I have known that this would be my fiftieth blog entry for a few weeks. I wanted it to be special, so I have taken some time to read, think, and prepare what I hope to be an epic entry. I thought it apropos to finally try to explain the philosophy of classiness I propose to captain. In preparation for this writing I revisited a chapter of a book that I read long ago.
I was raised by a mother who instilled in me the need to be nice to others, regardless of relation, race, creed, or gender. Unlike myself, she kept it simple: Be nice to everyone, period. “Turn the other cheek” was both preached and practiced in my home. My parents rarely argued, and if ever there was a disagreement, it was short-lived and ended in comfortable compromise. I witnessed the success of this, first-hand.
When I came across the chapter (12) “Nice Guys Finish First” in Richard Dawkins’s seminole work, “The Selfish Gene” (2006), I felt like all of my upbringing and my desire to mold classy citizens out of my students came into sharp focus. I had already invented “The Polite Pirates” and begun teaching classy behavior to second graders. As I read Dawkins’s explanation of Axelrod’s famous experiments using variations of The Prisoner’s Dilemma, I felt like everything I stood for was being justified… scientifically!
Revisiting this text several years later has been a rewarding experience. More than what it means to be classy, I am excited to share why one would benefit from taking up this mantle.
Beginning at the End: Vampires
I want to start by mentioning the very last concept that Dawkins uses to end his “Nice Guys Finish First” chapter (2006), because it pertains to piracy, part of my classroom theme. Probably as famous as pirates to young minds, but much more menacing, is the idea of vampires. Dracula, the most famous, albeit fictional, vampire flies around as a bat, transforms into a human, and uses his sharp fangs to drink people’s blood. This idea originates from real-live nonfiction vampire bats that really do suck the blood out of “hosts” during the darkness of night. Who would imagine that this kind of animal would practice polite behavior?
Well, they do… at least among friends. G.S. Wilkinson published a paper in the prestigious periodical, Nature, entitled “Reciprocal food sharing in the vampire bat” in 1984. His paper discusses the way vampire bats will share food with each other. The food in this case happens to be blood, but nonetheless, they demonstrate kindness by helping neighbors who were less fortunate during the evening hunt. If a bat returned to a community roost in the morning hungry because he did not find a host to draw blood, a friend actually regurgitated part of his supper so that his buddy would have some food to feast on. Why would the bat who had found a host and had his fill of blood be willing to help another? The study examined the relationship and actions between bats and found that the helpful bat was fed when it experienced a fruitless evening hunt. Basically, even vampires look out for one another.
This story of blood-sucking vampire bats ironically helping one another made me think of the contradictory term I have invented for the theme in my classroom: “Polite Pirates.” We plunder bad behavior and pillage rudeness. We do this politely, and we model classy conduct. One might not think of pirates as voicing “Please” and “Thank You”, but mine do more than that: They communicate class through helping others feel nice.
Making other people feel good is classy. If you are wondering if an activity is classy, ask yourself this question: “Would this behavior cause the people around me and/or the people who might be affected by it to feel nice?” If the answer is “No”, then it is not classy conduct.
On the way from the playground to the classroom students often tell me stories about things that happened during recess. Not too long ago one of my Polite Pirates told me about a peer who had done something awkward during recess. The story wasn’t bad, and this student wasn’t telling on her classmate. She was looking for some advice. I decided to make this the topic for my classy sit-down talk with the crew right before math, a practice we have been enjoying since the turn of the year.
“Rule number one, when it comes to being classy, is Making other people feel nice is the most important thing. Classy people help others feel good about themselves. If a person does something weird near you at recess, and it isn’t breaking the rules or hurting anything, do you think that it would be classy to tell them to ‘Stop it’? How about, ‘Go away’?” Gasps from my listeners told me the collective disapproval of such options.
“What about ‘Leave me alone.’ Could that be considered classy? What if the person is being really annoying?” I could see the students considering the classiness of this potential possibility. Before they solidified their attitudes, I headed them off. “Even if you add a polite ‘Please’ to this statement, being told to ‘Go away’ is nothing more than rejection, and there is nothing nice about that.”
I collected some ideas that students could say or do if someone was bothering them. My Polite Pirates love hypotheticals, and we enjoyed brainstorming some ideas.
“What if you invited the person to join you in a game? You could mention a simple compliment to give this person some attention. That is probably what he or she was after in the first place. Make sure that your compliment is genuine; be sure that you mean what you say, and that it is truthful. You could adjust the game a little to accommodate the newcomer.” Clearly, this was not the favorite option.
“How can you say ‘No’ without the person feeling rejection?” This got the cognitive cogs turning.
“Maybe next time,” was okay, but still rejection.
I suggested helping the person not be awkward: A simple “Hi there! What’s up?” could break the ice. Let the person talk to you for a time. Then resume whatever you were doing. That seemed okay to everyone, and we were able to begin math.
Number One Conundrums
The next day delivered new stories: What if making one person feel good makes another feel badly? Then what? Your playing with your friends, and a classmate shows interest in joining your group. In order to make the person feel nice, you invite him to join you. But, this upsets the rest of your friends. They were looking forward to playing with you, exclusively. What do you do?
“Because this is all hypothetical, wink/wink, we can go back in time to change some of the parameters,” I suggested. “Prior to inviting the newcomer to join you, it is important that you pitch or sell the idea of inclusion to your friends. They may not agree with having the solicitor join in your game and need some persuading. This should not be done within earshot of the asker; What if your friends are not as classy as you?” Nods from understanding listeners tell me to go on. “If they are on your side, the invitation will go more smoothly. If you cannot get your friends to join you in your quest to make others feel nice, you are at a fork.” My students, well-versed in the concepts of chess know this to mean that you are at a lose/lose conundrum; Either upset the solicitor of your friends.
“You could explain to the inquiring classmate that you and your friends had already begun playing a game, would like to have the person join you in the future, but would like to finish up this round the way it is,” I present to the attentive Polite Pirates. “In this way you are not rejecting the person, so much as postponing acceptance.” I also explained the nuance of HOW to communicate this kind of concept. If you do it well, the solicitor can know that you really care about both him and your friends, but are trying to make everyone feel special through this decision, which is exactly what you ARE doing.
I thought of and included a few more details that my class hadn’t imagined. “Don’t be overly persuasive with your friends. Like, don’t push them to make a decision to include the classmate, when they really don’t want to. They could resent you, having bad feelings toward your action, take out these feelings on the game, the newcomer, or even you. Also, you wouldn’t want the solicitor to feel like you allowed him to play with you out of pity, or that you or your friends regret letting him play with you.” This got everyone thinking and sharing. Every student sitting on the carpet had an example of a similar situation.
“If you do manage to sell your friends on the idea of including one more player, and they have good attitudes, the solicitor can feel that much happier, having a group of new friends, rather than one patron saint.” I probably did not use that title. “On the contrary, how do you think the inquiring classmate would feel if you invited him to join, but was mistreated?” More example stories.
Remember Rule No. 1: Making others feel nice is classy.
Why is it a good idea to be nice to others? Wrong answer: Because adults tell me to.
It takes energy to be nice to others. It is work. It’s not easy, sometimes.
Nice, Nasty, Neutral
Let’s take a closer look at the playground paradigm. What would you have to gain from being nice to someone soliciting company? Others might see you as someone who they want to help or hang around with. They now view you as a nice person; someone trustworthy with emotions; a good decision-maker. The lonely student asking to join could repay you in the future with a token of appreciation, the way the vampire bats repay one another. What might you lose? What kind of negative outcomes could develop as a result of your choosing to be nice to the solicitor? Witnesses to the event, or people who hear about it later might think that you will “accept anyone”; You could be viewed as being too accommodating. If you never say “No”, people could view you as someone who can be taken advantage of; weak. Someone who is all-inclusive may seem un-evaluating, unanalytical, not one for critical thinking, unintelligent.
You could have avoided these negative losses by rejecting the soliciting student, but this nasty option has its own set of drawbacks. This might save you face with your close friends who wanted to play with you exclusively, but the action would communicate, even to them, that if they were not on the “in” with you, they too would receive the cold shoulder. This could very well make them feel insecure. It might foster an “Us versus Them” attitude of exclusivity. This would be harmful because other classmates would learn that you are not open to new friendships. You could lose out on high-quality relationships. Also, rather than reciprocate your generous acceptance, the student who gets rejected will not behave favorably to you, when you may need something. His hand won’t be raised when he hears, “Who has a pencil (nonclassy student’s name) can borrow?” even though his desk is full of sharpened no. 2s.
Maybe you think it is acceptable to “stay out of it” and maintain a neutral position. There are times when this may seem best. A positive outcome might be the avoidance of a messy situation, dodging difficult decision-making that will expend energy, or keep from controversy. It is possible, in the end, that others could value your discernable intellect; Your ability to thwart trouble. This is a gamble, though, because you won’t know until afterward how the situation will play out. The negative side of neutrality is to be viewed by others as weak, unable to make decisions.
As you can see from the table, being nice will not cost you anything with other nice people. You have everything to gain. If you hang around with negative people, being nice may cost you a little. When you behave nastily around classy people, you have a lot to lose. They will not want to be your friend. You won’t feel nice because you have caused someone else pain. Even if you think that you will gain something being nasty because your friends are nasty, the table shows that this can backfire. It fosters an atmosphere of un-trust and insecurity.
If this scenario were to play out in a neighborhood playground where you and your buddies were shooting hoops, it would be slightly different from the schoolyard in that these outcomes would be temporary. A complete stranger asks to join you and your friends. Perhaps this person is visiting his grandparents for the day. The only people witnessing your actions are your close friends. You could “get away with” being nasty. All of the same outcomes still apply. They are smaller scale, but some of your friends are bound to have some classy bones in them and will view a nasty action as unattractive. They may think twice the next time playing with you is an option. A nasty action is sure to make the solicitor feel horrible, and this can’t make you feel good inside. Even if you think your friends like it, the nasty action will have deep-seated divisive effects that are imperceptible at first glance.
Take this scenario to school, though, and you get a very different picture. The solicitor is sure to be someone that you know and see regularly. There are bound to be many spectators, or at least people to relay the scene to, later. But, most importantly, it is not likely that the event be a one-time occurence. What if the same solicitor asks to play with you every day? Now, it is much more complicated… Or, is it?
In order to explore the cost/benefit analysis of niceness easier, let’s open the story up to all sorts of solicitations: “Can I borrow a pencil? Would you be my partner? May I sit here? Do you want to read together? How would you like to come over to my house for a playdate? What are you having for lunch (Do you want to talk to me)? Can I help you?” When asked any of these and a plethora of other schoolhouse questions, you can behave nicely or nastily; Neutrality would just be ignoring the question, and that would be considered nasty. The person asking the question could respond nastily or nicely, as well. For instance, someone inquires whether you’d like to read with her. You tell the person that you had already promised your friend that you would read with her, but that you would be happy to read with her next time. “Whatever!” the inquirer throws over her shoulder as she marches off to ask someone else. This nasty response takes something away from you; good feelings. It makes you feel badly.
There is something more, here: The idea of remembering how others treat you. Do you know, or have you ever met someone, who is nasty all of the time? How easy is it to be nice to that person? Would you rather hang around with, that person or someone who is generally nice? You might get away with being nasty to a stranger at a neighborhood playground, one time. But, when you create a reputation for being nasty among people you see everyday, you will not attract classy comrades.
In addition to remembrance, forgiveness plays a key role in classily handling schoolhouse situations. While someone who behaves unclassily over and over may be a person to avoid, it is important to give people the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the scissors solicitor was having a bad day when he gave you a nasty look after you told him you didn’t have any. Should you never talk to him again? That wouldn’t be nice either.
Polite Piracy is Classy
“The Polite Pirates” was the theme that I chose for my very first long term sub position 8 years ago. I liked it because of the alliteration, piracy is an attractive concept, and I wanted to not only foster good behavior in the classroom, but help my students be upstanding citizens of the world.
In preparation for my very first meeting with the students who I would be teaching from November through the rest of the year I came up with a story to teach the skill of summarizing. This story not only taught the skill, but also introduced the classroom theme. I used paper puppets of characters whom would help guide us through many lessons, both academic and also social, during that year.
The woman pirate has a funny characteristic. Her name is spelled “Mary,” but she insists on having it pronounced “Muh-ree.” Although this all started from my silly lesson about students producing summaries, the concept stuck. Students love it, reminding one another how to pronounce Mary’s name. This turned into a lesson on respect. Sure, Mary’s name is spelled in such a way that you wouldn’t typically pronounce it the way she insists. But, that is her request, and we are polite in honoring it. It wouldn’t be nice to pronounce it any other way.
A funny characteristic of the second character, Zeus, is that he is the cook, but he is forever seasick from the rocking of the ship. So, the Polite Pirates have a sick chef. It isn’t nice, however, to point out his discoloration, other than asking him if feels alright.
The final comrade of this trio is the captain of the Polite Pirates. This guy is quite hilarious. His large round cranium isn’t the only ridiculous thing that Captain Iron Knee lugs around. He literally has an iron knee. While of course this truly has to do with the contradiction of his being a pirate, while pushing politeness, I have yet to develop a good tale about how the captain acquired his iron knee. We are happy to witness his furtive irony displayed in many ways. He is both silly and wise; handsome and hideous; appreciative and dismissive; respectful and sometimes rude; while strong and swift, he is hindered by his heavy iron knee; and the list goes on, but ALWAYS and above all else, he is classy.
The piracy of this cast (and there are more) comes into realization when they steal nastiness from others. There is plenty out there, and so I am recruiting. In addition to the students in my room each year, I am interested in captaining a class of people from all walks of life, every gender, and all ages. I hope that you join me on the journey toward ever-increasing classiness. I do not profess to being the classiest. I have simply decided to make it “me mission” to champion classiness.
What do you think?
What would you characterize as the most important, number one rule for being classy? Do you agree or disagree with me; Why/How?
Dawkins, R. (2006). The Selfish Gene(30th Anniversary Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wilkinson, G. S. (1984). Reciprocal food sharing in the vampire bat. Nature,308, 181-184. doi:https://doi.org/10.1038/308181a0