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Because I Paid Attention, I Learned

Personal Perspective: Being mindful of others helps me learn about them and me.

Key points

  • Paying attention helps me to make sense of the world.
  • I read between the lines of conversation to interpret the real meaning.
  • Paying attention has enabled me to be a very effective professor.
Courtesy of Barbara Jaffe
The author with her favorite bougainvillea.
Source: Courtesy of Barbara Jaffe

I have a keen ability to pay attention. I learned to "read the room" early on, especially when it wasn’t a friendly room; to really interpret the truth when my mother said she was fine.

What’s the matter? I would ask. She’d invariably say, Nothing, in an angry, dismissive tone that enabled me to see through her words that had melted heavily into the air between us.

The Power of Paying Attention

I understood what she really meant, lying in bed and not wanting to go out with us all. I paid attention.

When I ate multiple slices of pepperoni pizza and ice cream and saw her surveying me, uncomfortably, in a way that made me feel equally uneasy, that made me want to put the fork down. I paid attention.

I see what even my husband, the psychiatrist, can miss. I see the sadness and loneliness in the man sitting at the table next to us at the restaurant, while my husband sees a man dining alone—only that. My heart is heavy for his isolation.

He doesn’t even read a book or look at his phone. He looks straight ahead and a little to the side, as if he is looking at his life in the rearview mirror.

Because I paid attention, on the phone, I heard my sister-in-law’s voice crack almost imperceptibly to know she wasn’t as fine as she said she was. And then we talked about our kids, our husbands, and our lives and we both felt better.

Listening to the Silence

I learned that my sons weren’t always okay even when they said they were. I learned how boys communicate differently than girls, certainly differently than I did. I began to hear what they didn’t say.

When I picked them up from school, I let their silence dissipate until they were ready to share about their days. I gave them the time, time that I didn’t need, but they did. Over many years, I learned to pay attention as a mom of three sons.

I meet someone countless times (or so it seems) and while I remember them, they have no memory of ever meeting me. I once even corrected the blank-faced woman whose hand reached out to shake mine. I can’t help but add: “Oh, you must remember me, we have met ten times before.” She is not even embarrassed; I understood what her silence meant too.

“Any questions, I would ask my writing students. No hands were raised, but I knew what the quiet meant, so I asked my own questions until students, one by one, asked theirs.

Dr. Jaffe, you made a mistake on my grade; you took off a point you shouldn’t have.

Of course, I will add the point and I will do it right now and I want you to watch me add the point into my grade book.

Oh, it’s OK, Dr. Jaffe; I don’t really need the point.

Oh, yes, you do. And you deserve it.

Caring Enough to Notice

I knew it wasn’t just about the point, but this student, like all of us, wanted to be noticed, to be heard and acknowledged. She needed to know that I, the teacher, made a mistake and was willing to make it right without any power struggle.

I paid attention to the horrendously poor teachers I had, the ones who ridiculed and teased me in front of the class; the university professor who returned tests in the order of our grades, with mine towards the bottom of the stack. Because I paid attention, I knew I would be a different type of teacher: one who listened; one who cared.

I paid attention to new acquaintances who shared a meal with us and told us they thought it was funny that migrants were being bused from Florida to Martha’s Vineyard. I spoke up; I had to. We are not friends now.

In both my personal and professional lives, I learned to pay attention to my own discomfort, my weaknesses, my awkwardness and knew that I could make someone else feel better if they felt the same—all because I cared enough to pay attention first to my own voice and then to theirs.

More from Barbara A Jaffe Ed.D.
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