AI and The Invisible Question

Those of you who know me, know that I am something of a basketball junky, and I was delighted to learn on Friday, that Allen Iverson, aka “The Answer” signed on to play with the Memphis Grizzlies. About 5 years ago, shortly before we moved to Toronto, there was a rumour that AI was about to be traded to the Raptors for Vince Carter. Since there are quite a few AI jersies in the Power House, we were thrilled, and I remember my youngest son’s asking if he could join AI’s posse. I told him that, I was sure the Prep had a “Posee Policy” which would prevent such an opportunity.

A quick story about AI, a man who unselfconsciously refers to himself as “God’s gift.” When Allen was in grade 8, he was heavily recruited by a number of high-powered basketball coaches. (One can only imagine the deleterious effects the recruiting of pre-adolescents has on youngsters, but I will save that rant for another time.) The man who eventually became Iverson’s coach described his first conversation with AI this way:

After going through the usual litany of expectations, “You’ll have to work hard. You’ll have to play defense. You’ll have to put the team first, etc,” the coach asked Allen if he had any questions. He said, “I’ve got just one. Will you pay attention to me?”

What a remarkable question. A fatherless boy, despite the macho-posturing, hip hop, city tough tatoed  veneer,  understood what he really needed: a concerned adult to keep an eye on him.

“Will you pay attention to me?” is an invisible question in schools. It is said without words. It is said unconsciously and yet continuously.

Many years ago, back when leisure suits first walked the earth, I attended a private boys school in Philadelphia because my parents thought it was the best school in the city, and they were willing to make the sacrifice to send me there. When I walked in the door on my first day of grade 9, I expected to find conscientious teacher who would push me to work harder than I had before.

What I didn’t expect, though, was that in addition to helping me develop my reading, writing, and thinking abilities, these adults would also affect me in a profound way. They managed to change the way I looked at life, at God, and at myself. They sparked – or ignited this change,  what an erudite IB2 student might refer to as “metanoia” – by paying attention to me.

I want to stress that the teachers created this change, not in addition to teaching Algebra or moderating the school paper, or coaching the swim team, but by the very way they did all these things. While the school was large, it never felt like a “kid factory” where students and teachers alike spend the day playing educational détente. “You don’t hassle me, and I won’t hassle you.” Though I might not have been able to translate the Latin, I could sense what they called “cura personalis” – the care and concern for the individual.

I don’t want to sound like a hapless, middle-aged romantic looking back at his own adolescence through rose-coloured glasses. School was hard. The third declension didn’t come easily. I couldn’t get a date for the semi-formal, and I got cut from the basketball team. Alas. I made plenty of mistakes, both inside and outside the classroom, and when I did, I had teachers who let me know about it. Some of them did so with great gusto! As a group, these teachers were not riddled with self-doubt, and our essential agreements would not have been theirs. While I knew my teachers cared about me, I never confused any of them with Mary Poppins.

I mention this because, when “the invisible question” is asked, unlike those dreaded and dreadful multiple-choice questions, there is more than one correct answer. Yes, there will be times when you will need a pat on the back, times when a teacher or advisor or friend will encourage you to hang in there. But there will be other times when someone will tell you in a direct, unflinching, and uncompromising way that, while they are paying attention to you, they don’t like what they see.

Someday your advisor may pull you aside and say, “Your grades are lousy. I want to see you buckle down and do some work.” That doesn’t mean he doesn’t like you. It does mean he isn’t pleased with your performance, knows you are capable of something better, and he is confronting you precisely because he cares about you. Because he is paying attention to you. And because care is sometimes blue velvet and sometimes blue steel.

A final thought about that invisible question: It’s not just the teachers and administrators who hear it or need to respond to it. You can and must hear it, too, but you’ll do so, only if you listen or watch closely:

when a friend misses school, and you call to give him homework, without waiting for him to contact you;

when you see a new student wandering around, looking for a friendly face in the dining hall, and you call him over and make room for him at your table;

when you learn that another classmate has no plans for the weekend, and you work him into yours;

when you treat everyone, regardless of class, rank, or social status, the same way you’d treat the Head Steward.

Whenever you do any of these things, you’re saying, “Yes, I hear you. I’m paying attention.” You’re showing that you’ve been listening to the silent question, the invisible question we ask one another every day.

(And by the way, AI for VC would have been a great deal!)


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