This morning I realized how much my Navy experience in Closed Circuit TV School helps me begin to understand how to approach the question of “what do I say—in my business, my community and my family,” as I try to find my way through the crucial conversations I want to have in the aftermath of Charlottesville.
It was 1981, long before flatscreens—TVs actually contained a “picture tube.” I loved the fact that I could look at any TV screen and know exactly what was working and what was not. As the only woman in the school, it was pure delight to be able to learn everything I did and get top marks on my tests.
Despite my skill at understanding the conceptual part of the program, I was in for a rude awakening when we moved on to the lab portion, where we were troubleshooting a variety of problems on our practice TVs. Unlike my male colleagues, I had little experience working on live electrical circuits—it was the equivalent of jumping into the deep end of the pool without knowing how to swim. I soon found out that working “live” was nothing like working with a schematic—and in that environment, my fear of harm eradicated my intelligence and skill.
My colleagues knew their way around a TV. Each man had been working on electronics since boyhood, starting out by taking apart small radios or clocks and then putting them back together. Each had gotten electrical shocks along the way and now knew how to avoid them. Unlike me, they were cool and calm around the high voltage in our practice TVs. They were successful in the lab—and back out on the job. My failure in that lab signaled the end of my electronics career.
Walking in the woods this morning brought the entire experience back to me. My partner and I were talking about what’s happening in our country right now and what we could possibly say or do to contribute to reparation and healing. He commented that our disconnect between what we want to do and what we know how to do reminded him of the stories I’d told him long ago about the difference between my experiences in that classroom and that lab.
Knowing that fear eradicates knowledge and skill, my Simple Shift this time is to use what I learned all those years ago to help me to forge ahead in these important conversations:
- Start small. My colleagues were so skilled with TVs because they had spent a lifetime learning what to do—and not do—when working with electricity, starting with lots of practice on small appliances. In my conversations about where we go from here, I’ll get my own practice by opening up the topic with one or two people at a time, listening and paying attention. As I continue to listen to and talk with more people, I’ll take what I learn about how to be in each conversation to the next one and build my skill along the way—expecting that every shock I get will teach me something I can’t learn any other way.
- Know the background. The only thing that helped me get so far in CCTV school was knowing the schematics inside and out; my colleagues knew how electronics circuits worked and simply expanded their knowledge to TVs. The more I learn about our untold history—especially the stories of African Americans, Native Americans, Latinx and Asian Americans—the better I understand the background that led to Charlottesville. The depth of the anguish in their stories may have been invisible to me before now—just like electricity is invisible to most people. My colleagues, who had been around electricity all their lives, knew how to act safely around it. Like them, the more I find out about the true stories of real people, the better I’ll become at knowing how to respond—which includes knowing what not to do.
- Focus on what you need to see. When you’re working with electricity, you have to pay attention to everything around you. You have to look for ways to see what’s invisible or you’re going to get hurt. Charlottesville has finally brought home to me the understanding that what you don’t see can hurt you—and like getting an electrical shock, my partner and I have been startled awake. Now that we’ve had a tiny glimpse of what has been the experience of people of color in this country since our origins, we have the opportunity to look around for what else we may have missed.
Next week: We Hear What We Listen For