What Can SA Learn from Grandparents: My Encounter with an Elder
It happened on the Tuesday morning at #ACPA16. Realising that I had just missed the opening of an educational session, I decided to just “email and chill” in a quiet corner. That’s when I spotted Charlie Patton, one of the Mohawk Elders in Residence at the conference.
I had wanted to chat with an Aboriginal Elder for some time, but for many reasons, I had not (e.g. fear of breaching some protocols because of my ignorance, needing to formulate my questions, not having/finding the time, etc.). This time, I had the perfect excuse: I went over to Charlie, introduced myself as someone from the Convention Planning Team, and asked how he was enjoying the conference. What began as a polite check-in quickly turned into one of the most powerful conversations I’ve had for some time.
For an hour and a half, Charlie and I talked about many different things: he told me the creation story of his people (a short version of which can be found here), and sang me songs in his people’s language; we discussed the strength and resilience of the Mohawk people, and how they fought to preserve their identity through centuries of oppression; he encouraged me to find my “wholeness” when I told him how uprooted and homesick I had felt lately, even though I was the one who fought to leave home in the first place…
My conversation with Charlie was more circular than linear. We had no agenda. There wasn’t any question that needed to be answered. We simply let the conversation be. To many of us “busy professionals,” this is an unfamiliar way of relating to each other, yet there was something beautifully familiar about this encounter. Then it dawned on me:
Charlie reminded me of my grandparents!
The day before I met Charlie, I had attended a panel session where Dr. Amanda Tachine from the University of Arizona encouraged educators to be more like our grandparents, specifically grandmothers. Grandparents listen to us when we’re in trouble, and allow us the time and space to be vulnerable. They give us advice in exactly the way we need to hear it, whether we’re ready for it or not, and they tell us stories about where we’re from and who we are. Grandparents care.
The conversation with Charlie was impactful for me, not because I understood everything he was saying (or singing) to me, but because I was moved by his kindness and willingness to share his worldview and listen to mine. Time froze because we stopped looking at our watches and gave each other our full attention, and that’s exactly how I remembered my interactions with my grandparents.
Teaching and learning reside in these conversations and moments. As Dr. Christine Nelson proposed in the session I attended, we needed to make time for stories. It is a sign of respect, and it is the right thing to do, regardless of whether you understand everything, no matter how long those stories take.
As educators in student affairs and services, how well are we following in our grandparents’ footsteps? I reflected on this after my #ACPA16 experience and encounter with Charlie, and came up with a few ideas for myself when I engage with students and colleagues:
- Listen intently: I will stop nodding and paraphrasing and pretending to understand when I don’t. I will learn to be patient and really let others finish their stories and thoughts before I go in with my questions or ideas.
- Make time: Following up on the point #1, I’m going to make time for important conversations and try not to rush things along. Some chats just need to take however long they take.
- Give thanks: The biggest lesson from Charlie is that we need to be grateful for all that we have in our lives. There are plenty of things I can complain about and criticise—I’m very good at problematising things…—but I’ll try to remember the positive things that surround me.
- Be whole: At the closing of #ACPA16, Charlie said, “The way you touch people is with your spirit.” I will do a better job staying in touch and connected with myself and the people in my life.
What about you? What did you learn from your grandparents or elders, and are there things we can learn from their teachings that will enhance our professional and personal lives? Please share your stories below. I’m all ears!