Greg arrived at my art room after school to pick up a bulky project. He seemed down.
“Is everything ok?” I asked.
“My girlfriend and I got into a weird conversation, and it’s been on my mind ever since,” he said and frowned. “Her mom’s in prison, and . . .”
A meandering monologue followed, about his girlfriend’s self-doubt, Greg’s mother’s mistrust of her and his own efforts to help boost his girlfriend’s self esteem.
I continued to put away supplies, listening as I worked. Greg began to help me and continued talking. Occasionally I would ask a question. “How do you feel about that?” or “What do you think she wants to do about that?” Most of the time I just listened.
Gradually, Greg talked himself around to a new understanding of what he felt was worrying his girlfriend. Once he’d settled it in his own mind, he began to smile. “Ms. G., that really helped,” he said. “Now I know what to say to her. Thanks!”
About a month later, Greg showed up in my doorway after school. “You want me to wipe down the board for you?” he asked.
“Sure, thanks. How’s your girlfriend?”
“Your advice really helped, but now we’ve got another problem,” he told me. He described their latest difficulty. I saw him mentally sorting through it as he spoke. He made several tries before he managed to summarize what was really going on, to his satisfaction. Once again, I mostly just listened. I asked a question occasionally, but otherwise simply let him talk it through to a conclusion. We finished straightening the room, and he gave me a big smile. “Thanks again, Ms. G. You really give good advice!” He was gone before I could protest that I actually hadn’t offered any.
After that, he showed up periodically throughout the rest of the school year, always with a relationship puzzle to work through. I had vicarious glimpses of the emotional growth he and his girlfriend were each experiencing, as they dealt with her emancipation from her mother and his difficult relationship with his own family.
I don’t remember ever giving him much in the way of actual advice. I kept the focus on how he honestly felt and what he thought, but otherwise I simply kept my mouth shut. Greg was a smart and compassionate young man. He normally talked himself around to an answer, without much help from me—and he became steadily better at it, with practice.
Greg graduated, and married his girlfriend. I lost track of him after that. I did hear recently that they are still married. And whatever comes, I feel confident he’ll be able to figure things out. I’m glad I listened.
Gephardt teaches private art classes in Kansas.