Faculty meetings can be tough for me. Over the past year, I made a new commitment to try to contribute to the community without vying for power or inadvertently bumping up against egos. Though I approached the meetings with great resolve to add my voice with honesty and respect, I often found myself sitting in silence, listening to conversations I didn’t know how to enter. My strong feelings about some of the issues would tend to erupt in blurted-out comments rather than reasoned articulations, and I often felt drained and disappointed in myself when the meetings ended.
I decided to turn to a mentor—a teacher and colleague who could help me. I found one in Kim Stafford. A poet, writer, and wonderful storyteller, Kim brought these strengths to his encounters with the faculty. I observed his ability to be a genuine part of the community, a colleague who consistently brought a respectful voice—of critique as well as creativity—to faculty forums.
“Kim, I need your help. Could we meet for lunch?” That was all it took to initiate a dialogue. Kim listened hard, then shared his insights. His advice focused on the importance of bringing your gifts to your professional life. “I’m a storyteller,” he told me. “When I want to make a point in meetings, I think, Here’s a story I can tell to illustrate a point.” Together we brainstormed ways that I might bring my own passions for observing, taking notes, and writing, writing, writing to faculty discussions and meetings, using my strengths to help inform the community about patterns I might be noticing, trends I might be seeing.
He also encouraged me to focus on the part of my profession that I love—the teaching and work with students in the community that inspires me—and bring that energy to our faculty community. He reminded me that that would be a far better gift than getting bogged down in worrying about how people reacted to me and perceived me. And he closed his advice with a story (of course!).
“Too often, we see things here as a choice—this or that, black or white. We have three minutes to make a decision, one of these choices or the other. But there is usually a third choice we haven’t thought of that can open up new options. I like this story about a princess in ancient China. Her father depended on his chief counselor, a man who used his power to have access to beautiful young women. It seems this counselor decided that his next concubine would be the princess. He approached the king with a proposal:
“‘At dawn, I will meet with you and the princess by the sea. There, I will present her with a bowl with two small round stones: one black and one white. If the princess chooses the white stone, she can reject my offer, but if she chooses the black stone, she must become my concubine.’ Torn between his love for his daughter and his need for his counselor’s advice and strategies, her father reluctantly agreed.
“The next morning, they all met by the shore. The counselor held the bowl over the princess’s head and demanded, ‘Choose.’ The princess reached into the bowl and chose a stone—but instead of showing it to her eager audience, she cast it into the sea. Reaching into the bowl, she plucked out the remaining stone, a black one. ‘Ah, I cast the white stone I chose into the sea. I therefore reject your offer.’
“Just as the princess had expected, the counselor had placed two black stones in the bowl. Her bold decision to reject ‘the only two choices’ she was offered and instead choose a third course of action had preserved her freedom.
“There are always far more choices than we think, Ruth,” Kim advised me in closing.
I carry Kim’s wise counsel with me on a daily basis—in my professional and personal decisions. In faculty meetings, I often use the strategies Kim and I brainstormed. I bring my notebook, write what I am observing, note excerpts of dialogue, and share patterns with the faculty of what I’ve noticed and learned from our discussions. And though not the storyteller Kim is, I bring some narratives and stories straight from my fieldnotes from the classrooms I visit to illustrate an idea or build on a discussion.
And his final advice also continues to resonate with me, as I sometimes find, despite my best intentions, that I have to “choose a third course of action.” There are times when I find myself measuring if it makes sense to speak. Do I really want to extend a discussion that seems to be spinning out of control? Will it matter if I enter the fray, or should I contribute at another time? In those moments, I make a different choice: breathe deeply, and focus on my breathing, reminding myself that like the princess in Kim’s story, I can choose a different course.