I hated fifth grade. Almost 40 years later I can say without exaggeration it remains one of the worst years of my life. It was the first time that I truly had a hard time getting along with others, perhaps because we were all struggling with pre-adolescence in our own way. Time has a way of giving us perspective, so I thought I was mostly recovered from that horrible year of my life…that is, until my son started fifth grade. All of a sudden, my back was up for no tangible reason. I was braced for him having to repeat my definition of hell. The whole year, however, has been smooth as silk for him – until the other night when he got teary talking about working with others on a dreaded “group project.”
The teacher wouldn’t let him work with his friends. He got assigned to work in a group but someone else was doing the fun work. That part was late and he couldn’t do his part without having the other part completed.
“Mom, I could do so much better if my teacher let me pick my group,” he said.
I took a deep breath. I may not have had the answers in fifth grade, but I had been working in multifamily housing for decades. I knew what to say.
“Your teacher knows something you don’t. When you are out in the world, you don’t always get to pick your coworkers, your neighbors, and other people you interact with. You have to learn to get along with and sometimes work with all kinds of people.”
“Yeah, but what happens if I can’t?”
“You can’t control other people. The best any of us can do is control how we react.”
We talked about the buildings of elderly people where I work. We talked about how unpleasant it might be to eat dinner next to someone with a drippy nose or who used perfume that smelled like gasoline. We talked about how sometimes, the best we could do was decide not to be bothered by something and that there was always a choice. We can always choose to be happy, even when things were bad. I told him how one day, I met someone who had decided that the smell of skunks reminded him of summer, and so he decided he liked the smell. I told him another story about how nobody wanted to sit next to a resident because she did not have good table manners. One person asked if he could sit with her because he wanted to be kind. He decided it was more difficult to see someone sit alone than to put up with her poor manners. And so, he decided that an unpleasant situation was now pleasant because it was his choice.
A day or so after this conversation, my son told me they got to name their groups. In his group, they each got to include one word. Between them, they came up with Flaming Legendary Invincible Puppies, aka FLIP. He explained how he had influenced the others to come up with this name, and even if it wasn’t completely his making, he had helped. This made me smile. He had FLIPPED the situation around. He had found a way to make the group his own in some small way, and he was back on track with the group.
Marianne Delorey, Ph.D. is the executive director of Colony Retirement Homes. She can be reached at 508-755-0444 or [email protected] and www.colonyretirementhomes.com. Archives of articles from previous issues can be read at www.fiftyplusadvocate.com