K roadraces, especially when people along the race route scream, “Hey, Number 784, you’re looking good! Keep it up!” (Perhaps not so much when they yell, “But maybe next time you can join the adults instead of the Kiddie Run. Still looking good though!”)
A second category of people do just the opposite. Basement people trudge down the steps into your basement, where it’s dark and dank and maybe a bit depressing…and they try to pull you down with them. They ain’t fun to hang with.
We all have balconies, and we all have basements. And we’ve all probably been up in other people’s balconies and down in their basements.
More about this later. For right now, stay outta my basement please!