Mrs. Snow was a stubborn, demanding teacher. There were times I liked her and times she was just an hour I had to get through on my way to the final 2:30 afternoon bell. There were also times I really disliked her. She was tough. But I still haven’t forgotten her or the lesson she taught me.
Mrs. Snow taught high school German. German wasn’t my favorite subject, but I thought one day I'd like to travel, maybe even to Germany. Since it filled a foreign language credit, I took the class.
German One was held in a portable classroom outside the main high school building. I remember the classroom clearly, 20 or so desks arranged in a neat square, facing the front of the classroom to the north. There were pictures and maps of Germany hung on the walls. Mrs. Snow’s desk sat up front, next to a large self-contained bookcase on wheels where she kept a large assortment of books, manuals and recordings, all about Germany and the German language.
Mrs. Snow had dark, curly short hair and thin-rimmed glasses. She usually held a soft smile on her face, but could look at the class with a stern look and a pause that would bring almost instant silence. As daunting as her no-nonsense look could be, she still managed to get us to warm up to her by telling us stories of her life. She had plenty of experiences from her time living in Germany, where she learned to speak Russian by taking a class taught by a German-speaking instructor, even though her native language was English. She entertained us with reports of her harrowing drives to school with no working front brakes, using only her emergency brake, since she had no money to fix her car. And she would mention Mr. Snow once in a while, although we didn’t get much insight on him.
What I remember most clearly though, especially with the benefit of time and retrospect on my side, is the lesson of trust she tried to teach each of us. Mrs. Snow was of the opinion that we didn’t have to be proven trustworthy. We started out as a trustworthy individuals. Only our own actions could prove otherwise, and it was completely up to us.
I learned this lesson by watching Mrs. Snow relate to one of the toughest kids in the class. This was the type of kid I only looked at out of the corner of my eyes, never daring to look at him straight on, but intrigued by how he acted or what his lifestyle was like and who he hung around. He (I’ll call him Kurt) was often absent from class, although still hanging out at school or home sick or just somewhere else I didn’t know. I don’t know what his grades were, although I could guess he wasn’t at the top of the class. He was apparently disgruntled, hated being there and showed it by his actions. I saw that clearly one day by seeing him make an obscene gesture behind the teacher’s back.
I like to think Kurt wanted positive reinforcement from Mrs. Snow and would have liked a good grade, even if he was unwilling to put in the work. Mrs. Snow provided plenty of opportunities to get a good grade. She gave her students access to the materials she stored in the large bookcase next to her desk in order to earn extra credit or to better prepare for her exams. I watched as one day during class, she brought Kurt up to her desk to talk with him. She offered him a chance for some extra points by taking advantage of one of her resources out of the bookcase. They must have decided on one, because she retrieved an item and handed it to him. He asked if she needed to write his name down, to record that he had the item.
“Nope,” she replied. “I trust that you’ll get it back to me.”
I think it was the look of shock on Kurt’s face that helped this principle sink into my teenage mind. Mrs. Snow knew this kid most likely didn’t care about her stuff, but she chose to trust him anyway. She expected him to return it. When I borrowed materials for my own use, I learned that she did that with every student. She could have lost a lot of her resources and spent a lot of money, both the school’s and her own, with students never returning these items. I would guess she lost some of them. But I bet she got most of them back. Why do I think that?
Because Kurt brought his item back. I remember her thanking him with a smile. He may have even smiled back. Trust worked. The student that could have easily been considered the least trustworthy returned Mrs. Snow’s trust, and he grew. By watching this small interaction take place, I grew. I learned that you can trust people. I learned it’s OK to offer a bit of yourself in hopes of something in return — not an assurance, but a hope, an expectation — and it will result in both of you growing.
Today, I can only remember a few phrases we learned in German. “Wie gehts?” “Ich haben”... something. And of course, “Ich liebe dich.” But even after a couple decades, I still remember the life lesson Mrs. Snow taught me. Even now, with teenagers of my own, I remember and try to use that same principle of trust. Teenagers can be, well, teenagers, but can I trust them when they say they’re staying after school and not coming home right away because they have a teacher to talk to? I can. I choose to believe that is exactly what they are doing. Can I trust that they are with a group of friends when they say they are and not alone with a girlfriend somewhere? I can. I choose to. Even with my younger kids, do I believe them when they say their room is clean? Yes.
You may think that this is naïve. You may even think it’s a bit lazy. On the contrary, I make the effort to know what is going on in their lives, to know what their issues are at school, to know all about the friends they like. I check on their room cleaning occasionally and when it seems needed. I let them know there is accountability expected in the decisions they are making, and then make sure they know, until they prove me otherwise, that I trust them. I believe them.
And it turns out, they trust me and my wife in return. Believe it or not, our teenagers talk to us!
Everything isn’t perfect. We’ve learned that some things need more checking up on than others. We still feel the need to look at grades often to see if there are any missing assignments. But when we ask, our kids tell us. They know we want to trust them in so many things, so when we show that trust, they are honest with us. They tell us when something is troubling them. They tell us when they did something wrong. They let us know where they may be lacking. Even though we often have to be the ones to bring it up, to ask the question, they will tell us. And as a parent, that’s such a wonderful thing.
Mrs. Snow, if by chance you read this article, I just want to say thank you. Thank you for trusting me and the other students. Thank you for showing trust in Kurt, for teaching him that there are good people in this world. Thank you for showing me, even when you didn’t know it, that trust is something we can freely give by choice, and receive so much in return. Thank you for giving of yourself. Vielen dank.
You taught me well.
Karl Childs is a global product manager for a Fortune 100 company, a husband of 20 years, father of four and when there's time, an avid golfer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.