My turn, Larry Efird: Prioritize listening, learning first
By Larry Efird
When I was younger, I often wondered how writers found so much information to write about.
I couldn’t understand how someone could write a whole book from basically nothing. It was along the lines of wondering how God created the world “ex nihilo” as the theologians tell us. Authors had a similar task when they were creating their novels or short stories, but I knew they took longer than six days to complete them.
“I mean, how could they make up so much stuff?” as some of my students would say.
Good writers will tell you that they look for stories all around them — at the grocery store, the beauty shop, the hardware store, church and the bank, just to name a few places. The problem is I can never remember exactly what I see or hear. That’s the reason some writers keep a pencil and pad of paper handy, just in case they run into a good story while out in public.
Napkins at Bojangle’s can even work, too, in an emergency!
In the past couple of months, I experienced this unique opportunity, once while waiting for my car to be repaired and once while waiting at the doctor’s office.
I guess others don’t realize their conversations are being broadcast to an entire group of people that they don’t even know, but obviously, they don’t seem to care. Good thing I didn’t mind listening in, because I really didn’t have a choice.
I’m often surprised at the passion with which people address politics in public. On the day of the Teacher’s March in Raleigh last May, I overheard a customer in the lobby of a car dealership say how “selfish” she thought teachers were because they were “taking a day off” in the middle of the week.
She went on to say, “Teachers don’t care about nobody but theirselves!”
I almost choked on my Peanut M&Ms at that remark, but then I saw the humor in it. I wish I could have told her, “And you obviously don’t care very much about your grammar.” I could have written an entire short story about the conversation she went on to have with her husband and an employee who happened to be standing nearby, but when her husband started barking like a dog, I decided I needed to go outside for some fresh air. That would have to be someone else’s story.
On another occasion, while getting some lab work done at the doctor’s office, two gentlemen began discussing everything from immigration to tattoos.
I’ve never heard anyone associate tattoos with politics, but somewhere in their mix of words, laced with profanity, they decided there was a cause-and-effect relationship between those two things.
I was actually trying to innocently read a book to pass the time when one of the men told me, “That must be a pretty good book you’re readin’ there.” I told him it was, and that I was a teacher. He then proceeded to tell me, as so many often do, “I could never teach school. Kids would drive me crazy.”
I wanted to tell him that he and the other man were driving me crazier than my students. A few minutes earlier, one of them had also told me he “wouldn’t bother me no more” and let me read my book. That lasted for about 45 seconds.
I learned something valuable in those two random encounters.
People like to hear themselves talk without taking time to listen. They also like to reaffirm their prejudices by sharing them with others while at the same time not saying anything relevant.
I also realized how much easier it is to communicate with teenagers. They are more eager to listen and to think about possible solutions rather than assuming everyone else is always wrong.
I regularly tell my kids that in order to learn they first have to listen. Good listening is a skill everyone needs to develop.
The best writers are those who first learn how to listen, whether it is to nature or to people. That’s how they “come up with all that stuff to write about” and have something meaningful to say in the process.
Larry Efird teaches English at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.
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