About a decade ago, shortly before my family moved to Toronto, an article appeared in the Washington Post suggesting that Allen Iverson, the then all start point guard for the 76ers, a man who unselfconsciously refers to his athletic ability as “God’s gift,” might be traded to the Raptors for Vince Carter. It was going to be AI for VC. My sons, all of whom sported “AI” jerseys at the time, were ecstatic. I remember my 11 year-old asked me, “If AI gets traded, can I join his posse?”
In true fatherly fashion, I ducked the question completely and referred him to Mr. Kawasoe. I figured that there was probably a “policy on posses” embedded somewhere in the Prep Handbook.
I want to tell you a quick story about AI: When Allen was in Grade 8, he was heavily recruited by a number of high-powered high school basketball coaches. (I managed to avoid this experience myself, but you can only imagine the deleterious effects the recruiting of preadolescents has on youngsters. I will save that topic for another day.)
The man who eventually became Iverson’s high school coach described his first conversation with the then Grade 8 boy 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.
The 13 year-old Iverson said, “I’ve got just one. Will you pay attention to me?”
What a remarkable question. A fatherless boy, despite the macho posturing and tatood-tough veneer, understood what he needed: a concerned adult to care for him.
“Will you pay attention to me?” is an invisible question. It is asked in all schools. It is said without words. It is asked unconsciously. It is asked 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 my first day of Grade 9, I expected to find conscientious teachers who would push me to work hard.
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 some profound ways: They managed to change the way I looked at myself, the way I looked at life, and the way I looked at God. They sparked this change, what erudite IB2 students might refer to as a “metanoia” by paying attention to me.
I want to stress that these teachers created this change – not in addition to teaching Algebra, moderating the school paper, or coaching the swim team – but by the very way they did all of these things. While the school was large, it never felt like a “boy factory” where students and teachers alike spend the day playing educational détente. (“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-tinted glasses. School was hard. The third declension didn’t come easily. I didn’t have a date for the semi-formal, and I seldom made the first team in just about anything.
I did, though, make mistakes, inside and outside the classroom, and when I did, I had teachers who let me know about them. Some of these teachers did so with great gusto, as I recall. While I knew my teachers cared about me, I never confused any of them with Homer Simpson.
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 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 means he knows that you are capable of something better, and he is confronting you precisely because he cares about you. Because he is paying attention to you.
Because love (and I confess to being uncomfortable using that word right now) but that’s really what we are talking about – is both blue velvet and blue steel. Without the steel, without talking directly to you about hard things from time to time, love would be just smarmy, cotton-candied kind of vacuousness.
A final thought about that invisible question: It’s not just the teachers or 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 closely:
When a friend misses school, and you call him up to give him the homework;
when you see a new student wandering around, looking for a place to have lunch, 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 his class, rank, or social status, the same way you’d treat the Head Steward.
Whenever you do any of these things, you are saying, “Yes, I hear you. I’m paying attention.” You’re showing that you’ve been listening to the silent question, the one we ask one another every day.
(And by the way, AI for VC would have been a good deal.)