Ruth Simon was not only my freshman advisor, she was also my communications teacher. I think I took communications in my sophomore year of high school. I think it has proven to be the most influential class I have ever taken. I've taken a lot of classes over the years so I think it says a lot that this one class stands out in my mind above the rest for the values it contributed to my life.
I have no idea why a distinguished, intelligent woman like Ms. Simon was teaching at a middle-sized suburban high school in Iowa. I had a garden tilling business and Ms. Simon hired me to till her garden one spring. She lived in a beautiful, large, stately home on a large estate property in a wealthy section of Des Moines. So, I don't think that she did it for the money. She never talked about her own life so I really only know about her through the lense of young student. But it was clear to me that she cared about us and that she cared about the subject that she was teaching.
Our class covered many different modes of communication. She taught us that much of communication is non-verbal. She taught us about the roles played in effective communication and the how complex it was and how easily it could go wrong. She taught us about how to become better listeners, how to try to truly understand the other person, and how to reflect what you've understood back to the person so that you could make sure you didn't misunderstand. We learned about one on one communication, small group communication, and large group communication. We learned about different types of speeches such as how to communicate a process or how to try to persuade people to your opinion. We also learned the basics of Robert's Rules of Order and how the parliamentary process works to produce orderly debate. Throughout all of this we had the opportunity to practice what we had learned.
As valuable as the course was, Ms. Simon put her own stamp on it and made the class much more than the sum of the curriculum. Some how it came up that my father belonged to the John Birch Society. She replied that she didn't subscribe to their beliefs due to anti-semitism and racism. That shook me. I was still at an age where I trusted my parents beliefs and shared them without a lot of critical thought. It had never occurred to me that there could be a dark side to my father's political beliefs, a dark side that obviously troubled a teacher that I had grown to trust. It was just a comment, a simple reply, a single sentence that I still remember. But it camed from a sincere, dedicated, intelligent, thoughtful woman who projected love and concern for everyone in her class. She respected us and demanded that we, in turn, also respect each other. Everyone that has ever been in high school realizes how hard a thing it is to demand such a thing. But I remember having increased appreciation and respect for my classmates at the end of the class.
The most important lesson I learned in that class may not mean much to you. It meant a lot to me and is a lesson that I have taken to heart and allowed to guide my life. We were talking about making hard decisions and how to overcome indecisiveness. She said that you should always ask two questions. First ask yourself, "What is the worst thing that could happen?" Then ask yourself, "What is the best thing that could happen?" If you can live with the worst thing that could happen and something good could come of it, then go for it. For example, if you want to ask a girl out, what's the worst thing that could happen? She says no? She makes fun of you to her friends? Everyone is school finds out? Could you live with that? If so, what's the best thing that could happen? She says yes and you have a great date? That would be good. The questions help you explore rationally your fears and hopes and put them in perspective. By using this process you can help face the fears that keep you from taking advantage of opportunties that come your way. Often, you face those fears and decide that they're not really so scary after all. Other times you realize that you really couldn't deal with the worst case outcome and that the potential upside could never justify taking the risk. Either way, you can make a decision and feel comfortable with it.
Ruth Simon was short, a little overweight, well wrinkled and seemed close to retirement age. She was not physically impressive, but there was a smile in the corners of her eyes and as soon as you talked to her you couldn't help but like her and feel like she liked you. Maybe it was just me, but I don't think so. She was a great woman that touched me at an important time of my life. For that I'll be forever grateful.