A Randomly Dropped Compliment Ripples Out

It’s been a year or two since I met Thomas at a Costco Wholesale warehouse in Indianapolis. He always had a cheery smile and would politely nod or greet customers walking by as he went about his duties – returning carts from the parking lot to the store, helping customers at the gas station… Each brief encounter left an impression. So, one day I spoke to him and complimented him on his positive spirit.

You see, wherever I go, I tend to notice people who stand out. Sometimes it’s people who seem irritable or look like they’ve had a rough day. At other times I notice individuals who look indifferent while going about their duties – no eye-contact, no smiles – just looking like they’re there just because they have to be there. My happiest ‘people-watching’ happens when individuals look like they’re enjoying what they do. They connect with colleagues and customers – smiling, making cheery comments, helping – caring in their own simple way about their work and the people they meet. Nothing flashy, but it shows! They just bring sunshine into that moment in which you meet them. Sometimes it’s the first impression you have of them. At other times, you see them more often because they work in an establishment you frequent and you start noticing the consistency in their attitude.

The last group is one that I love to acknowledge. Wouldn’t our days be brightened if we were just going about our routine and someone complimented us? A randomly dropped compliment just might ripple out from one stranger to another, and from there to more people, because happiness has a habit of spreading.

So, as I do sometimes, I complimented Thomas on being consistently cheerful and positive. I may have added that his positive spirit was just the kind of quality I looked for while hiring my team. I say ‘probably’ because that was several months ago, and it’s a compliment I’ve shared with many employees of stores and restaurants so it’s quite likely an honest version of what I might have said to him. I probably also mentioned that an employee like him would be an asset to Costco. Thomas graciously accepted my comments. Every now and then when I shopped at Costco, I’d run into him. We always exchanged friendly greetings.

Thomas was working at Costco’s gas station one day, and as I waited for the tank to fill up, I had a longer conversation with him. I learned that this young man had worked at Costco for a few years. He hoped to go to college some day. He wasn’t sure when it would happen, but it was something he was definitely aiming for. In the meantime, here he was at Costco, working diligently each day. I told Thomas that if he needed any guidance about college, my husband, a college professor, could help him. (It’s great to just volunteer my husband’s support without asking him – he truly loves mentoring students!) I learned this young man’s name that day – and I left after telling him how he could contact us.

I ran into him once in a while after that day. I’d ask him how he was doing. I’d mention college and inquire about how he was doing with that goal. Thomas always smiled enthusiastically and responded that he hoped it would be soon. It was still part of his life plan. The time would be right some day! I’d tell him not to forget that my husband could guide him if he wished. He would tell me a little about his work in the minute or two that we greeted each other and chatted. He was proud about how well he was doing promoting the Costco credit card. Once, he mentioned that his credit card table had been moved to a new location but he was still pretty confident that he would do a great job from that spot. Thomas’ smile was infectious, and his enthusiasm made me think Costco was lucky to have such an employee on their crew. Friendly, cheerful, positive and professional – I would gladly hire a Thomas-clone anytime!

This evening I saw Thomas again. I was at the cash register and he was talking to another Costco employee nearby. I waved hello and he asked if I would wait a moment. He wanted to talk to me. Thomas came over a couple of minutes later and I jokingly asked where his credit card table was stationed this time! He pointed to his red jacket and asked me to read what was on it. I thought he had a new name tag, but when I checked it was actually an embroidered word – ‘Supervisor’. Wow! That was fabulous! I said that just made my day! Very sweetly, he said he felt the same way!

With quiet excitement, Thomas explained that he was one of four employees selected to be a supervisor during the seasonal sales. I joked that I’ve lived in America only for about 25 years, but it’s been long enough to know that seasonal sales are a big deal here! Thomas laughed out, and then he looked more serious. When the seasonal sales were over, Costco would likely select two of the four new supervisors, to continue in that role.  He added that just as he had done before at the credit card table, he was determined to do his very best to earn the supervisor’s role for the long run.

I asked about his college plans! Thomas smiled again (I don’t think he ever stops smiling) and said he might have to delay that dream because of the new responsibilities. The supervisory role would take up a lot of his time, but he was thrilled with the pay raise that came with the new role. I asked if I could give him a little advice… put away a small part of his new salary as savings. “Pretend it doesn’t belong to you. It’s good to have something to fall back on if ‘life happens’ sometime in the future.”  I was so proud of him. This kid (I dye my hair grey these days) had just made my day! He was so proud of his accomplishment, and I was touched that he had shared it with me.

Yes, his name is really Thomas. I don’t want to mention his last name without checking with him. But, if you are at the Michigan Road Costco in Indianapolis and you see a cheerful young man in a red jacket with ‘Thomas’ on his name tag and an embroidered ‘Supervisor’ label, tell him you’ve heard about him! Costco is lucky to have an employee like Thomas – a team member who cares tremendously about doing his job, doing it well, and more importantly demonstrating positive qualities that help set the tone of an organization.

Do take the time to compliment someone who is going the extra mile – someone you know or a complete stranger. Show them you care by telling them what you noticed. You never know how a randomly dropped compliment will ripple out. Some day, if you’re lucky (as I was today), you’ll be standing far away from where the compliment was dropped and the ripples will reach you.

P.S. Thomas, I’m still smiling! So very proud of you!

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The Details that Stick in My Mind

Poverty and Education (Part I)

The school bell rang and a new day had started. Fifteen minutes later, a kid came to the clinic writhing in pain. He couldn’t sit, he couldn’t stand, he couldn’t lie down. He clutched his middle and was in absolute agony. We called his mother and she said she would pick him up and take him to the hospital. The minutes ticked by and we wondered where she was. Ten… fifteen… twenty… When she arrived, we learned that she didn’t have a car. She had walked from her home to the school. A staff member drove them to the hospital which happened to be just down the street. We hoped it wasn’t something serious, but were scared that it might be. In less than an hour, mother and son were back at our school. We learned of his ailment – hunger pangs! That night, I told my family about the little boy and we cried at our dinner table. This happened seven years ago, but it plays out in my mind even today in minute detail. I was in an urban school with high poverty and the lessons I learned that year were ones for which I had no reference point.

I grew up in India and am not unfamiliar with poverty, but seeing it in America, the land of plenty, continues to surprise me. In 1989, when I arrived in the US , I had no knowledge of poverty and homelessness in this country. That changed quickly! I remember standing outside an ice-cream shop in Boston when a man walked up and asked my husband for a cigarette. Then he turned to me, pointed to my ice-cream cone and said, “I’ll take one of those too.” He laughed and walked away. I asked my husband if he knew this man and learned that he was quite likely homeless. I was shocked. A few days later, a man begging outside an ATM kiosk said, “Spare a rupee, ma’am.” I gave him a ten dollar bill – probably because of his cheeky grin!

In India, we have the ‘educated unemployed’ – people with college degrees and no jobs. I was naive enough to think that couldn’t happen in the US! You see, in India, you could be Bill Gates and there would be people begging right outside your home. You would encounter slums and see images of poverty every day. In the US, there are freeways and highways that take us away from inner city areas and it’s possible to live your life here and never pass through poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

I was in graduate school at Boston University, studying special education and I remember taking the ‘T’ and then a bus to go to the Boston University Medical Library to read some articles for a paper on Phenylketonuria (PKU). Ah, the inconsequential little details that stick in our minds! Halfway through the trip, I felt like I was entering a different world from the one I lived in. Was I still in Boston? I was stunned to see a landscape completely alien to my year-long experience in Boston. I couldn’t understand how this level of poverty was possible in America. I couldn’t understand how it was that I didn’t know this neighborhood existed even though I thought I had traveled ‘so much’ around Boston. I had just seen tremendous poverty in America and had no reference point in my experiences to understand it.

Years later, I continued to learn about poverty as I worked with students in public schools in Iowa and Indiana. I remember driving to school with my six year-old son. NPR’s Morning Edition kept us company and this time they were broadcasting a piece on poverty. My son, who was apparently listening intently, chimed in from the back seat saying, “But, mummy, there are no poor people in America.” I tried explaining to him that some of my students lived in poor neighborhoods. That afternoon as we drove back home I showed him run-down neighborhoods, homes with tiny yards, boarded-up windows… and he said, “They are not poor. They have houses.” He had seen poverty and slums in India – people with no food, shelter, clothing, no clean drinking water or access to toilets – and in his little mind he had defined poverty through that lens. He had no reference point for poverty in America.

Working in public schools, I  learned about free and reduced lunches, food stamps, homeless shelters and hunger. Eventually, I learned that my heart thrives in an urban school setting. This is the place I call my ‘professional home’. In the school I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I sensed that the cafeteria had a different feel to it. I couldn’t figure out what was different. Eventually, I realized that the kids ate everything that was on their lunch trays. No one was throwing out unopened cartons of milk or cups of fruit. They ate every last bit of broccoli and peas. I had worked in other schools where this was not the case – where good food was simply thrown in the trash. This was different – in a not-so-good way – because I now realized that hunger pangs could easily be an issue for many, many more kids.

A few days before Thanksgiving break, a teacher called me to her classroom. A student had ‘shut down’. He refused to do the work assigned to him. He didn’t disrupt the class but he was certainly non-compliant. I brought him to the office and tried to see what was bothering him. Kind words, caring questions – he refused to respond. He was not disrespectful. He just would not look at me or speak to me. His eyes filled with tears but they didn’t trickle down his cheek. He was bravely holding them back. It broke my heart and I felt helpless. I gave him a few minutes to pull himself together thinking that might help. When I returned, I found he had had crumpled and torn the paper on his desk and it was now littered all around his chair. His head was in his hands and he still refused to talk to me. Just then, a teacher walked by. She said, “Mrs. Balagopal, would you mind if _____ comes and helps me in my classroom? He was in my class last year and he will be fine with me.” I asked him if he wanted to do that, and he nodded quietly. She asked him to go ahead and she stayed back to share a few words. She wanted me to know that I might see students ‘falling apart’ just before breaks – long weekends, holidays and summer vacations. She shared that in school they had access to two meals which were likely their ‘biggest’ meals each day. She had learned that student behavior often worsened when breaks were approaching. In the days ahead, they would not have these meals to rely on. We now know that trauma affects kids in many ways. I would never know the reason why the student shut down, but this teacher taught me a big lesson that day!

Throughout the summer vacation, each year, my school district provides breakfast and lunches to children and they even bring it to some of the apartment complexes in our neighborhoods. Every Friday, my school, and many others provide students with Back Sacks from Gleaners, the local food bank – a bag of food for kids to take home  so they can have access to meals over the weekend. Euphemistically, we call this program the Nutrition Club, so that students don’t feel singled out! The last day of school before winter break was on a Thursday. Our school secretary said that dozens of kids had come to the office all day asking, “Today is Thursday and we don’t have school tomorrow. Will you have the Nutrition Club today?” What, I wondered, would they do after the food was gone in a couple of days? Students new to our school are not shy about asking if we have a Nutrition Club. “We had it in our old school. Can we join it here?” We wish we didn’t have a cap on the number of students who can be in the ‘club’.

These stories, and many, many more stick in my mind. I’m learning to deal with it in America, even though I don’t understand it. Yes, I saw a lot of poverty in India and so this shouldn’t surprise me. However, having lived here for over two decades now, it feels personal because I know these kids. I know their names and some of the stories from their lives. They are now my stories too because for 7 hours a day, 181 days of each school year, these kids belong to me. I want to make a difference in their lives. I know that their lives are complex, and I lack a magic wand, but I have the power of my thoughts, my ideas, my words… and I can reflect on their stories to shape the work I do and that my school does for them each day.

In this and subsequent posts, I hope to share the lessons I’ve learned from the stories that are stuck in my mind. This is not about the research that others have done on the connection between poverty and education. I want to pen my reflections on the lessons I’ve learned along the way and what can make a difference in the educational experiences of these children. In urban schools, we ‘battle’ the effects of poverty on a daily basis and it can wear us down pretty quickly. Imagine how worn out we might be if we were the ones living in poverty! It’s easy to become cynical about the things we see in our schools and the challenges we face. This set of posts aims to bust that cynicism by thinking of what is possible, by framing ideas in terms of what we can do, what we should do and what we would do were these kids our own! I hope you’ll tag along on this journey!

“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” — James A. Baldwin

Ideas EVOLVE…

‘Change’ is an interesting concept. We discuss it a lot in terms of our work as school leaders, and experience it in many forms. People have different reactions to change – some embrace it, some are indifferent to it, and others may dislike it quite strongly. Schools experience change in so many ways – changes in leadership, instructional practices, initiatives – first order or second order change. This week, I found an interesting article from McREL, where the authors Eck and Goodwin urge school leaders to not ignore resistance but stop to ask “why” people feel the way they do about change. They are right – ignoring resistance is not useful – building commitment to the ‘change’ is critical and definitely not easy.They describe first order change as building on the past, and second order change as breaking with the past and acquiring new skills and knowledge. I see where they are going but I’m shifting gears a little.

About a year ago as I grappled yet again with the notion of change tied to initiatives at my school, I spent a lot of time trying to understand what we were aiming to accomplish. I understand the idea that first order change shifts practice and second order change shakes up systems and beliefs. However, in thinking deeply about it, I was really moving towards a different word – ‘evolve’. I have deep respect for the work done by many professionals on the idea of change and how it affects organizations. Yet, something draws me to the notion that ideas evolve – even for second order change.

I believe that each idea is based on another idea. What we build and create comes from our experiences, our beliefs and our skills. So when we consider something new or different, if we look a little deeper it really grows out of something else that we already know. The new idea might offer a different perspective and shake things up a little (or a lot), but don’t we recognize it as different because of other knowledge that we hold? To acquire new knowledge and shift our beliefs we still need to build upon what we already know and believe. Shifting gears happens because we slide from one position to another, moving a little further each time. And you know, once in a while things do slide back – and we have to always be able to respond to that.

Perhaps this is a simplistic way of viewing the world, and I have to admit, I need to see how this evolves (pardon the pun) over time, but it works for me and helps me refine my thoughts about the things we seek to do. Certainly whether or not the change flows from a shared vision – ‘we’re part of this’ vs. ‘it’s being done to us’ – will make a difference in how the idea is embraced. However, I believe we can build a collective responsibility from understanding how the idea evolved. I’ve observed that people tend to respond more positively in conversations about how our work ‘evolves’. I am not sure how much of that is because it’s not the ‘c’ word, or because we take the time to talk about it. Either way, our collective foot comes off the brake.

We talk about how building background knowledge is a critical practice that allows students to connect what they know to new information. I think this is true for adults too. If I believe that ideas evolve, then it becomes important to see what lies below them – the foundation of what we already know that we can connect to any new idea or belief. Doing this allows us to engage each other and gain from varied perspectives. Our task is complex, and finding connections allows us to strengthen our work.

I need to refine my ideas on this topic, but for now, I’m going to stick with the notion that ideas evolve and see where it takes me. I’ll probably revisit it sometime again in the future. So… what do YOU think?