As a classroom teacher, something that I found really important about my job was the tiny part known as “character education.” In this minuscule area of teaching we were to help kids learn not only how to make good decisions and avoid peer pressure, but how to grow up and essentially be positive and helpful members of society. I always felt like we were there to help the kids understand how to grow their own values. How to help students with forming opinions based on facts rather than what their friends or family told them to believe, and how, in the words of Bill or Ted, I can’t remember which, to “be excellent to each other.” It is probably one of the three things I miss the most about being a classroom teacher not only because I really made powerful connections with the kids but also because I felt like I could begin to rid the world of my personal pet peeves, one class at a time.
One of my pet peeves was a latecomer to my life thanks to social media. I talked to the kids about how they would want to appear as intelligent as I knew them to be when posting in social media. With examples from the smart people in my very own feed, I would show them that a point made in an intelligent conversation is completely disregarded by many when the wrong “there” or “its” is used. Now, I understand this isn’t really character development, but it works as a segue into my next point so I’m using it. I promise I taught these things in writing class. We did grammar instruction daily, I swear.
Some years ago I began teaching fifth graders and I developed a new pet peeve. Although I first noticed it because of the arguments I was helping to mediate among the students, I began noticing the pattern within adults and even myself. I’ll explain.
The kids had this absolutely scary habit of saying pretty horrible things to each other. Being older elementary students they knew they could not just hurl an insult at a friend or acquaintance, so they would proceed the mean with, “No offense, but…” This is a phrase that I had heard lots of times before and I had even heard it used in a very appropriate way. “No offense to you or your personal beliefs, but I don’t like The Beatles.” No harm, no foul, really. These sweet little cherubs, though, were using it quite differently. “No offense to you personally, but you’re really ugly.” There’s no way that can be a comment that does not, somehow, offend. So we started talking about it a lot.
After much round table style discussion with me acting as Socratic leader, the students decided that there just wasn’t a way that they could agree to use that phrase without the following statement being somehow offensive to them and they banned it. Completely gone. I thought it was a little extreme, but it really worked for them and so I figured better to err on the side of caution.
A few months down the road, a student noticed that kids were doing it again, only now they were using different words. Each student had his own take on it and it was still considered offensive. We made a chart and came up with what could be one of the phrases that I taught that makes me remembered in the hearts of several years of students. We discovered the “All Powerful But.” Now, if you have any experience with the average elementary student, you know that saying “but” and thinking it’s funny increases your cool factor quite a lot. Pointing to your actual butt when you do so is an exponential bonus. We did both in this conversation and it led to much needed levity on what we discovered to be a very serious topic.
The kids and I saw that we all had moments in our lives in which our friends and even family were choosing to say things that (whether on purpose or not) became really hurtful with the addition of the “but.” One student used this example: “Sweetie, I know you’re smart, but I think you should get better grades.” She pointed out that the “but” in this case was making the “smart” bit seem untrue. In fact, the more we shared the more we realized that in these types of sentences, “but” was used (again, either intentionally or not) as a word to negate that which came before. Of course there were sentences in which “but” was used just fine. But still (see what I did there?), the examples were fewer and simply not as important to us. Then I had the most upsetting revelation about myself.
I say “I love you” a lot. Frankly, I say things that I mean a lot and I love quite willingly and openly, so “I love you” comes out pretty frequently. I give too many compliments and adore too often and truly believe my words when I say them. To discover that I was a parent and wife who said the phrase “I love you, but…” was upsetting to say the least. I realized that I not only said a frequent “I love you” on its own, but that I used “I love you, but…” as a way to soften a blow when trying to discipline Daughter or to change something Husband was doing. How terrible is that?! “I love you, but you need to clean your room.” This clearly had an underlying tone to it, completely unintentional, which felt like, “I love you and if you’d like that to continue please clean your room” or “I love you when you clean your room.” Gross. I had to get rid of this.
My first attempt to change was that I simply removed the “I love you” from things. It didn’t work out. First of all, my family was accustomed to hearing me say it in those situations and they felt weird not hearing it. The thing was, I felt weird not saying it, too. Then it was just saying “I love you,” pausing, and adding the rest. Felt unnatural. I know this isn’t the way a lot of people operate, honestly. I also am not ever afraid to say to Daughter “Go clean your room now.” I just found that in certain moments I was using the “I love you” because I thought she needed to hear it. So I switched my conjunction and it switched my life; I changed my “but” to “and.” What my students that year helped me to realize was that when I used the “and” instead, it would make people feel like my next comment was meant as a help. “Because I love you, I want you to be a good person so I will help you on that path by letting you know that you should do this thing.”
Reading this, you may think I’m a pretty terrible person. Understand that I often just say “I love you” all alone, or even “I love you and you make me smile” or something like that. This new pattern even lead to the most powerful statement I have as a parent and wife, and I can’t wait to tell you about that one. The All Powerful But may not be present in your life, and if it is, it may not be a problem. Maybe it’s just the “Not Really Powerful Simply Plain Old But” but. In my life, I needed to take the power away from my but and make sure those I love knew it always comes without conditions. So if you’re ever lucky enough to hear “I love you” from someone, remember that it’s true. Even with a but.