Josh Misner discovered he had a choice to be a Gate-Opener or a Gatekeeper as he developed young minds. He made the mindful choice to become a role model. Here is how.
On Commencement Friday in May every year, people come together to celebrate the height of achievement and optimism. Nary a year goes by when I am not moved by seeing at least one of my former students cross the stage to shake hands with the college president and receive a diploma (cover), particularly when considering the stories behind such students. After the ceremony, as faculty, students, and their families mingle outside, I can inevitably count on one of those students approaching me, eager to introduce me to her or his family. What always gets me is how they introduce me: “I’d like you to meet Josh, my communication professor. He’s the one who believed in me/inspired me/urged me to continue/worked with me despite being a pain, etc.”
Despite this happening year after year, I am still easily embarrassed by such introductions. They serve as a powerful lesson, but first, let’s look at another example, this time, from home. My oldest son thanked me after finishing boot camp, but what surprised me was what he thanked me for, which was for being a hard-ass and refusing to give up on him, despite all of his efforts to the contrary. In a high school class, my oldest daughter delivered a speech about how I was her hero because of my unwavering support, even when that support wasn’t what she necessarily wanted. My two youngest children, on separate occasions, have also expressed gratitude for nothing else other than being their father (and not only on Father’s Day when such sentiment is expected).
These stories are not trolling for attention (see comment regarding embarrassment above), but rather, make a point regarding the importance of mindfulness with respect to being role models.
What these stories have in common is that they could not have been possible without an investment of mindfulness. When students email me sob stories (and believe me, there are many), begging for reprieve, I have a choice. I could teach them the hard lesson of, “not my problem – deal with it,” or I could take a moment to be mindful.
As I consider the point of the student, I imagine the part I want to play in this student’s future narrative, as she or he walks across the stage on commencement day. Do I want to lean over to a colleague and whisper, “Boy, that one barely made it,” or do I want to swell with pride as I consider the student’s success narrative that she or he uses as an attempt to inspire others? Do I want this story to end in a lesson on gratitude, understanding, and grace, or do I want to teach the student about the harsh nature of failure and consequences?
Only mindfulness contains the wisdom to discern the difference, but from nearly a decade of teaching, I state with blunt honesty that I have far more frequently chosen the path of fulfillment. From my experience, the path of mercy and grace—a choice that takes mere moments from my usual routine to listen and empathize before making a simple accommodation that costs me nothing—teaches that grace is something worth striving for, but more importantly, something worth giving to others.
Similarly, as a father, I end every day by considering how it might appear as a memory in my children’s adult minds. Every day, I ask myself, Did I do anything today worth remembering, and if not, why?
In the end, our actions as role models in any context must be mindful. Like a chess master who considers all future implications of a move before committing to it, we, as role models amid others’ lives, must first consider how our actions might shape others’ narratives at some point in our mutual futures.
We must constantly ask ourselves how these potentially defining moments might later be remembered, but more importantly, we must consider if we like the potential roles in which we cast ourselves. If not, it is imperative that we consider the alternatives.
As role models, we actively shape and direct others’ life stories, which is a grand responsibility when we stop to ponder it. Gatekeepers, when presented with problems, see only a narrow perspective and point to the obstacle that is the gate. Gate-openers provide others with opportunities by helping to remove the obstacle.
To close, I present a story of an influential professor who unknowingly showed me the power of being a gate-opener.
It was the beginning of the semester, and a certain student was new to the university (transfer student). She was nontraditional (married, with children) and desperately sought a 3-credit class to work with her busy schedule but still apply to her major. As she lamented the problem with her adviser and considered dropping out, another professor overheard their conversation. Poking his head into the room, he apologized for interrupting and offered the student a nontraditional solution to her nontraditional problem. He bent the rules so she could take one of his night classes from home, instead of on-campus, offering to send her the lecture materials and accept her assignments online. This solution helped solve her financial aid dilemma, but at the same time, inspired this student to reciprocate his compassion by applying herself to his course material even more than she may have by taking the class in a more traditional manner.
The student was my wife, and the eavesdropping professor would later become a respected mentor and to this day, a great friend. Someone else may have shrugged off what he overheard and kept walking. In that moment, he recognized an opportunity to open a gate, changing my wife’s narrative, and his mindful moment ended up transforming the future for more than one person.
At the end of the day, our question is this: What have we done worth remembering, especially considering that such a memory could change someone’s life story? While the effort to do so is minimal, the impact can be felt for generations.
Photo: Flickr/Robert MUSENZE