August 2020 EditionPart 4: 39 Paths to Civility and Decency Extreme Decency – The Mark Eklund Story For the story you’re about to read, first get s

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August 2020 Edition

Part 4: 39 Paths to Civility and Decency

Extreme Decency – The Mark Eklund Story

For the story you’re about to read, first get some tissues out. It’s true and first appeared in Reader’s Digest in October of 1991. At the time, I was doing a lot of work with telephone companies in internal communication and leadership. It was a transitional time in that industry with all of the permitted monopoly activities for the phone companies getting set aside in favor of competition. Lots of tension, lots of change, lots of uncertainty, lots of anger.

One of the companies I was working with, located in the southeast, was having particular difficult with the really negative cultural impact of these changes. I was invited to work with a group of supervisors and communicators to try to resolve and mitigate some of the anger and get back on track to accomplish the transitions required to become competitive.

This particular company had hired a consultant prior to my visit who was billed as a “gestalt expert”. I am not terribly clear on what he actually did, but his technique was to have everyone at the beginning of his engagement write down the names of their coworkers and by each name list three things they did not like about them.

Those first meetings went terribly, according to the client (well, duh!!). So badly, in fact, that the client felt they probably made a mistake and, believe it or not, invited this consultant back again to do a do-over with even more disastrous results.

They invited me to come down on the heels of the gestalt consultant’s second, even more destructive visit. I came into a group of employees in total consternation and anger. The truth is, I didn’t really have a clue about what I was going to do, but I had worked in sort of similar situations in the past.

As I was preparing for this trip, I came across this article in Reader’s Digest and it changed the entire scope and direction of my thinking about how to work with victimized people suffering anguish, anger, and fear.

I have used the technique you’ll see illustrated in this story a number of times, always with a long lasting, beneficial, personal result for everyone involved, including me. Read it, weep a little, but learn a lot.

All the Good Things - The Mark Eklund Story

By Helen P. Mrosla

Courtesy of Reader’s Digest, copyright © 1991, reprinted with permission of Trusted Media Brands, copyright © 2020

He was in the first third-grade class I taught at St. Mary’s School in ¬Morris, Minnesota. All 34 of my students were dear to me, but Mark Eklund was one in a million: very neat in appearance with a happy-to-be-alive attitude. He also talked incessantly.

I had to remind him repeatedly that talking without permission was not acceptable. What impressed me so much, though, was his sincere response every time I corrected him for misbehaving: “Thank you for correcting me, Sister!” I didn’t know what to make of it at first, but before long I became accustomed to hearing it many times a day.

One morning, I made a novice teacher’s mistake. When Mark talked once too often, I told him, “If you say one more word, I am going to tape your mouth shut!”

It wasn’t ten seconds later when Chuck blurted out, “Mark is talking again.” And since I had stated the punishment in front of the class, I had to act on it.
I remember the scene as if it occurred this morning. I walked to my desk, opened my drawer very deliberately, and took out a roll of masking tape. Without saying a word, I proceeded to Mark’s desk, tore off two pieces of tape, and made a big X over his mouth. I then returned to the front of the room. As I glanced at Mark to see how he was doing, he winked at me. That did it! I started laughing. The class cheered as I walked back to Mark’s desk, removed the tape, and shrugged my shoulders. His first words were, “Thank you for correcting me, Sister.”

The years flew by, and before I knew it, Mark was in my classroom again, this time for junior high math. Since he had to listen carefully to my instructions, he did not talk as much in ninth grade as he had in the third.
One Friday, after working hard on a new concept all week, I sensed that the students were frustrated with themselves and edgy with one another. I had to stop this crankiness before it got out of hand. So I asked them to list the names of the other students in the room on two sheets of paper, leaving a space between each name. Then I told them to think of the nicest thing they could say about each of their classmates and write it down. That took up the remainder of the class. As the students left the room, each one handed me the papers. Mark said, “Thank you for teaching me, Sister. Have a good weekend.”

That Saturday, I wrote down the name of each student on a separate sheet of paper and listed what everyone else had said about that individual. On Monday, I gave each student his or her list. Before long, the entire class was smiling. “I never knew that I meant anything to anyone!” I heard whispered. “I didn’t know others liked me so much!” No one ever mentioned those papers in class again. I never knew if they discussed them after class or with their parents, but it didn’t matter. The students were happy with themselves and one another again.

Several years later, after I had returned from a vacation, my parents met me at the airport. As we were driving home, Mother asked me the usual questions about the trip—the weather, my experiences in general. There was a light lull in the conversation. Mother gave Dad a sideways glance and simply said, “Dad?”

My father cleared his throat as he usually did before saying something important. “The Eklunds called last night,” he began.

“Really?” I said. “I haven’t heard from them in years. I wonder how Mark is.”
Dad responded quietly, “Mark was killed in Vietnam. The funeral is tomorrow, and his parents would like it if you could attend.” To this day, I can still point to the exact spot on I-494 where Dad told me about Mark.

I had never seen a serviceman in a military coffin before. Mark looked so handsome, so mature. All I could think at that moment was, Mark, I would give all the masking tape in the world if only you would talk to me. The church was packed with his friends. The pastor said the usual prayers, and the bugler played taps. One by one, those who loved Mark took a last walk by the coffin and sprinkled it with holy water.

I was the last to bless the coffin. As I stood there, one of the soldiers who had acted as a pallbearer came up to me. “Were you Mark’s math teacher?” I nodded as I continued to stare at the coffin. “Mark talked about you a lot,” he said.

After the funeral, most of Mark’s former classmates headed to Chuck’s farmhouse for lunch. Mark’s mother and father were there, waiting for me. “We want to show you something,” his father said, taking a wallet out of his pocket. “They found this on Mark when he was killed. We thought you might recognize it.” Opening the billfold, he carefully removed two worn pieces of notebook paper that had been taped, folded, and refolded many times. I knew without looking that the papers were the ones on which I had listed all the good things each of Mark’s classmates had said about him.

“Thank you so much for doing that,” Mark’s mother said. “As you can see, Mark treasured it.”

Mark’s classmates started to gather around us. Charlie smiled rather sheepishly and said, “I still have my list. It’s in the top drawer of my desk at home.” Chuck’s wife said, “Chuck asked me to put his in our wedding album.”

“I have mine, too,” Marilyn said. “It’s in my diary.”

Vicki reached into her pocketbook, took out her wallet, and showed her worn and frazzled list to the group. “I carry this with me at all times,” she said without batting an eyelash.

“I think we all saved our lists.”

That’s when I finally sat down and cried.

Epilogue

I used Mark’s teacher’s concept of having everyone write at least one nice things about one another with the meeting participants. The sheets with participants’ names were handed out at a reception the evening before the first meeting began. I stayed up overnight and made individual lists for every participant, aggregating all the things people said about them. The next day, I opened the meeting talking about our strategy going forward and there was obvious distress and even grimaces on many of the participants’ faces as we moved ahead. Then I said, “Before we do that, let me present you with the results of last night’s exercise,” and I handed out the individual sheets to each participant. Some had many notes, but everyone had at least seven to ten comments. I sat back and asked them to review what they saw, talk about the handouts, and then we’d talk about where we’re headed.

Five hours later, including through lunch, we finally stopped talking about the lists; at about 3:30 in the afternoon. Most people had evening commitments but were ready to dump them to stay longer to talk about these lists and the comments their colleagues had made. The example set by Mark’s teacher, which inspired me, allowed me to perform an act of extreme decency for a lot of people that day.

Now, more than 30 years later, whenever I write something on this topic, I invariably hear from a handful of people who attended that meeting to remind me how extraordinary, personal, and positive that experience was for them at a time of great anguish and turbulence.

Good things matter and need to be reminded and remembered.

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Past Editions of America's Civility and Decency Manifesto

Available at www.e911.com

Manifesto Part 1: Highlights from America’s Civility and Decency Manifesto – July 4, 2020

Manifesto Part 2: The Civility and Decency Credo – July 4, 2020

Manifesto Part 3: How to Remove Indecency and Incivility from Your Life – July 8, 2020

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Order The Decency Code as a Hard Cover, eBook, or Audiobook

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