Oct 15, 2018 | Atlanta, GA
This semester I have been reminded why I chose to be an academic. Despite the joy of research, the excitement of discovery, and the pride at recognition, the main reason I became an academic is to engage with students, particularly in the classroom.
This semester I have the privilege of playing a supporting role to my co-instructors Sandi Bramblett and Jennifer Herazy in teaching a GT1000 seminar. We have 20 curious, anxious (maybe too much so), and engaging students. They are all different. We have the self-confident, the shy, the athlete, the artist, the focused, the easily distracted — all still refreshingly willing to listen and learn. The ability to somehow influence the directions these young women and men will take in their careers and life is an awesome and sobering responsibility.
The seminar’s overall theme, between imparting the skills to make career choices and navigate Georgia Tech, is leadership. Already this semester, we have discussed desirable characteristics of good leaders: conviction and commitment, integrity and honesty, vision, the ability to handle ambiguity, emotional intelligence and empathy, hard work, the ability to learn by association, and the ability to engage in respectful and civil discourse with all people. Related to the last point is the ability to remain calm and not lose your temper, even in the face of deep disappointment and hurt feelings.
Several months ago, I found myself disappointed and hurt. I was mad. I was on an airplane — not a rare occurrence, brooding. Fatefully, and uncharacteristically, I started watching a documentary on the life of Fred Rogers, the children’s television host who created the show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” His teachings influenced generations of children and adults, including my own family. The documentary featured testimony he gave to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications in May 1969. In his remarks advocating for public television, he addressed the need for children (and adults) to master self-control of their emotions. In his testimony, he deviated from his script and addressed the congressional committee by reciting words from one of his songs. Quoting from the recording of that hearing:
“What do you do with the mad that you feel? When you feel so mad you could bite. When the whole wide world seems oh so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right. … It’s great to be able to stop when you’ve planned the thing that’s wrong. And be able to do something else instead ― and think this song ― I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. Can stop, stop, stop anytime. ... Know that there’s something deep inside that helps us become what we can.”
Although not in the testimony, the song actually ends with: “For a girl can be someday a lady, and a boy can be someday a man.” After watching that, my anger dissipated. The great power of Mr. Rogers’ words, the soothing honesty of his song lyrics, had worked their same magic on my adult emotions as they had with children for decades on public television. I was suddenly and forcefully reminded that Mr. Rogers’ particular lesson here is one which we continue to learn all our lives, not just as children. We can stop when we want to, and we control the direction and impact of our emotions. We can direct our strong feelings positively or negatively — it is up to each of us.
For young people coming into Georgia Tech or any institution, learning to control impulsive anger and translate that into constructive practices of hearing other people’s points of view is absolutely critical. It’s one of the reasons we teach GT1000, and one of the most valuable assets to a future leader.
The past several months have been a challenging time for the Georgia Tech community. Incidents have caused us to be sad, confused, and sometimes angry. I can only hope that some echo of Mr. Rogers’ words remains — if not on the airwaves, at least in our minds and hearts — that help us all do something constructive, rather than destructive, with the mad that we feel at any given time. That is how we get stronger as a community and move forward together.
- Rafael L. Bras