Diane's Voice

Sitting at Table

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I’ve gone back to teaching, at least part-time, in an all-girls Catholic high school which I adore. This semester I’m covering a class called Christian Lifestyles, taught only to seniors. Up until now it has been taught by an incredible Sister who had to move too far away from the school to teach regularly. My guides for this class are her syllabus and the book from which she has been teaching. The course is really designed to get the girls thinking about their transition from high school to college, so the units are Identity and Autonomy; Growth and Creativity; Work; Money; Relationships . . . and so on.

We’re currently on the Work unit, and as I was planning I came across something in the syllabus called “race world vs. table world.” That’s all it said. Is this a Catholic thing? I wondered. So I searched. No. A Christian thing? I found nothing that suited. Changing my search terms I finally found a valedictory speech by a student in the school that referred to the lesson. Essentially, she said, race world is a view of life as if everything is a competition. Table world is a view of life where we are sharing responsibility for making the world a better place. Of course, Christianity, at least in theory, advocates for a table world.

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Cooperation vs. competition in the world of work. That’s something I could get behind. But how to introduce it? We had been doing so much work on identity, autonomy, growth, and creativity–individual assignments and journaling–that I wanted to get my students working in groups. So I devised a plan in which I brought in six 60-piece puzzles. I’d disassembled the puzzles and took one piece from each puzzle and put it in the bag of another puzzle. I did this so that no one group could directly trade with another group. So the ocean puzzle piece went into the bag with the safari pieces, and the safari piece went into the bag with the space pieces, space into farm–you get the point.

I told the young women that we were going to start our work unit with an exercise in collaboration and competition. I had them count off by sixes so they weren’t just working with their friends, so we had about six groups of about 3-4 students each. I told them they were in groups cooperating to put the puzzle together but competing against other groups. They took it all in stride, but I was amazed how many of them really wanted to put the puzzle together. These poor kids really just need some time to play.

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I watched the groups putting their puzzles together, waiting for the first set get close to winning and realize they had one puzzle piece that didn’t fit. “Hey! We’re done except for this one piece that doesn’t fit!” one student said.

I smiled, told all the ladies to pause, and asked the young woman to repeat what she’d said.

“So you’re really not done then, are you?” I answered. I told the groups they could all get back to work, but that they were all going to have to figure out how to finish their puzzles.

“I knew there was going to be a trick!” another young woman said. “Didn’t I say when we started that she probably switched puzzle pieces or left one out or something?”

I smiled again. “Well, it had to be a lesson, right?”

Some of the students laughed. “So who has our puzzle piece?” a student in the group who was almost finished asked.

I shrugged. “That’s part of the puzzle!”

The group members got up and started looking around at the other groups. There were about two groups who were almost done, as well. I didn’t really watch what they did but eventually the group who would have finished second managed to get their piece and win.

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I told the others they could keep working and gave them all skittles, while the winning team got chocolate. They were all happy. I asked if anyone didn’t like or was allergic to chocolate. One person raised her hand.

“Lesson 1 then, about competition: know what it is you stand to win.” I told them that what we’re competing for in the work world is not always what it seems. Some people compete for the highest paying job only to find out that their corporate culture is exhausting. Others compete for a job in a particular part of the country only to find that their pay is not what they need to make ends meet in that city. There are so many variables in searching for work that provides a living wage and a reasonable lifestyle, it’s hard to nail down all of them, but we need to try to figure out as many of them as possible when we’re starting a career.

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“Lesson 2 starts with a question: how did you go about getting your puzzle piece?” Ideally, when I’d conceptualized the activity, I figured they’d make different trades. I was absolutely wrong.

“We took ours from another team,” a student on the winning team said. “They didn’t know they had our piece, and it was just sitting there, so we took it.”

“I grabbed it out of the hand of my friend on the other team,” a student from another group said.

“I just threatened one of my friends on the other team and told her to give it to me,” said another.

I grimaced. “Are you all proud of that behavior?”

One young woman on the winning team said, “Well, in a way yes, because we won. In another way no, because we were willing to do some not-so-great things to win.”

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“So, lesson 2: when we see something as a competition, sometimes we are willing to do things that violate our moral compass in order to win.”

“Well, winning is important!” another student said.

“But is it important enough to compromise your morals?” another asked.

“Sometimes,” said a third. “Sometimes not.”

“Okay.” I said. “Let me get to the last part of the lesson. I want you to imagine that you are in an interview room for a job you really want, and you are in that room with six other people who you know are interviewing for the same job. One person gets called in for their interview at a time, and after the interview they are instructed to go back into the same room and wait until everyone has finished interviewing.”

My students were all listening pretty closely, even if some were still working on their puzzles.

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“If you are not the first person to go in and interview, what do you do after the first candidate comes back into the room and sits down?”

Answers varied from “I’m just going to mind my own business and read my phone,” to “I’m going to ask him how it went,” to “I’m going to pump him for info!”

“Okay. Now let’s say you ARE the first person to go in and interview. What do you do when you get back into the room?”

“I keep myself to myself,” one student said.

“I tell them how awful and grueling it was, to get them all nervous and psych them out!” said another.

“I tell them all the wrong things to say hoping they’ll use them in the interview,” said a third.

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“Hmmm.” I said. “Let me ask you another question. In your imagination, how do you feel about the other people in the interview room with you?”

“They’re the competition. I want to crush them,” one student said.

“I don’t like them. They want what I want and they’re stopping me from getting it.”

“Are they, though?” I asked. “In that interview room, are those other people in charge? Do they have any power over you?”

Some said no, others shook their heads.

“That’s right. They have no more power than you do. They are completely on your level. And the behavior you are describing is called horizontal violence. Does anyone know what that means?”

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More head shaking.

“It’s when you see your competition, or your enemy, as the other people who are on the same level as you. The truth is, they are not the ones you should feel enmity toward. They’re just doing what you’re doing–trying to get a job. The one who is in control, the one who has the power, is the person doing the hiring.”

At this point I pretty much had their attention.

“So today, who set up the game?”

“You,” one student said.

“That’s right. I set up the game. I made the rules. The person you were really competing against was me. Yet did any of you turn your competitiveness toward me? No, you turned it toward each other.”

The room was a mix of silence and slight chatter.

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“Do you know what I, as a woman who’s lived for half-a-century would do in that interview room? Whether I was the first one in or the last one, I’d try to say hi to everyone, and ask for their LinkedIn. And this is what I’d say: ‘Hey. Listen. I know we’re all going for the same job, and we see each other as competition, so if you don’t want to do this I understand. But here’s the thing–we’re all in the same field. We all have pretty good qualifications, and one of us is probably going to get this job. But the rest of us will get jobs other places. We’ll be competitors, maybe, but we might also one day be colleagues. So I was thinking that no matter what happens here, we could keep in touch professionally.'”

The girls were listening.

“After all, ladies,” I continued, ‘you never know when you’ll be working on a project at your Safari-puzzle company that will require something from the Ocean-puzzle company. But maybe you won’t have anything the Ocean-puzzle company needs. But maybe the Construction-puzzle company needs something you can provide, and in return they can provide the Ocean-puzzle company with something. Now I don’t mean this as a dishonest thing or anything, like insider trading. I mean creating relationships between organizations.”

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“Table world,” one of the girls said. “Cooperation.”

“Yep. You got it!” I said. “If we stop seeing things as a race or a competition, and start seeing things as a place where everyone can have a seat at the table, we can help ourselves and help others in the process, creating a big circle of cooperation.”

“Wow,” one student said. “You should make this a TED talk.”

“Nah,” I replied. “But I will make it a blog post.”

6 replies »

  1. I love how you told us the students’ initial reactions, even though they were, well, more traditionally capitalist/competitive. But they had to acknowledge their initial reactions in order to understand that there were other ways to respond. A great lesson!


    • Thank you so much, Katie. Yes, I think it’s best to be authentic about these things. Granted, the responses came from the very vocal and competitive students; I’m sure many of the quieter ones may have been kinder already in their initial reactions. I know some of the girls were nodding when I talked about kindness. It’s just hard, at that age, not to see everything as life-and-death competitive, especially with college acceptances on the horizon where they feel they’re competing against millions of other kids their age. It’s a very hard age to navigate any kind of relationship, much less one with those they see as their competitors. But they’re getting there, and I’m proud of them.


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