Bits and Bites of Everyday Life

 

Questioning questions (Oh, the power of statements!)

By Geneviève Hone
True North Perspective

Geneviève Hone is a grandmother, family therapist and social worker.  With her husband, Julien Mercure (also a family therapist), she has co-authored three books on couples and family life. Her home on the web is www.hone-mercure.com/index_hone_en.php.

 
  Painting by Julien Mercure.

I stand by the wire fence that delimits the school property. The school yard is empty. The children, including the granddaughter that I am picking up for a sleepover at our place, are still in their classrooms, bravely resisting the teachers’ efforts to pour yet a little morsel of knowledge into their tired brains. In an attempt to beat the Friday afternoon traffic, I have left home far too early, so I stand alone at the gate. I don’t mind though. This is as a good a time as any to quietly reflect on my friend Alberte’s latest TNP article, Easter Thoughts.

Alberte recounts that a small pamphlet was left at her door, asking “What is the face of your God?” Alberte likes to grab such questions that cross her path and run with them whereas I tend to run away from them. This is not because the questions aren’t interesting, they often are. “What is the face of God?” has been a challenging question since the beginning of time and will continue to be so, especially since nobody will ever find a universally satisfying answer. No, if I tend to run away from questions, it is because questions as such bother me. To me, questions are an excellent way of not communicating. I’ll get back to that in a moment. I’ll just say for now that I don’t much like answering questions, except of course those posed by loved ones who really want to know, for instance: “How are you?”

Absorbed in thought, I haven’t noticed that the yard is filling with dozens of children. Small girls lugging huge back packs, little boys gathered into a corner, throwing conniving looks at a group of giggly girls whispering state secrets, bigger guys organizing a quick basketball game. The school buses are lined up; parents are standing at the ready to walk home with their children. I wonder why somebody doesn’t just open the gate to freedom. Why give the kids recess just before sending them home? Of course, the official answer is: because it is not yet 14h30. But perhaps it’s because the school principal is allowing the kids time to shed some of the questions that have landed on their shoulders this week. All week long, the children have been asked so many questions, ranging from “What is the capital of Bolivia?” and “What is the remainder when you divide 1, 234, 567 by 9?” to “Why did you not put your boots where you are supposed to?” Dropping a few questions in the schoolyard might be an excellent idea. Who knows, a friendly wind might blow them away for good!

One little girl carefully examining the outline of a hopscotch game reminds me of myself in fourth grade, the year we moved from Ontario to Québec, the year I started to distrust questions, to perceive them as traps. Sister Joseph de la Croix (name changed to protect the innocent that she was) loved quizzes. She would choose two team leaders, make us line up against the wall and she would pull out a card from her stack of carefully prepared questions: “What is the capital of Alberta?” “The sum of 56 and 27?” “The feast that celebrates the resurrection of Christ?” There was of course only one right answer to each question and most of the time I couldn’t produce it, nor could many other kids. We were sent to our seats to watch the champions triumph again and again to finally be rewarded with a large gold star or picture of an angel to stick in their “general knowledge” notebook. Sister Joseph was big on rewarding deserving pupils with something that would stick with them forever or at least until the end of the year.

If I ever received a star or an angel from those line quizzes, it certainly was through sheer luck. For one thing, I hated the quizzes, so I quite often deliberately gave wrong answers just to be sent back to my desk. For another, I had no motivation to reach for the stars and angels as I actually possessed a good stack of sticker sheets. My grandfather owned a large chain of stores that carried every imaginable religious article from giant statues to tiny medals and he kept me well supplied in “holy” objects such as angel stickers.

Free access to angel stickers eventually led me into trouble. One day, while awaiting the end of one of Sister Joseph’s famous quizzes, I spotted Philippe Dionne (again, name changed) who though he was suffering from severe childhood obesity was sitting at his desk greedily chewing his fingernails as if this were the only food available ever. Poor Philippe never received a star, let alone an angel. He was probably a very unhappy child: no friends with him at recess, laughed at in gym class, sitting by himself in the school bus. I didn’t care for him at all and was somewhat scared of him, but that day, it struck me that the children who deserved the stickers were not the ones that needed them. Case in point: Philippe didn’t deserve an angel but he certainly needed one (or fifteen). This struck me as immensely unfair.

So with a view to correcting this situation, I brought my angel stickers to school. At the next recess, I walked up to Philippe and without a word handed him three angels, the large ones with long flowing pink and blue dresses. I then gave two angels to Serge Labrosse who also was an undeserving student because he preferred daydreaming to listening to Sister Joseph’s long explanations about the cycle of water on earth. What the boys actually did with the angels, I never learned. But word quickly spread that I had gold to give away and in a very short time I was very popular with kids who had never said a word to me before. I confess that I very much enjoyed the power that my ostentatious largesse allowed me.

Of course, Sister Joseph disapproved of my behavior and complained to my mother that I was obstructing her education methods. My mother stood by me, explaining that my stickers had been legitimately acquired and were mine to give away if I so desired. Sister Joseph decided not to mess with the 10 year old Lady Bountiful recently arrived from Ontario, probably a wise political decision. Instead, she changed methods and began to reward the quiz champions with special reading time in the school library. I thus lost the power I had acquired through personal wealth, but to this day I maintain that all children deserve angels, whatever their history or character.

I continue to be wary of questions. In my work as marriage and family therapist, I have met many couples who wanted to work on communication skills. “Fair enough”, I’d tell them. “Start communicating now and I’ll give you feedback on how you go about it.” Almost inevitably, one partner would turn to the other with a question: “How do you feel about taking a longer vacation this year?” It’s not that such questions are illegitimate of course, but more often than not they are a lousy communication tool. Real communication is about the courage to offer statements. “I feel the need for a longer vacation and I would very much like to spend more time with you. I hope you feel the same way”. Sounds different? That’s because it is!

I greet my granddaughter and though I know from parental experience that the question will probably lead nowhere, I nevertheless ask: “Did you have a good day?” “Yes”. I give it another go: “Did you have fun at recess?” “Yes.” I abandon all attempts at conversation as I concentrate on driving in heavy traffic. We make it home safely. My husband opens the door, spots the placemat that his cherished granddaughter is proudly holding with two slightly grubby hands and says: “I sure am looking forward to learning how you made this lovely placemat.” Fifteen minutes later, she’s still telling him!

Oh, the power of statements!

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