Way back in grade 8 I had a teacher who taught me one of the most important lessons I carried forward from school:
Keep things simple…start conversations…learning follows.
Flash (we called him that because of the rather unique helmet he wore with a lightening bolt across each side during our regular teacher student floor hockey games. No other student or teacher wore a helmet. Nor did anyone else wear grey work boot socks with their Adidas tobacco running shoes. Flash was a little different – and that’s probably why he was such a good teacher.
He taught science and made it somewhat fun. He allowed us to transplant the heart from a long-dead and formaldehyde pickled fish to an equally dead pig. He let us learn about electricity by finding ways of generating it while sitting at our lab desk.
He was open-minded and always willing to answer the questions of immature teens. And it was his response to one of those questions that led to one of my key high school learnings.
Our lesson that day dealt with atoms. About the midway point of the class, just as we were about to shift from the talk part of the class to the experiment and exercise portion. One of the guys sitting at the back of the lab, and we all remember who sat back there, yells out “Mr. Lenton, how fast does an atom travel?.
Picture a middle-aged science teacher decked out in his white lab coat, pocket protector in position, standing at the front of his classroom. His ever-present meter stick (yard for those of you intent of staying behind the times) moved ever so slowly from his shoulder where it normally was perched like the bat of a hitter about to step up to the plate. Ever so slowly Flash moved into a thoughtful pose, stroking his beard with his right hand while looking thoughtfully at the ceiling. Both hands moved to one end of the meter stick. The other end he place on the floor just in front of his feet. And then he rocked…ever so slowly and for an agonizingly long time. He sidestepped to his desk, drew open the bottom drawer where he kept everything he at some point determined would have value to him, and reached in.
Out of nowhere he leaped from behind his desk and without hesitation threw a tennis ball as hard as he could at the back wall of the room. It ricocheted off the wall and bounced back right into the hands of the guy who asked the question to begin with. As our classmate caught the ball and turned towards our teacher the awkward millisecond of quiet that followed the initial whoosh and full classroom gasp was broken as Mr. Lenton uttered three words that set off more discussion over the next week or so than one could imagine as being more important to high school kids than boys, girls, sports and the upcoming weekend party, as we tried to analyze just what he meant when he said “faster than that“.
I am betting that if I could find people from that class they would be able to relay that story almost verbatim to my rendition. It hit home and became memorable for a simple reason: It made sense to us.
And there in lies the secret for communicators and leaders: Keep things simple. Open conversation. See where it takes you.
Making things even better….the guy who asked the question, he’s a physics prof at a university here in Canada. I’m sure that famous tennis ball is being used by a tennis coach near me nowadays, or perhaps it’s still in the drawer, waiting for another teacher to use it in a way that was as memorable as Flash did.