September 12, 2013 | by Aubrie Tossman

Someone to Listen to You

Aubrie_with_Manley_Student.jpgThere are a lot of pop songs that talk about the need for a someone or a somebody: Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me,” Queen’s “Somebody to Love,” Adele’s “Someone Like You,” even Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been” recounts, “I’ve been everywhere, man, looking for someone…Where have you been all my life?”

We even have curriculum that asks students to declare whether they agree with the famous “No man is an island” mantra or “Every man for himself.” While we try to help teenagers affirm their identity as one of value and that they do not need another person to feel valuable, it’s hard to ignore the reality of the human need to have another person around to share life with, whether that is romantic (as in the pop songs) or just someone to listen to you.

As the new school year kicks off, I’m reminded of a conversation I had last year. I was visiting a junior advisory to check on the progress of an advisor and her group. While I watched girls in small groups reflecting on their grades, one girl who had come in late and sat alone pulled a chair up next to me. She asked me who I was and if I wanted to see her progress report. I did and was impressed by her mostly A’s and B’s. She pointed to one B minus and said, “That’s gotta go up.” I supported her willingness to grow and take ownership over improving. And then, the flood gates opened.  

I’m the kind of person who really hates when I sit down on an airplane and the person next to me starts telling me his or her whole life story, but it is a totally transformative experience for me when a young person does the same thing. It’s a good thing that I am not always reacting like I do on airplanes, because I find that when I walk into classes at nearly any school and merely start asking a student about themselves, they often freely share information. This held true for my new friend, a transfer student who had been kicked out of two schools already for fighting and was working to be a better role model for her younger sister. She seemed off to a great start with these A’s and B’s. This is the kind of transformation that adults in schools dream of! Always trying to find the secret to this kind of success, I asked, “What is making the difference?” She told me about some places she had gone that she wasn’t “proud of” and her regular trips to a counselor to work on different self-management techniques. 
“What do you think had the most impact on you?” I asked. 
“Going to the counselor,” she said.
“Yeah? Why is that?”
“Because I had someone to listen to me ,” she said, pretty matter-of-factly. “My mom isn’t around very much to be able to listen to me, and my other sisters and I don’t talk about stuff like that.”

At Umoja, we often talk about a “special sauce”—the thing that we bring as an organization that helps shape and transform lives. Our new partner schools are eager to learn the solutions that they can replicate to have this “special sauce” themselves. We have a fresh new curriculum to share with teachers, concrete restorative justice techniques to implement, and tried and true college and career  practices that have guided many students to postsecondary success. Without these key pieces of our work, we’d be lost on a daily basis. BUT we find ourselves truly lost, whether it is ourselves or the adults we coach and support or the students we advocate for, when we forget to be that someone to listen. 


You don’t have to work at Umoja to have that sauce. You just have to be the person who takes the time to listen.