Sometimes, the questions and not the answers impact us the most

In our first one on one of spring semester, my AD turned to me and said, “Tyler, you’re always telling me about other people. I want to get to know YOU.”

I was shocked. I had thought I had been telling him about me–I had summarized my real feelings and experiences, though I presented these with a polish and a positive, forward-thinking spin. I was surprised that my AD had noticed that I was holding back, because I hadn’t yet realized that I was holding back.  It wasn’t until the minutes after he said I hadn’t let him get to know me that I realized that he was right. I had gotten so used to the ‘fake it ’till you make it’ model of existence that I learned to ignore an entire section of myself, to let my own pain fall upon deaf ears, to march on unsympathetically with a shrug of ‘what can you do?’ when my emotions did not match up with my idea of who I wanted to be.  I was surprised that anyone, let alone this busy adult, wanted to hear me stumble through inarticulate sadness, to hear me talk about the thoughts I had self-labeled, “useless and unproductive.”

We all have a lot of those thoughts.

And the thing is, it’s not uncommon to hide our pain from each other, even (especially?) from the people we love. In fact, it is the rule. But I know I would like to tell people the truth. I think most people would, but we just don’t know how to begin.

A lot of people have certainly noticed over the years that I avoid expressing my real thoughts and emotions. The people who, like my AD, know how to call me out on it will always be extremely valuable presences. Many of the people who have most changed my life have done so with just such quick, cutting observations and inquiries. By their examples, these friends have taught me that listening is not only about staying quiet and absorbing the words someone else is saying. Listening can be an act of bravery. It is not only patient silence, it is sometimes the finely cut question. It is not only acceptance, but loving curiosity. It is not only accepting eyes to witness each other, but our voices, calling each other to step just a little bit more into the light.

For now, I’m sitting with the thought that sometimes, the mere act of asking is enough to change someone’s life.

We could all use some therapy play dough

People, I am an adult. In a few short months, I will be 21 and there will be nothing–short of running for office and AARP membership–barred from me based on my age. But here’s a secret.

Lean in close.


Whew, glad to get that off my chest. So, here’s what I did today:
Play Dough and dinosaurs 005

RAAAAAAAAAAAAWR! Oh, my, excuse me! I didn’t see you there. My name is Timmy. Play Dough and dinosaurs 007

Timmy the mutherfracking PINK DINOSAUR. Allow me to show you around my play dough world.

Play Dough and dinosaurs 003

This is my mother. Timmolina.

Play Dough and dinosaurs 001A rare fossil of the love monster, kept in our house for generationsPlay Dough and dinosaurs 016


Ummm, ahem, excuse Timmy. What he meant to say is that play dough is easy to make. Combine:

  • 1 cup of flour
  • 1 cup of water
  • 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • 1/3 cup of salt
  • 1 tablespoon of oil
  • a few drops of food coloring
  • bonus points: aromatic oils to make it delicious smelling therapy play dough

Cook over medium high heat until it comes off the sides of the pan. Knead for a few minutes. Enjoy the magic of childhood. If you wrap it up when it’s not in use, or store it in a ziplock, it will keep for months and months, maybe a year or longer.

Believe it or not, Timmy is a therapy dinosaur. He and his play dough brethren can help you connect with your residents.

My sophomore year, I remember visiting one of the other AD’s with a couple of RA friends. This particular AD had a very small office, but she had a table with all sorts of little toys and trinkets on it. In the small white little room, the toys immediately drew my attention. I found myself playing with them in spite of myself, and I asked her why they were there. She told me that she likes to have little things for students to play around with while they’re talking to her. Usually people are coming to her to talk about emotionally charged things, or because something is not going well. The toys help to make a serious environment more relaxing, and gives people something to fidget with while they talk. It also makes the conversation feel less contrived–it makes it feel like you’re there to spend time with each other, and not “okay, I’m going to spill my guts because you’re the person I’m supposed to spill my guts to.”

A few months later, I found myself in her office, dealing with my own emotionally painful situation. I felt wretched, embarrassed to be breaking down in front of someone I respected, and I was trying hard to keep it together. I remember being extremely grateful for having those little toys to play around with in between talking. Those little toys reminded me that it is okay not to be professional and impressive all the time. I felt that I was in a place where I would be taken care of.

Because Timmy the dinosaur eats bad feelings for lunch.

Play Dough and dinosaurs 015

Too cool for fossil fuel

The cool thing about being an RA is that you can accidentally affect someone’s life at any time.


This job will wear you down sometimes. There is a constant sense of responsibility for the well being of the people around you that you can never really let go of, not even when you are with your best friends–but at some point, random moments will remind you that it’s worth it. There will be times when that very vigilance, and the constant effort you put in to reach out to every person, may pay off in odd and profound ways.

My first year as an RA, I became good friends with one of my quads of my first year boys. All four of them are great guys–and I’m still somewhat in touch with each of them. But what I didn’t know was that one of the biggest impacts I would have would result from meeting their friends.

One of their very good friends was a guy I’d originally thought was a concert attending, drug-taking rebel who would hate authority figures such as myself. I was right on all account but the last. He became a huge supporter of me, specifically chose to live in my hall the next year, and became a good friend of mine, as did his roommate, who I would also never have met otherwise. As an RA, you become a visible figure in the community. Sometimes, random people will find out about you, and decide that they want to be in your life. It is amazing.

We have a facebook page where people anonymously post scandalous things. Originally lighthearted, things had started to become more serious. I responded carefully and with feeling to a recent post confessing that the poster was struggling with depression, and even worse, suicidal ideation. I asked in a later comment if the poster could keep us updated on how they were doing, and offered to take them to coffee at the school cafe.

To my absolute shock, I got a message a few days later. “You might be shocked to hear this, but I was poster XXX,” the message read, “and I’d love to go out to coffee with you.” It was from a guy I vaguely knew, a close friend of those first year boys from the year before. He had attended one of my community builders, which we had bonded over, but other than that, we’d hardly talked.

We went out for coffee and talked for three hours. It was an amazing conversation. When we first met, he seemed shaky and on the verge of tears. When we left, he was almost chipper, laughing. There was relief in the air. I don’t want to pretend our conversation eliminated his problems–his suicidal ideation continued, even got dangerously worse at points–but I developed an amazing connection with someone who was struggling to connect. He still sends me messages asking me what’s up and inviting me to coffee.

And that is why I do this job.