I wasn’t surprised that we got some great stories about educators when we were soliciting submissions for Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Best Advice I Ever Heard. We all have those favorite teachers who changed our lives, and we often quote them for years.
“Walk out onto that playground like it’s yours.”
Laurie Davies, for example, tells us that when she was a little girl she couldn’t skip like the other girls. One day she was crying in the hallway of her elementary school, avoiding recess, when a fifth-grade teacher came along and gave her a tip that changed everything.
She said, “Walk out onto that playground like it’s yours.” And then she opened the door and gestured that Laurie should go outside.
Laurie walked out trying to look like she owned the playground, and a boy instantly asked her if she would play Wonder Woman. He and his friends were being super heroes and they needed a girl to be Wonder Woman. Or course, Laurie agreed to this honor! It turned out that it didn’t matter if she couldn’t skip. She climbed to the top of the monkey bars like a pro and she became a fierce warrior, at least in her mind.
And that was that. Laurie owned that playground, and for the last 40 years, she’s walked out onto a lot of other playgrounds like she owned them too.
She used that advice when she got the lead role in her high school play; she used that advice when she strode into a boardroom for her first real newspaper job interview; and then a couple of years after she got that job, she used that playground advice when her editor told her she was interviewing Laura Bush. Laurie walked into the room like she owned it, and she interviewed the First Lady.
Laurie says she walks into every new challenge as if it’s a playground and she owns it. She was speaking to some high school students at her church, and one of them said to her “How do you do it? You have such confidence, but it doesn’t come off as arrogance. Someday, I hope I’ll carry myself that way.” Little did that teenager know that Laurie had been nervous before making her speech. Laurie passed on the best advice she ever heard to that young woman: “Just walk out onto the playground like it’s yours.”
Now, what happens if you walk out onto every playground like you own it, and you’re a big success, and you run into some distasteful professional jealousy? How do you handle the problems that sometimes accompany success?
Well, Billie Holladay Skelley shared the perfect advice with us in the same book. In her case, the wonderful advice that she and her son received came from their district superintendent.
Billie’s son was a wonderful student and he won a scholarship to the college he wanted to attend. But he wasn’t happy. In fact he was crying. It turned out that his friends were giving him a hard time, accusing him of thinking he was better than them. They said he wouldn’t want to hang out with them now that he was a nerd who was going to be rich.
Billie’s son didn’t want to accept the scholarship and he didn’t want to show his face at his high school either, because his classmates were taunting him. Billie made him go to school but the bullying went on for weeks. And then she had a great idea. She took her son to visit the school superintendent for their district. And this very wise man understood, and said something like this:
“Whenever you decide to grow a little and extend yourself above the norm, there is always a danger you won’t be the same. It’s like the trees in the forest. When one tree decides to grow taller than all rest, that tree is most likely to get hit by lightning. It’s a chance you take. When people are different, it seems like they’re more likely to be attacked for those differences. I know this because when I was a teacher, I had no problems. I fit in with all the other teachers with whom I worked. I was surrounded by colleagues and friends. I wanted to be a principal, however, and when I achieved that goal, I found some of my colleagues and friends resented my advancement.
“When I decided to become the superintendent of all the schools in the system, it was even worse. I remember the resentment … the lack of encouragement. I know what you’re feeling, but you can’t let those feelings keep you from your goals — because I’ll tell you a secret. You know those trees I mentioned, well, when you do grow taller, and you rise above all the other trees in the forest, you realize there is so much more to see. Your view is better than ever. You can see the sky, the stars, and everything else beyond your little local forest. Once you see what’s out there, you realize you can’t go back. You’ve seen it, and you’re not the same. You want to grow taller and extend yourself even further because you want to see more. You want to do more. Don’t be afraid to grow, son. In the long run, you won’t regret it. I never have.”
That advice was transformative. Billie’s son is now a physician. And Billie is still grateful to that man who took the time to give her son some personal and heartfelt advice that made all the difference.
I loved those two stories — one about how to achieve success, and the other about how to manage the consequences. Walking onto every “playground” as if you own it absolutely works. I tried it myself a couple of times last year when I was nervous about making big speeches. And picturing yourself as the tallest tree in the forest when you’re out there achieving something new is a wonderful way to mitigate any flak you might receive for your accomplishments — and a wonderful coping strategy to pass along to students.