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Many years ago, as a young Director, I was fortunate to see Sir Paul Scofield and Howard Rollins Jr, in I’m Not Rappaport by Herb Gardner.  The play tells the story of two octogenarian friends, Nat and Midge who meet daily to put the world to rights on a bench in New York’s Central Park.  At one point in the play, Nat goes through an old vaudeville comedy routine with Midge:

Nat: Hey, Rappaport! I haven’t seen you in ages. How have you been?

Midge: I’m not Rappaport.

Nat: Rappaport, what happened to you? You used to be a short fat guy, and now you’re a tall skinny guy.

Midge: I’m not Rappaport.

Nat: Rappaport, you used to be a young guy with a beard, and now you’re an old guy with a moustache.

Midge: I’m not Rappaport.

Nat: Rappaport, how has this happened? You used to be a cowardly little white guy, and now you’re a big imposing black guy.

Midge: I’m not Rappaport.

Nat: And you changed your name, too!

Interested readers may see the filmed version of the routine here.

One should, of course, never explain a joke.  There is nothing more likely to kill humour than an explanation of it.  So I won’t attempt to explain why the exchange there is funny, suffice it to say that it rests upon the absurdity of someone claiming something is the case contrary to stark evidence that it isn’t.  Nat is so convinced of his ‘knowledge’ that he doesn’t listen to what Midge is telling him. Or, Nat doesn’t listen to what Midge is saying, because Nat has something to say. Having said I wouldn’t attempt to explain the joke, I’ve just come pretty close haven’t I? Apologies.  Anyhow, it brings me to the subject of today’s paltry words, namely ‘listening’.

A quotation often attributed to Marx (Groucho, not Karl) runs as follows:

“The two most important words in the world are ‘honesty’ and ‘sincerity’, if you can fake these you’ve got it made.”

In our world there appears to be a huge industry dedicated to teaching people how to fake.  Indeed, some would argue that the distance between what is genuine and what is fake has all but disappeared.  I suggest this is palpably true in the business of listening.

I once, as part of my ‘continuing professional development’, attended a course on leadership for those people who weren’t leaders.  The course had, if I remember correctly, and I probably do, the baffling title of ‘Leading from the Middle’.  The notion of leading people when half of them were already in front of you seemed strange to me.  But, to paraphrase dear old Charlie Dickens, the wisdom of our learning professionals is in the title; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the country’s done for.

As part of being trained to lead from the middle, attendees endured three sessions which, if passed successfully, earned a ‘Coaching’ badge. It may, on reflection, have been a certificate, but no matter, these are the incidentals.  Many of these coaching sessions involved instructions on how to be a good listener.  We would be told the principles and then we’d have the opportunity to use those same principles on each other in practical sessions.

Let me picture you the scene.  Let us go then, you and I, to witness one of those practical sessions.  Squint in the darkness that no fluorescent light may illumine and imagine if you will, there, ranged before us in this cavern-like windowless, out of action ballroom, an infernal host of earnest faced teachers making eye contact, nodding, asking follow-up questions, not interrupting, being both focused and searingly attentive for the requisite amount of seconds until they can respond with a follow up question to further demonstrate they were hearing what their partner trainee had been saying all along.  Welcome to listening with a capital L.

Enough. Lest we be drawn too dangerously to these corporate depths, let us leave these lost souls in their stygian mist and hurry upwards to something approaching daylight…

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for such classes.  I’m with Taylor Swift when she sings, “And it’s fine to fake it ’til you make it,”  But Taylor being Taylor, gets it, because she immediately adds, “’Til you do, ’til it’s true.” My worry, dear reader, as I have mentioned to you before, is that the fakery is increasingly regarded as the real thing.  We forget  the ‘til it’s true bit.  If only we avoided fake listening in the same way as any reasonable person might look to avoid getting on fake airplanes flown by fake pilots.

Before I take up too much of your time, if I haven’t already, permit me to share two thoughts about what true listening is all about. The first is short but profound.  The second is longer but profound.

One of the things us mesial, halfway leaders are told when playing the role of the listener is to note the importance of silence in any conversation where we want to demonstrate listening.  This is fine and indeed dandy, but only insofar as it is understood, above all else, that silence is not the absence of sound but the absence of self.  That’s the first thing.

The second requires a bit contextualising.  One of my favourite authors is J D Salinger.  He was the subject of one of my dissertations back in the day, which unexpectedly surfaced last week from a correspondence out of the blue.  But this is another story.  I must get on.  You have fish to fry.  One of Salinger’s lesser known works is Franny and Zooey, who are brother and sister in the Glass family.  The Glass family featured heavily in Salinger’s writing and was headed by the inimitable Seymour Glass.  Seymour’s only real starring role comes in a short story titled A Perfect Day for Bananafish, which you must all read.  Anyhow, back to the contextualising.  In our story, Franny is having a tough time and is receiving some advice over the phone from Zooey, who is in turn relaying words which Seymour told to him about performing on a radio show (as children, the Glass siblings were regulars on American Whiz Kids) one day Seymour told Zooey to shine his shoes before going on air and Zooey had refused, as he relays the story to Franny:

“The announcer was a moron, the studio audience were all morons, the sponsors were morons, and I just damn well wasn’t going to shine my shoes for them, I told Seymour. I said they couldn’t see them anyway where we sat. He said to shine them anyway.

Seymour’s response is that he should shine them for the Fat Lady.  And Zooey continues,

“I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but he had a very Seymour look on his face, and so I did it. He never did tell me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time I ever went on the air again–all the years you and I were on the program together, if you remember. I don’t think I missed more than just a couple of times. This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast from morning till night. I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer, and–I don’t know. Anyway, it seemed goddam clear why Seymour wanted me to shine my shoes when I went on the air. It made sense”

 Franny was standing. She had taken her hand away from her face to hold the phone with two hands.

“He told me, too,” she said into the phone. “He told me to be funny for the Fat Lady, once.” She released one hand from the phone and placed it, very briefly, on the crown of her head, then went back to holding the phone with both hands. “I didn’t ever picture her on a porch, but with very–you know–very thick legs, very veiny. I had her in an awful wicker chair. She had cancer, too, though, and she had the radio going full-blast all day! Mine did, too!””

You know why it’s important to shine your shoes? Because authentic listening is worth it.

And that’s number two.

Until next time, Happy Reading/shoe shining!

Mr Liddy

Director of Literacy and Oracy