Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Lightrail Learnings: Situational Context

I haven't taken the train much this summer, but with the constant and overlapping meetings I had all day I figured it was a great chance to steal some "me" time before and after work.

Normally I ride the complete route from first stop to last because of where I live and work. Like usual, this morning I stepped onto a fairly empty train around 7am, chose my corner seat against the window, and went into my own world listening to music, checking up on things before the day, and reading. It is part of my routine, I know what to expect, and it feels comfortable.

Usually I would repeat a similar process on the way home since I get on the train before many others who accumulate from busier stations, but my teammate offered to drive me to the station by her house so we could catch up and chat. Lovely time well spent, but as I climbed aboard a full train of passengers at this somewhat unknown station I felt very much out of place. You see, I didn't have time to acclimate to the situation or people who were already on-board. If something funny or dramatic happened at any of the previous stops I would be none the wiser. The people who were standing and sitting had presumably claimed their spots through some kind of, usually unspoken, situations that happened already. Maybe Passenger A offered Passenger B to sit down in the last available seat, but knowing they were getting off in a couple stops Passenger B declined the seat. Perhaps someone had relinquished a seat to an older rider and chosen to stand in an awkward spot near the steps. Regardless of what had occurred so far on this train, I was walking into the situation without having any of that context. Now maybe it is my hyper awareness of others' emotions and mannerisms that causes me to notice and contemplate these things. It could be my mother's attempt to create such a polite and considerate human being that I am constantly analyzing how my actions influence others. My guess is that one contributes to another, and in this case it is a bit of both. Regardless, I climbed aboard and tentatively made my way to the middle of the train to make room for a bicyclist who was trying to stand at the front with his bike. As I stood there I was struck by just how much different this experience felt than my typical ride, and it wasn't the first time I had encountered that feeling. I started thinking about what was contributing to this discomfort and realized it was most likely that I was missing context and background by entering a situation partway through the experience. 

Now I know this is common for many, and goes unnoticed for most, but for the few who do take note this experience can vary from mildly uncomfortable to downright unsettling. Furthermore, what implications does this kind of situation have in other contexts? When students get pulled out in the middle of class and re-enter after the mini lesson has happened for the next subject, do they feel this way? I'm certain there are kids who feel this on a sometimes severe level when they move and start a new school. (I'm certain because when I was 15 I was that kid and, for a number of reasons beyond missing context as a rural Sophomore entering a close-knit urban K-12 community, it sent me for such a loop that for the first time in my life I had the great displeasure of experiencing depression for the first time...yay.) My mind then bounced from the student perspective to adults, thinking of the new employee in a well-established office or the stay at home parent who goes from book club to parent/play group trying to find the place that feels "right". 

Don't get me wrong, many of these experiences are healthy, necessary parts of life. We all have to learn to navigate the sometimes uncomfortable waters of being "the new kid" or entering at somewhat unlucky timing in a situation. I guess it just got me thinking about what the rest of us can do to help ease some of the discomfort. Do the students who come back mid-class from their pullout group know how and where to access the lesson and directions so they can re-enter seamlessly? Do the new colleagues in the office get a warm smile in the hallway and have a place to, like the students who missed the lessons, build some context on the work being done without having to wait for someone to explain it all to them? Without always knowing the people in these situations how can we ensure that they are engaged in a healthy amount of challenge or discomfort for a finite amount of time rather than being pushed past these points and plummeting into straight-up anxiety and fear? For whatever it is worth I am going to be watching for these situations a little more closely and hopefully I can help fill in some missing context or, if nothing else, make a friendly gesture towards someone who may or may not be feeling uncomfortable in that moment.