Thoughts by Richard Bleil
One was a former student. I never really had students who liked me per se. Students either hated me or loved me. As a teacher with actual standards in a subject most students found challenging and intimidating, I didn’t give “easy A’s”. But I was always willing to give as much help as a student needed or wanted. If they were serious about learning, I was serious about seeing them succeed. Students who wanted to learn loved me, those who wanted to pass didn’t. She loved me. In fact, at one point, she even warned me about an investigation on me the institution had begun (one that violated their own policy on such investigations and resulted in no evidence of the allegations).
The other was a former romantic entanglement. She was working at a local store and was, frankly, too young for me, but we enjoyed being together. Unfortunately, her mother thought I was too old (and I understand why), but the irony is that she is now married to a man who is my same age. It’s fine, she found her bliss and is happy today. As it turns out, she was a student at that institution as well, but I didn’t know her then. She had withdrawn by the time we met.
By shear luck, they moved into the same apartment complex, and lived one above the other. It was an interesting time for me. Without knowing that I knew the other, each of them complained to me about their terrible neighbor. It was like stereo. To this day, I don’t know what the issue was, music, maybe? Whatever it was, both of these young women decided the other was the devil. By the time I came to realize that they were talking about each other, it was like being in a soap opera. Finally, to my former lover, I suggested that she just introduce herself to her arch nemesis. I explained how she had tried to protect me the year before and suggested that she wasn’t as bad as she had thought. Begrudgingly, she finally capitulated and agreed to introduce herself.
The change was remarkable. Overnight, they had become lifelong best of friends. Both were suddenly talking to me about the other as if they had known each other for eons. It was still like stereo, but at least I had changed the station. A decade has since passed, and they’re still great friends. Unfortunately, today one of them is on a respirator, and not showing signs of improvement. We’re both worried about her.
These two make an interesting study in perception versus reality. I don’t know why each disliked the other, and I’m betting that today they wouldn’t be able to tell you either. There’s a chance that one decided they didn’t like the other, and the other was responding to the negative feelings from the original. Or maybe they both decided they didn’t like each other before even speaking. Whatever it is, they each had a mental image of the other, a picture of who they thought that person was, an opinion based on some form of misinformation or bias. I wasn’t there, and even if I was, I couldn’t crawl into the mind of either to make heads or tails of the dislike.
Once they actually spoke, however, whatever misperception they had of each other was quickly cleared up. They opinions of one another changed dramatically, and this time based on an actual interaction. Whatever it is that triggered the negative bias went away.
It’s important to recognize that we each have biases and, yes, even prejudices. I read a study at one point about the importance of bias as a self-defense mechanism. If you like roses, but prick yourself on the stinger (especially when you are young), you will likely form a bias against roses, or flowers in general. If it happens young enough, you may not even understand why this bias exists, but it’s your brain’s way of remembering the danger and keeping you safe. In things like racial bias, perhaps it’s our parents who instill these fears, either verbally or through non-spoken actions such as suddenly pulling you closer when they are near somebody that they don’t trust.
Many of these biases are not founded. Very young children will look to their parents for cues on how to respond to new people or situations. In a study, children with their mother were approached by clowns. Invariably, the child would look to their mother, and if their mother laughed then so did they. Mothers who suddenly cried still need therapy to this day.
Don’t let your biases prevent you from meeting people. People are not the color of their skin, their tattoos, their size. Everybody is different. It’s always a good idea to approach new people with some caution, but strike up a conversation. They might surprise you.