Learning to Listen

I have lost count of how many times I have talked with young people about the value of listening. Usually, the younger my students are, the more important it is to address. But even the smallest ones can almost always identify, “listen to the teacher” as one of the classroom rules or guidelines. But my hope for them is that they’ll learn to listen to each other and the world around them. Listening is something we haven’t forgotten how to do, but we’re getting there. Think about everything you hear in a given day. What does it take for you to listen?

This weekend my mom and I saw GATZ at the Public Theatre in New York. When I told people that it was a six and a half hour play, they made quite a face that conveyed the opinion that this was some kind of unusual torture. “But how can you sit still that long?” they gasped. “That’s a long time to pay attention to one thing,” they judged. Set in an office, the script was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. All of it. I had read the book in high school, but the story and the language came to life in a way that it never had when reading it. This isn’t a shortcoming of the book. But the comparison of media is fascinating. Hearing each word of The Great Gatsby made me appreciate Fitzgerald’s concise, yet poetic command of the English language. GATZ also brought out the wit and instances of humor that I had missed when reading the book. There wasn’t always a lot to look at. But there was plenty to listen for.

Those six and a half hours shaped up to be an important lesson in listening for myself. My ears became sponges, trying to soak up every word and image and save it somewhere in the back of my mind. Active listening is challenging, especially in an over-stimulating world that has become heavily visually-oriented. It’s worth remembering when I remind my students about listening. But I’m happy to challenge them to go beyond their sense of sight, and turn their sense of hearing into listening.

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