I don’t believe that I am alone in wishing many of my thoughts were private- that a thought might become known only when I write it down or say it out loud. The premise of “private thought” implies that when I think a thing but do not act upon that thought, I am not unaccountable to it. Thoughts, by this way of reasoning, do not count the way actions and words do.
Last week, when an autistic boy refused to get on the little yellow bus at the end of the school day, I got to re-assess the “private thought” theory. I got called over the loud speaker to help in a bus situation. When I stepped onto this bus, I found the boy, the driver and the boy’s teacher, teeth clenched, spitting out curt phrases at one another. The boy wouldn’t sit down, wouldn’t shut up, and wouldn’t wear the mandatory harness. Both the teacher and the driver leaned into this boy and even I could “hear” them cursing in their heads.
Then, the boy and I made eye contact. In that instant, what popped into my mind was how he had called my name during his talent show performance earlier that day. “You rock, Principal John.” So, in the moment our eyes connected, I smiled and called out his name in fond recognition. It was spontaneous. Then he sat. He stuck his hands up, the driver gave me the harness that he had to wear, and I slipped it on him. It took thirty seconds.
What factors contributed to the change? Could it be that, because of what was in their minds, the boy felt as if the driver and the teacher had stuck him in the ribs? What, then, did he perceive when he and I made eye contact? The situation brought forward a truth: An idea, even unspoken, exists as energy, – very real stuff that we don’t yet have ways to measure. Even if I refuse to admit having had a particular thought, that does not mean it doesn’t show up somehow, real as a rock.
How far does this connectedness go? When I write an incident report about a child, or when I get triggered and think harsh things behind the closed doors of my office – when I speak unmeasured things to a confidante miles away, is there something that slips beyond these “private” exchanges? I lack such tools to map out how it might work, but I’m coming to see that a kind of connection remains.
These events bring to mind a teacher from my grade school days. All of the boys in my school feared this woman and went great lengths to avoid her. I can recall being puzzled at how such kind sounding words managed to come out of her mouth when I understood her to be anything but kind. I can still picture her twisted smile. An angry realm existed within her and seeped out in non-verbal ways.
Is it true that we really can’t hide? Maybe so. I lead, teach, and am seen in a level of detail that language only approximates. To pretend that my totality is not out in the open might be a self-protecting slight-of-mind strategy. What I do want for myself is a level of courage that helps me become a pioneer of openness – to live as though everything – thoughts included – counts.