A Big Lesson I Learned From Sitting With a Lonely Student
I’ve spoken at over 1,000 schools, reached millions of students around the world, and have obtained a masters in professional counseling. But just when I thought I had it all figured out, I learned a truly humbling and surprising lesson earlier this year up in Alaska.
The vice principal of the school was a really great and friendly guy. He gave me a tour around school, introduced me to several students and then asked me to hang out in the cafeteria during lunch while he took care of a few things. Usually this is not a problem AFTER I speak, but this was BEFORE I spoke. None of the students knew who I was and in a lunch room full of well formed cliques, I quickly found myself as the outsider.
You might be surprised since I am a public speaker, but between me and you, I tend to be a better listener than a talker. It was hard for me to engage, and after a few lame hello’s and hi’s, I was ready to give up and just go hang out in the theatre by myself until the school assembly started.
Then I saw a girl sitting alone. Completely alone. An obvious outcast in a room full of connected peers. I wanted to go over there and talk to her, but I found my feet stuck in place. Every student would see me do this. What if she didn’t talk to me? What if I looked stupid? And then I had to speak to all of these students 20 minutes later in the assembly!
It was bizarre. I felt like I had been transported back to my own school days, when the perception of other students weighed into every choice I made. And here I was, an adult – an adult whose job is literally standing up in front of people and telling them to reach out to each other! – struggling to gather the courage to go and approach a lonely student in a school 4,000 miles from my hometown.
I laugh now at the absurdity of it all, but in that moment, it was a genuine struggle.
I knew I had to act, so I counted to THREE and I went. I could feel the other students watching me. I sat right down in front of her and started talking.
That day I found out she was a student who had been home-schooled. She had virtually no friends on campus, and had only really been at school for a week or two. We had a nice conversation, and while I didn’t exactly get her plugged in to some social group (big outcomes rarely happen in a single day,) I did find her sitting front and center in the second row during my assembly.
She still wasn’t in a group, but she was next to one now. More importantly, she had a different energy to her. She seemed super engaged, and raised her hand for every question that I asked during the program. At the end of the assembly, she just hugged me, and said thank you.
I will probably never see her again, but I felt like I did a good job that day. It got me wondering how your students and staff might feel about themselves if they did the same.
So, encourage them to give themselves those THREE SECONDS AND GO when they find themselves in a situation to better connect with students on campus.
JC Pohl, LMFT-A
President & CEO, TEEN TRUTH