Mirror Mirror in the Classroom

April 6, 2017 • By

I teach sociology. Remember that class freshman year? That 8:00 guaranteed-to-get-you-up-in-the-morning class? The one you only showed up for on exam days? That’s the one.

Lecture topic today, self-concept. Self-concept consists of the words I use to describe, well, me. Example, most evenings when I turn the lights out, I decide I am a pretty good person, honest, try hard, and appreciate most of what happened in my day. This self talk has not changed much over the years.

I introduced my eleven o’clock class to Charles H. Cooley. He wrote a lot about how we acquire a sense of who we are, our self-concept.  He agreed with his contemporaries that separating us from the rest of the animal kingdom is the fact that we can act toward ourselves the same way we act toward others.  I learned this in my early twenties. Easy to memorize at exam time, but the reality of what that fact implied came years later. Cooley meant that each of us has the real potential to speak only words of positive self-praise, support, encouragement, and love to ourselves. This revelation was followed by a monumental blow to my own self-concept. If I was such a pretty good person, why did I spend hours every week talking to myself in less than supportive, encouraging, loving, or even friendly ways?

Cooley offered clarity. Using the analogy of a mirror, he outlined the ‘Looking-Glass Self.’ The premise is straightforward: we develop our self-concept by seeing ourselves as others do. A simple three step process is involved and most of the time we are unaware it is happening.I listed the steps on the board to personalize the process for every student.

  • I imagine how I appear to others,
  • I imagine how others judge my appearance,
  • I develop feelings about myself based on those perceived judgments.

Class discussion followed. I posed questions and solicited opinions with examples to support their responses.  Is this an objective or subjective process? Could a stranger make you feel badly toward yourself? Can you change your concept of self, depending on where you are, or who you are with throughout the day?

When the volume in the room softened, I noticed several minutes remained before class ended.  A novel question entered my mind and exited my mouth.

“If you agree we use this process to form a self-concept, and that some people use those around them as their social mirror more than others, can you tell me why I do not use you as my social mirror?”

Silent stares. A couple hands raised high.


Another Good Day

March 30, 2017 • By

For nearly eight years after my mother had a stroke, I lived to help my father make her life the very best it could be.  Few coworkers during those years knew of my life outside the walls of academia. Only a handful of very close friends recognized the persistent stress that had lodged in my neck and jaw.

Close to the end of her life I wrote a book, a memoir. The purpose was to somehow keep my mother with me, with my father, with my siblings forever. She did not walk, skip or dance as she had. She did not comment on anyone in view as she had. She had even lost her voice to aphasia. Without the perpetual stream of words punctuated with sighs and moans many days felt empty. My goal was to preserve her somehow, as she had been. The way I chose to accomplish that was by memory. Grace was my mother’s first name. I accidentally discovered a picture of her standing on a ledge overlooking a large pond; straight, on two feet, confident and full of expectation. Grace on the Ledge seemed the book’s natural title.

Before the book was sent to print, my editor wisely recommended I investigate titles in the memoir genre to promote readership. The word ‘caregiver’ came up in every search. After much deliberation and discussion, A Caregiver’s Memoir was added to the book’s cover. If a reader searches on that key word, reads my book, and feels some connection, some acceptance and support in that unsolicited role, I am glad. But I have never felt comfortable wearing the label.

I consider myself a caretaker, not a caregiver. Some might describe my actions as giving. But I am the one who has taken and continues to take so much. I am grateful for all of it.

Days I am not on campus teaching are reserved for appointments and outings with my dad. He is 94 and trust me, totally in charge of life. On the schedule for today: blood work to precede a routine checkup next week, the barber for his signature buzz cut, and a first-time stop at the new Duncan Donuts on the south side of town.  Eating a donut after he kept close track of his sugar intake before blood work has become a tradition. Until today, I would pop in the shop, stock up on a half dozen chocolate frosted yummies and take them back to Dad’s place. Today’s visit was a first.

Only two cars in the lot, I unfolded his rolator and we made our way down the ramp and inside. The menu hung on the wall with animated video panels in between the list of coffee varieties and breakfast fare.

“Do they have anything like regular coffee?” Dad leaned over to ask.

“Yes, way at the top, roasted coffee”.

“Boy, you need binoculars to read that far.”

Straining my eyes behind progressive lenses to locate the word ‘latte’ on the list, I totally understood.