On my best days, I am quiet.
“You have two ears and one mouth,” said my grandpa one day as we walked together down a row of tomatoes. “So you should listen twice as much as you speak. You might learn something if you listen.”
I looked into his watery blue eyes. Watery with memories from his childhood on a dairy farm, service in World War II and work in heating and air conditioning. Watery with tenderness from raising five children and caring for my grandma and tending gardens.
I grinned at him with a twinkle in my own watery blue eyes. I didn’t say a word. I was quiet. I was listening.
I was sitting on a bench on Main Street one evening, reading my worn copy of “Cry, The Beloved Country,” marveling at the way Alan Paton listened to life. I was writing in my notebook, wondering at the life around me, when I looked up and saw an old man shuffling by.
He wore a tattered, holey raincoat, a baggy pair of pants splattered with mud from a thunderstorm from earlier in the week, and a pair of leather shoes with the sides split out of them revealing sockless, bruised feet that were battered by hot, hard streets.
I watched him quietly without speaking, only listening as he passed by.
I was listening to something without words because he wasn’t speaking to me or to anyone around him. Or was he? “You should listen twice as much as you speak,” I remembered.
“Maybe,” I thought. “Just maybe that’s because the most important things in life are quiet and speak to us twice as much without words as with words.”
I listened in a way I had never listened before. I listened to the old man’s face.
Yes, I listened to his face. I listened to each wrinkle along his forehead and around his eyes.
“What made that wrinkle?” I asked myself. “Was it laughter … or tears? Is it natural old age … or deep suffering? Was it carefree living … or a heavy, heavy heart?”
I listened to the sadness in his watery blue eyes. “Why are you looking down as you shuffle by?” I asked myself. “Are you holding back tears? What have you seen with those eyes?”
And I listened to his dirty, unshaven cheeks. “Do you have anyone to take care of you?” I thought. “Are you lonely? Are you alone?”
Listening to faces is hard work and has to be developed slowly over time. We live in a world that teaches us to speak twice as much as we listen, or to speak without listening at all.
Yet, over time, listening to faces will grow the most important thing we can have in our hearts – deep empathy for each person we encounter every day.
And, over time, listening to faces will grow the most important thing we can have in our hands and feet and, indeed, our words – simple kindness that guides us to put our arms around the shoulder of a shuffling old man and say, “Would you like to sit down and have coffee with me? Would you like to be my friend?”
I found a friend because I listened to his face.
As a public school teacher, I work hard to listen to the faces of my students. I was talking with Geraldine recently about a wonderful book she was reading, “Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy” by Karen Foxlee.
“Oh, Mr. Barton,” she said with a giggle, “I’m just like Ophelia in the story because she’s a curious kind of kid and I’m a curious kind of kid because I want to know everything about everything.”
Then she became serious. “But she’s a nervous kind of kid, too, because she’s had a hard life and I’ve kind of had a hard life, too.”
I looked into her earthy brown eyes and thought about the ground and soil from which she came, for she came here from the farms and fields of Mexico with her family.
For the first time, I noticed the faintest of dark circles around her eyes, the slightest of a downward turn at the corners of her mouth, and a hint of tiredness and sadness that should not often be on a 10-year-old’s face.
“Geraldine,” I asked, “what’s your life like?”
And she told me her story. “I share a room with my mom, my aunt, my sister and my two younger cousins,” she began. “And my family works really hard.”
As she talked with me about the book and about her life, a tiny tear appeared in the corner of her eye. I wondered if it came from giggles or from sadness. I caught the tear in my hand as it rolled off of her cheek.
“See how I caught your teardrop?” I asked. “As your teacher, I’m here to catch your happiness and your sadness, Geraldine. I’m here to help you learn everything about everything so you can be anything you want to be. I am here.”
I was there because I listened to her face.
We need to continually ask two questions: What are the stories of the people around us? What are their faces saying?
With our two ears and with the ears of our hearts, let’s listen.
Trevor Barton teaches fourth grade and is a member of First Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina. A version of this article originally appeared in The Greenville Journal and is used with permission. His writings can also be found on his blog and you can follow him on Twitter @teachandwrite.
A fourth grade public school teacher and member of First Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina.