Caring for Strangers: ‘His Wide Mouth Home’ Remembered

He’ll lie down, and our breath
Will chill the roundness of his cheeks,
And make his wide mouth home.
~ Dylan Thomas

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Been There Before: My NPR Début

Based on my extensive research (which amounts to 20 minutes or so on Google), it was Vince Lombardi who said, “When you get into the end zone, act like you’ve been there before.”

Or it might’ve been Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant. Or Darrell K. Royal, head coach at the University of Texas in the 1960s and 70s.

Or, as one online commenter noted, “Probably some high school coach who will never be known.”

Anyway, you get the drift: If and when you accomplish something big, really big, something extraordinary, don’t behave like it’s a fluke or a miracle. Don’t, in other words, flop around in ecstasy for the cameras or whirl like a dervish. Instead, take it in stride – as in, “of course I made a touchdown in an NFL game in front of millions of viewers. Was there really any doubt?!”

I got to thinking about this following a recent segment on NPR’s “Weekend Edition.” Scott Simon, the paragon of public radio mellifluence, gravitas, and geniality, had interviewed an expert on the history of special counsels with respect to the Trump-Russia morass. Here’s the final exchange between Simon and his guest, Stephen Carter:

CARTER: We don’t know if it’s true or not, but we should behave as though we know whether it’s true. But if it does turn out to be true, that’s very, very serious.

SIMON: Stephen Carter of Yale Law School and the esteemed novelist. Thanks so much for being back with us, Stephen.

CARTER: It is always a pleasure. Thanks, Scott.

“Always a pleasure”– almost Chick-fil-A-esque, don’t you think? So calming, so routine. As if talking with Scott Simon to millions of listeners is the most natural thing in the world and “always a pleasure.” And Mr. Carter had also used the phrase earlier in the segment after he was first introduced.

Clearly it’s a pleasure Stephen had enjoyed previously – hence the “always” and the “being back with us.” Consequently, the Lombari/Bryant/high-school-coach recommendation about how to act didn’t apply to him: Carter had been there before, and he was acting accordingly.

But at some point in his radio career, Stephen Carter must’ve made an initial NPR appearance. There was some moment – years ago, decades ago, who knows? – that Stephen Carter was at a microphone and Scott Simon was introducing him for the very first time. And perhaps, back then, Mr. Carter wasn’t famous enough to be assured of a return visit. For all Stephen knew, it might’ve been his lone NPR shot!

So, I wonder: Was his response to Scott Simon’s inaugural introduction a sedate, “It’s my pleasure?”

I bet it was. In fact, I bet all the guests on NPR are prepped along those lines. I bet all the guests – especially the rookies and one-hit-wonders (those whose first NPR cameo really will be their only shot) are advised to act like they’ve been there before. “Be cool,” they’re told. “Pretend like you’re just having a chat with a census taker or a bank clerk. Disregard the monumental impact your words could have on countless people; how your comments might be misconstrued and lampooned in the digital ether forever. It’s all cool. Be cool.”

That’s why they all sound like they’ve been on the radio a million times even if they haven’t. That’s why they all, without exception, come across as erudite and smooth.

Take Jane Kirtley who showed up on “All Things Considered” the other day. Jane is an academic with specialized knowledge pertaining to pink slime, the segment’s focus. Given that pink slime isn’t exactly a hot news item any more, Dr. Kirtley could easily wind up on the NPR one-hit-wonder guest roster. Even so, consider her initial exchange with host Robert Siegel:

SIEGEL: Joining us to talk about this case is Jane Kirtley. She’s the director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota. Welcome to the program.

JANE KIRTLEY: Thank you.

I’m sorry, what? Just…“thank you” – that’s it? And that’s how she took her exit as well: a polite “thank you.” This well might be the only chance in her life – her whole life ­– that she’ll get to speak on NPR, and she goes out with a “thank you?” Probably she was as giddy as I would be to make it to ATC, but the pre-show handlers prepped it out of her.

No, I’m sorry, no. Look, Robert Siegel and Scott Simon and all you NPR guest wranglers, when you get around to needing a pro-life/anti-war former drummer with seven kids who works as a nursing instructor and refuses to carry a cell phone, I’ll be ready. However, know that I will eschew your advice about acting like I’ve been there before – I’ll sneer and scoff; I’ll give with a breathy chortle: “Herh, herh, herh.”  No, I will make good use of my 15 minutes of NPR fame, and it’ll go something like this:

SIMON: For more insight into Van Morrison’s unheralded contributions to healthcare reform and world peace, here’s Rick Becker, husband, father, blogger, and Assistant Professor of Nursing at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. Thanks for being here, Rick.

BECKER: Heck, are you kidding me, Scott – are you kidding me?! Shoot, yeah! Here we are, on NPR – N-P-freaking-R! – and you’re thanking me? I should be thanking you – in fact, I am going to thank you, right now: Thank you, Scott Simon! Thanks, NPR and Weekend Edition! Thanks, all you NPR contributors and underwriters! Thanks, thanks, thanks – this is awesome! Hey, kids! Hey, honey! I’m on NPR, can you believe it? Whooo-hooo! I hope somebody’s recording this!

Anyway, what’s your question, Scott?

SIMON: ….

Since there’s no question I’d be an NPR one-hit-wonder, why not go out in a blaze of glory? Feigning “been-there-before” cool – on NPR or in any part of life – strikes me as both fatuous and futile. Boorishness is underrated. Be awkward and loutish! Be free!

I’ll look forward to hearing from you, Scott.
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Courage to Fail

The experience of getting things wrong is the incentive for getting them right.
~ Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

Students: Congratulations! We’re all here to celebrate your accomplishment and your future. I know most of you – not all – but even if I don’t know you personally, I do know that if you’re sitting down here in front, then you’ve definitely accomplished something worth celebrating: The completion of your first clinical course in nursing school – yes!

JeffToday we’re glancing back to what you’ve done, and we’re also looking ahead as you continue on your way to a rewarding, meaningful career. We all salute you!

Like I said, I don’t know all of you, but the ones I do know have already had to listen to me plenty – both last semester and, for some, again this semester – so I’d like to suggest you kick back and relax for now.

Instead, I’ll direct my remarks to everybody else out there: The spouses, moms, and dads, the sons and daughters, grandmas and grandpas, the friends and neighbors – all these good folks who’ve come to honor you and share in your triumph. So, good folks, I want to give a testimony – to provide a little inside information as to why today is a big deal, some insight into your student’s accomplishment and future.

We’ll start with the accomplishment: The first semester of nursing school – no small feat, I assure you. Some of these students came into our program with healthcare experience; most of them, with little experience or none at all. Regardless, all of them had to start over from scratch – to learn how to learn differently, in addition to acquiring new skills and knowledge.

If you’re a nurse yourself, you already know that, right? You remember what nursing school was like. For the rest of you, you’ve probably been hearing a bit about the whole scheme the last few months: The massive books; the exams and skill check-offs; the ungodly clinical hours; the grumpy (sometimes) instructors; and (you’ll forgive me) the body fluids – always the body fluids, a staple of the nursing profession.

But that’s too simple, too obvious. There’s way more to it than that, you see. The big picture of nursing education involves much more than simply piling up proficiencies and passing tests. So, to help me draw that bigger picture, I’d like share an email with you. It’s from a friend who’s applying to nursing school, and she wanted some advice.

Here’s what she wrote:

Over the winter break, I am working on my nursing application. The personal statement requires that I elaborate on personal qualities that will contribute to my success as a professional nurse, and I thought it would be a good idea to ask some professional nurses what it takes. I know we talked about this before, but if you wouldn’t mind sending me a line about what first comes to mind for you – of qualities successful nurses have – that would be much appreciated.

Great question, right? If you’re intent on going to nursing school, it makes sense to find out what it takes to be a successful nurse.

I wrote back, of course, but before I tell you what I wrote, I want to share three brief vignettes – three images that capture different dimensions of my answer. All three are from National Public Radio – no surprise there. NPR is on in my car all the time, and I ruminate on the stories over and over as I drive around town.

And, as it turns out, the first story happens to be about driving. It was an interview with reporter Matt Richtel about his book, A Deadly Wandering. Richtel addresses the limits of the human brain, our obsession with gadgets, and the dangers of distracted driving – especially texting while driving.

So let me ask: How many of you text out there? Probably most, if not all. I’d venture to say that all of you avoid texting while driving, right? And that’s what you teach your teens when they’re learning to drive, I’m sure.parentdrivered_wide-18cd991c0945ba2a06de76a6316f4fc5c03df41b-s1100-c15

OK, here’s where I’m one up on you: I do not text – never have; never will. I’m kinda’ proud of that, to tell you the truth. There are a lot of disadvantages, I know, but here’s one definite advantage: When I’m teaching my teens to drive, I don’t have to worry about being called out as a texting hypocrite. For if I don’t text at all? Then they’ll never see me text and drive – case closed!

Of course, there are other mistakes we make as drivers besides texting, and I’m not going to pretend that I’m a perfect driver. However, I’ve managed to get two kids driving without ending up in jail, a lawsuit, or the hospital, and the third is in process – it’s always an adventure, but it’s going well despite my imperfections.

And that’s the key, isn’t it? When you’re teaching someone to drive, you have to accept the fact that the student will make mistakes – which is why professional driving instructors have their own steering wheels and pedals – but you also have to acknowledge that you yourself aren’t immune to error either.

In fact, without the risk of making mistakes, nobody would ever learn to drive. You can only do so much in simulators or the classroom. At some point, you have to be out in traffic, surrounded by other vehicles, and taking the chance that the other guy will do something wrong – or that you will. That’s how new drivers – and nurses – learn, and our role as instructors includes making room for error while ensuring that they avoid the errors that can have catastrophic consequences.

This idea was reinforced by another interview I heard on NPR – this time with Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios. You’ll remember Pixar as the folks who brought us Finding Nemo, A Bug’s Life, and the Toy Story movies. Catmull’s book is titled Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming The Unseen Forces That Stand In The Way Of True Inspiration, and what do you guess is his fundamental recommendation? Here’s Catmull in his own words:

People understand that failure is part of learning – it’s like we all get that. But we have a problem: There’s another meaning of failure. That’s the one we learned in school, which was that you weren’t smart enough, you didn’t work hard enough, or you screwed up. So we have these two meanings of failure, and they both exist inside of us. The result is that we tend to interpret failure as a necessary evil. We have to address that head-on – to say, no, failure is not a necessary evil, it is a necessary consequence of doing something new. If you don’t fail, then you’re actually screwing up in a much bigger way.

pixarDid you catch that? Catmull is one of the most successful people in the movie biz, and he’s arguing that if he’s not goofing up, then he’s missing the boat big time. It sounds paradoxical, but it makes sense: If we’re not making mistakes, then we’re not experimenting and exploring new ideas and trying out alternative ways of doing things – what they used to call, “thinking outside the box.” Maybe it would be better to call it: Breaking free from the fear of failure.

And that brings me to my third NPR story. I missed it when it aired, but one of my students – someone sitting right down here – shared it with me. It’s a bit hard to believe, but it seems that an assisted living facility in California shut down suddenly a year or so ago, and the residents who remained were literally abandoned.

Abandoned, that is, except for two employees – cook Maurice Rowland, and janitor Miguel Alvarez – who stayed on, without pay, to serve the residents until help arrived three days later. Here’s how they described their experience:

MAURICE: There was about 16 residents left behind. And we had a conversation in the kitchen – what are we going to do?

MIGUEL: If we left, they wouldn’t have nobody. We were just the cook and the janitor. But I was cleaning people up, helping them take a bath.

MAURICE: I was passing out meds. My original position was the cook. But we had like people that had dementia. I just couldn’t see myself going home…. Even though they wasn’t our family, they were kind of like our family for the short period of time.

A couple things to notice here. First, this janitor and cook: Were they not nurses those few days, despite their lack of training and credentials? Their devotion and loyalty overcame whatever fear they had of making mistakes, and they took a risk, and they acted.rowlandnpredit_wide-ae030fb5aaa1c047787ca0de69bcf3486cf27d62-s1100-c15

That’s one thing; here’s a second: It was my student who brought this story to my attention. It was my student who found it inspiring and wanted to pass it along because she instinctively recognized an affinity she shared with Maurice and Miguel. All of them – the cook, the janitor, my student – had integrated a vision for care and compassion that went well beyond job or paycheck. And that goes for all these students down here as well.

So, back to my friend who was applying to nursing school. After everything I’ve just said, you probably have a pretty good idea what I told her. Nevertheless, for the record, here’s what I wrote, and it can serve as a fitting tribute to your student as well:

I think a successful nurse is one who isn’t afraid to fail. That failure can take many forms – failure to care, failure to rise above fatigue and personal problems, failure to catch everything and know everything.

In short, a good nurse has to accept the fact that she’s human, and plan accordingly. To paraphrase Mother Teresa, expect to get things wrong sometimes, but try anyway; expect to be misinterpreted, but reach out anyway; expect to be hurt, but pour yourself out anyway.

God bless you as you press forward – courage!

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An address to first-year nursing students at their Nursing Dedication ceremony, Bethel College, Mishawaka, IN (24 January 2015). An adapted version of this address was published on Catholic Exchange.

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