This week is Psychology Week and in 2018 it focuses on the Power of Human Connection. In honour of Psychology Week, I wanted to write a different story, about how my grandmother used the power of human connection to give hope. At the same time she inspired me to become a psychologist.
There was, of course, more than one factor that influenced my decision to become a psychologist, but my maternal grandmother is certainly one of the main reasons.
My grandmother was a chemistry and biology teacher; for the majority of her life she worked in a public school in Ukraine post-World War II. This period in our history was particularly rough; with a lack of resources, people had to be tough and resilient, hard-working, and self-reliant. There was no place for laziness or excuses.
Despite the tough circumstances, my grandma loved being a teacher. She loved working with her students and cared deeply about them. She would often describe herself as tough but fair, she was proud of the fact that her students were always well-behaved and listened to her attentively. She once told me a story about a student who was failing her class. He didn’t do his homework and wasn’t participating well, and overall, he appeared to be disinterested in his school life. She spoke to her colleagues about his performance and they confirmed that he didn’t perform well in their classes either. They advised her not to worry, as it was obvious that it wasn’t just her class, he just wasn’t academically focused. This didn’t sit well with my grandmother. She saw that if this situation didn’t improve, he would soon see himself as a failure, or start believing that he is simply not smart enough and stop expecting anything from himself.
She found a way to give him a good mark in her class and to show him that he was capable, he could study, he had a talent and the capacity to learn. She wanted him to know that he mattered, that he was worthy of support, that he was smart despite his marks or what others might have thought of him. She said that at the time, when she gave him his first good mark, he didn’t really deserve it yet. I was initially confused as to why my grandmother did this. It seemed unfair to give him a good mark if he hadn’t yet earned it. It didn’t fit with her description of herself as a fair teacher.
She explained that she simply lent it to him; she knew that he could get there and could achieve it, he just needed to see what she saw in him. She said that the boy came from a family where he was harshly punished for any transgression. He had very low self-esteem, other students didn’t socialise with him, he was somewhat of an outcast and by failing the majority of his subjects he had very little motivation to study. She further explained that a number of positive changes took place in the following weeks. The student would stay after class for a few minutes or would seek my grandmother out to ask her questions or ask for help. Other teachers made more of an effort with him as well. He felt motivated and made an extra effort in her and their classes, and he was able to ask for help as he started to believe that he could do better. He started showing more interest in extracurricular activities, made a friend, and was fully engaged in his own life.
That young student was able to change the narrative others were writing about him. He successfully finished school, entered university and from what I know was happy with his relationships and career.
I remember meeting him one day during my summer holidays. He used to visit my grandmother long after she finished working at the school and was spending her days gardening. I was 8 years old at that time when I met him and when she told me this story and I remember being very impressed with her ability to help him. I remember I kept asking her, how did you know that he had it in him? Why did it help? What if it didn’t work? For me it felt like magic to be able to see another person and their abilities and to help them with one of the most challenging situations in their life. Back then I knew that I wanted to do what she did, to see in people what others maybe don’t see, to give hope when others might have given up, to encourage people to write a better narrative of their lives.
My grandmother was the first person who encouraged me to see beyond the obvious, beyond the circumstances, to think about people’s pain, motivations, and challenges. I wanted to be able to see what she saw, to understand people and to see them the way she was able to do it, and to find a way to help them change their stories. Then I decided that I wanted to become a teacher just like her. However, from teaching my interest always took me away from the subject matter to people, learning about them, their motivations, struggles, challenges, traumas, health concerns and having an opportunity to change someone’s life to give them hope.
I like the idea that no matter what the circumstance are, people are always able to change something: their behaviour, and learn new skills and strategies to create a different life. We are often defined by others, our experiences, our mistakes, and our shortcomings, and we forget that we all have the capacity to change and to improve. For some of us change might be easy, but for others it might take some time and a number of attempts.
And this is where I see my role to be there when you might struggle, when life might be surprising and unexpected, when you might get caught up in circumstances that are damaging or are controlled by unhealthy habits. I would like to be there by your side, helping you see that there is a way to achieve your goal, helping you find a way to write another story for yourself, to reduce unnecessary suffering, to help you to write a new narrative to free yourself from the past.