Thursday, April 28, 2011

Message in Bottle - a lesson learned

Susie's bottle, with message inside, sits on my desk.  

I continue to learn valuable lessons from students on a regular basis.  In my career there are a few incidents that stand out more than others.  One particular incident occurred in 1993.  Let me set the scene:

I was involved in the planning and supervision of a Gr. 12, over-night (2 nights with 130 students) leadership retreat.   The retreat itself went smoothly.  We were heading home from, what I thought was, a successful retreat.  The commute involved a ferry ride.  

Feeling exhausted and a bit frayed (being “on duty” for over 48 hours was weighing on me) I was taking a few moments to enjoy the scenic west coast.
While enjoying the beautiful scenes of the coast line, I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a student ready to launch a pop bottle over the edge of the boat.
SUSIE!!! (fictitious name)  WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?! 
My holler was quickly followed by a stern lecture about leading by example, the environmental impact of littering, etc.  Throughout my litany I sensed that the student really wanted to say something.
 “But Mr. B….….But…… But……..”
Finally, after I finished, she chimed in and explained herself:
“Mr. B, I put a message in the bottle.  I was so inspired by the retreat that I wanted to share my inspiration.” 
While she explained herself she opened the bottle and pulled out the note and handed it to me. It read:
“To whoever finds this note – call (school name and phone number) and we will say a special prayer for you – should you need it.”  
I felt like an idiot.

On that day I learned some valuable lessons about my interactions and relationships with students.
What you see is not always what you get.
Susie’s actions, on the outside, seemed destructive and selfish.  Upon further investigation, her intentions were, in fact, altruistic.

Listen first than talk
Had I taken this advice, I would have saved Susie (and me) the embarrassment and humiliation of a stern lecture.

Don’t label students
Susie had developed a bit of a reputation at the school for being apathetic and a bit of a rebel.  My reaction to her imminent action of throwing the bottle was compounded by this unfair label.  I don’t label students anymore.

Always give students the benefit of the doubt.
The young adults that I have had the privilege of teaching and learning with, when given the opportunity, rarely disappoint.     I have a fundamental belief that our world is in good hands with future generations. 

Today, I still have the Susie’s bottle, with her inspiring message inside, on my desk.  It serves as a constant reminder of the “lessons learned” and the profound obligation I have to find out what’s inside each and every “bottle” I have the privilege of encountering.


  1. Great post, Johnny.

    Two of your lessons remind me of a couple of rules I try to live by. Your "Listen first, then talk" is like "We have 2 ears and 1 mouth, so listen twice as much as you talk". I also like your "Give students the benefit of the doubt", similar to my "If you are going to make a mistake with a kid, give them one chance to many, not one chance too few".

    Thanks for the reminders.

    PS-you still have the bottle? How come the two of you didn't throw it? (that's tongue in cheek)

  2. Thanks for the comments Jason. Maybe the next time I see this student we'll toss the bottle in the ocean!

  3. Like the song says, "Ah, yes, I remember it well!" One for our collective memoirs, Johnny. We all need to be reminded that however flawed and fractured our students are, there is an inherent goodness there. Thank you.

  4. Great speaks to so much.