emotions, feelings, personality, suspician, doubt, team, motivation, responsibility, commitment, self worth, teach for america, connection, attitude, self, contribution, teaching, abraham maslow, andrew ferguson, character, choice, anger, hurt
“Can I see another's woe, and not be in sorrow too? Can I see another's grief, and not seek for kind relief?” William Blake
In 2005, a newly minted graduate of Dickinson College headed to the ghetto of New Haven, Connecticut. While many of his friends were backpacking through Europe or netting impressive entry salaries on Wall Street, Andrew Ferguson went to teach sixty-eight underprivileged boys in a broken-down trailer. The roof leaked, the walls had holes punched in them, and the building was condemned at the end of Andrew’s first year. “It should have been condemned my first day.”
As a young white man hailing from a life of relative privilege, Andrew’s job was a radical experience. All of his students were black, and fatherless. Only one had a male authority figure in his life. Andrew saw suspicion, doubt, and even hatred in the small faces that looked up at him every day. The prospect of connecting in any way, let alone teaching these kids, was daunting.
About six weeks into the job, Andrew went to work like any other morning. In some ways, his main achievement to that point was simply that he hadn’t quit. On that particular day, he happened to be wearing a sweater vest. As he walked in, Quashon, one of the shortest and heaviest ten year olds, leapt up and yelled, “Nice fuckin’ sweater vest, cracker!” Shocked, Andrew still kept his cool. And despite never having experienced anything like it, he knew exactly what was going on. “
At the school, there’s a history of the guys running teachers out,” he explains. “And then there’s the bigger history of these boys knowing that any male in their life is going to run out. So I knew I was being tested, and that this was one of the tests. “
I also knew that they were used to teachers screaming back. My sense is that the teacher never won when that happened. And then my personality—I just don’t do that. So I took a deep breath and said ‘Okay.’ Once he saw that he wasn’t going to get a reaction or provoke some retaliation, once he saw that I am who I am and he couldn’t push my buttons—because I don’t have many—he lost interest and eventually sat down.”
Andrew Ferguson never thought he’d be a teacher. In fact he’d known since he was four years old that he wanted to get a law degree. But he wanted to do something in between college and law school that gave him significant responsibility and independence—and something that could have an impact on a big scale. Teach for America offered the perfect opportunity to do so.
But why would a talented college grad destined for a law degree choose to teach disadvantaged kids in a run-down trailer for two long years?
For Andrew, it’s all a matter of fairness. “Any sport you look at, everyone plays by the same rules,” he explains. “Who wins is dependent upon how well you work as a team, your skill, and how many hours you practice. Take that analogy to life. Sure, you have the same rules—but it’s like one kid’s trying to play basketball wearing a fifty-pound weight on his back.”
When asked why he cares about the kid carrying the extra fifty pound weight, Andrew replies, “Because I didn’t have one.”
Andrew was born in an affluent suburb of Pittsburgh and grew up in a good, nurturing family that encouraged him to learn and be creative. Just a zip code away, kids in inner-city Pittsburgh face quite a different reality. “So much has been given to me, and I consider myself lucky for so many reasons. Because of where I was born, and because of the parents to whom I was born, I’ve had so many opportunities. With these kids, it doesn’t matter how hard they’ve worked. Just trace where they were born. Because these kids were born in a different area, they’re not going to get the same shot.” Andrew feels that we all deserve our shot and that he’s no better than anyone else. He may be more capable than some, but that’s not the same as better.
Maslow calls self-actualizing individuals “democratic people in the deepest possible sense… They can be and are friendly with anyone of suitable character regardless of class, education, political belief, race, or color. As a matter of fact it often seems as if they are not even aware of these differences, which are for the average person so obvious and important.”
The psychologically strong see through superficial trappings to the human being within—or, as Maslow says, it’s almost like they don’t “see” those trappings at all. They are wholly unconcerned with issues of race, gender, age, ethnicity, or social status. For healthy people, the introductory words of the Declaration of Independence are more than just an idea; they do treat everyone as if we’ve all been created equal, because in their minds, we have.
Because these people are inwardly satisfied, they are also outwardly focused. Responsibility comes naturally to them. Like Andrew Ferguson, they actually fight for it. They want to do their part to make the world more just. And, for all human hearts to get their chance.
People who possess an egalitarian soul typically aren’t power-hungry. While many do achieve fame and fortune, it’s usually a derivative of their efforts, not a primary goal. As Ferguson notes, “If money and power and fame is ultimately the end goal, people tend not to be successful. Something else is missing.” That “something else” is the genuine, democratic interest in other human beings.
Healthy, happy individuals are also far less concerned with their own standing, whether economic, social, or otherwise. It’s not only that most often have achieved an elevated status; it’s that they simply put less value in it. They also don’t measure their self-worth by how the world measures them. In the event that someone challenges them—like the boy who stood up and yelled obscenities in Andrew’s classroom—they remain unruffled. They’re comfortable with who they are, and with that self-knowledge comes a calmness and steadiness of character that serves them well in all their pursuits.
For happy, healthy human beings, there are of course, some, necessary hierarchies. But even within these, they tend to treat everyone with respect. They don’t get distracted by people’s superficial differences – their bodies, ages, politics or personal preferences, because they realize that each human being is different and that what matters are their motivations, ethics, commitment, capabilities and more – the true, internal stuff that makes up one’s character. And when it comes to leveling the playing field, they take responsibility where they can and take action to give the less privileged a chance.
Cheers from Sonoma,
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Check out Donald Van De Mark's ongoing series on the 19 Personality Traits of the Best Human Beings
Donald Van de Mark has interviewed hundreds of leaders in business and politics including: Andrew Weil, MD, former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, Jack Welch, Starbucks' Howard Schultz and Intel's Andy Grove, in his nearly 3 decades as a correspondent and anchor at CNN, CNBC and public television. He integrates practical tips from these great leaders to provide a riveting motivational speech on the personality traits of successful people. Donald is also the host of the corporate training videos,The Wisdom of Caring Leaders and The Wisdom of Teams.
His new book, The Good Among the Great,19 Traits of the Most Admirable, Creative and Joyous People, will be available for purchase in April 2011.
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