The Flying Chalk

RESPECT: to have due regard for someone’s feelings, wishes, or rights. As a coach I am often asked “how can I work with someone I don’t respect?”. Surprisingly, the answer comes from the most unexpected sources.

Today morning my 9YO was in a virtual classroom. While waiting for the session to start, she was exchanging her email id with her classmates. This 5-minute cacophony is something we all look forward to. With absolutely no physical school for the past 2 years,  in-person child-to-child interaction is minimal.

Coming back to the cacophony. As our daughter A was saying her email id aloud to a friend , the teacher logged in and said, “Good Morning Class”. Miss A  cheekily remarked, “Wait sir, we are exchanging email ids. Please don’t interrupt”.

My parental instincts were instantly alarmed and wanted to intervene. The traditionalist in me wanted to stop my child from being impertinent. I remember my days in school when we would get a flying chalk from our teacher for being so vocal, especially if it were in response to the teacher. Culturally we have been taught to always respect teachers and elders. In the classroom this translates to not interrupting or contradicting authority figures. And yet, there is always someone in a classroom who will rebel against this attitude of deference and speak their mind. These individuals would be pelted by flying chalks. A very Indian coming-of age experience, the “flying chalk” is a rite of passage for generations of kids. Everyone has a “flying chalk” story of their own.

One such story is of my Dad, who was such a talkative person that his life’s agenda was to challenge everything. This meant some interesting classroom debates and discussions. He was a precocious and spirited child who had an opinion about everything. I really don’t envy his teachers, especially when they didn’t have answers to his questions. He was invariably at the receiving end of many such flying chalks. He would narrate how he had collected 3 shoe boxes worth of chalk in grade 10 and then how it became a conversation point after he returned them to the principal at the end of the year.

Anyways, as my parental instinct stepped in, I had to quickly coach and stop myself from interfering when I heard the teacher. He said, “Thank you A for stopping me, I must be respectful”.

I froze. My thoughts ran in all directions, and I felt more keenly the change that the world has gone through. This 2-line conversation taught me some vital lessons for the workplace today.

Focus: Our child’s single-minded focus was to be able to connect with her friend after school. It was also her motivation to state in a very matter of fact way that she didn’t want to be interrupted. Simple constraints of physical distance and lack of time while at online school did not stop her. Had the teacher not allowed her to finish this exchange she would have been distracted in class. Sometimes we face with similar distractions at work which prevent us from being present in the moment. They can prove to be disruptive if not addressed immediately.

Respect:  Often we teach respect without practicing it. While as a parent I thought our daughter was disrespecting the teacher and I threw a mental flying chalk at her,  what I forgot is that I was going to disrespect her in the bargain. She didn’t say anything wrong. And I certainly don’t want her to grow up into a docile creature who always follows the norms. I want her to be able to challenge any preconceived notions, have healthy debates and defy expectations. But I can’t do that if I stop her from speaking her mind every time she says something that I wouldn’t. During a coaching session silence, or the lack of it, can be a very impactful method of showing respect.

Power: Traditional hierarchical systems are out. Position and titles don’t define power; influence comes from enabling and empowering your team. The teacher taught a very vital lesson to our daughter. While growing up we were taught directly or indirectly that if the person is senior to you the person deserves respect. Respect the position even if you don’t respect the person or the person does not respect you back. Young people were always on the receiving end of advice, but their opinions did not matter. It doesn’t have to be this way. We need to encourage a culture of respect regardless of the position, the person or their age. This has been one of the most discussed questions in my coaching sessions, “How do I work with someone that I don’t respect or don’t agree with?” The answer is not always easy but I find inspiration in the every day interactions with the people in my life, starting with my 9-year old.

Clarity in communication: They were just two simple sentences, but they were clear and concise. Even though it was a virtual session, the use of body language and ontology was evident. Each person used their sense of being in that minute. The teacher was present and not distracted. He did not dismiss my daughter’s comment and was attentive to a child’s need of expression even as he logged in. These 5 seconds of preparedness can have immeasurable positive impact. A great example of being there fully, just like being present in a coaching session.

Letting go: This one is a note to self. The side of me that takes charge, tends to listen less. I find myself preempting the next sentence in my mind. As I stopped to listen, the conversation flowed naturally. If I had intervened, I would not have learnt the valuable lesson that my daughter is a strong and confident girl who can stand up for herself. She can navigate her environment with poise, even at 9 years old. This is immensely reassuring for me as a parent who second-guesses herself frequently.

Often, we have our own “flying chalk” moments – in our mind, and sometimes out loud while having a conversation. We may jump to conclusions or pass judgement without reading the subtext. These can be due to prejudice, long-held beliefs, the need to take charge and the desire to be a perfectionist.

As social media continues to provide newer platforms of expression, we are all learning to communicate in ways that can feel informal, irreverent or even disrespectful. There is a huge potential for misunderstanding and disagreement with all the voices and opinions out there. Communication in this social media and tech-savvy world is not about hierarchy, power, or influence but about clarity, intent and tone. Were you surprised recently by a conversation with someone? Was it online, virtual or in a real life? What kind of “flying chalk” moments have you had?

4 Responses

  1. Very well expressed and so true. ‘It’s seems to be the state of all parents. We think we know enough with our experiences but surprisingly our children are so aware of their surroundings. We at their age were so docile- had no opinion in anything – would accept and perform as advised by our elders. ! We would never think or dream of questioning the norm !
    Love the idea of throwing flying chalks – don’t we do it even though we don’t say anything aloud??? Yess times have changed

  2. A lovely, reflective write up Anjani.
    True values like empathy, patience, acceptance all shine through the reflections that you so seamlessly share 😊

  3. Well said Anjani. This write up leaves food for thought, on better parenting and unlearning some old ideologies to matchup to the changing times. This will ensure better bonding and understanding between parents and children.