Kerrying On

The Frightening First Days of School

In the fall of 1952, I faced the prospect of attending school for the first time. The whole idea of going to school made me weak in the knees. My older brother had filled my head with bullying stories that gave me second thoughts about ever leaving home, let alone sharing the playground with a bunch of three-and-a-half-foot thugs.

“They better not beat me up,” I muttered under my breath as I started the long, lonely walk toward Larrabee Elementary School. Stupid second graders. They were the ones to watch out for, or so my brother said. Second graders, proud of their recent grade advancement and reeling from the abuse they experienced in the first grade, would be the hard-core bullies. It would be second graders who would steal my Twinkies, tear up my artwork, and give me a wedgie.

“Let’s see, I’ve got my marbles in my pocket,” I reflected. They were for recess, of course, but if I could make it safely to the playground, I could display my maturity by being good at shooting aggies. Then the bullies would leave me alone.

I was wrong. The second graders didn’t take my marbles by force, but they did cheat me out of them. I’d get ready to shoot my second-grade opponent’s aggie, and he would shout, “‘cover-zies’ for me and ‘non-cover-zies’ for you.” What?

Then, he’d cover up his aggie with gravel from the playground and force me to shoot my prize ball bearing at the pile. Next, because I had “non-cover-zies,” I couldn’t cover my ball bearing and he would uncover his shooter, shoot my steel marble, and put it in his pocket. By the end of the afternoon recess I had nothing left.

As much as I worried about the first days of grade school, when I finally graduated from the sixth grade, I worried ten times more about the first days of junior high school. I’d heard eighth graders wantonly stripped you naked during PE and threw you into the girl’s side of the gym. Or they locked you in your locker. Or they burned up your metal-shop project. Plus, there was always their favorite trick—“pantsing” you.

In 1958, wearing pants slung low and loose on your hips was all the rage. For a seventh-grader, it was also dangerous. Particularly if you were riding the city bus home while standing with one hand holding your French and history textbooks and the other hand clinging to an overhead strap. Just when you thought you were safe—wham! An eighth grader would yank your pants down to your ankles. The girls would scream, the boys would laugh, and you would be mortified. Heaven forbid your shorts had a hole in them—you’d have to move to Canada.

Given these hideous possibilities, the prospect of entering junior high school worried me a great deal. I was sure to be bullied the day I stepped onto the grounds of Fairhaven. I could feel it in my bones.

But first came summer. To keep me from fretting myself to a frazzle, my mom signed me up to pick strawberries. The job consisted of riding a berry bus filled with thirty or so twelve- to sixteen-year-olds far out into the country. Then, for eight hours you’d bend over a row of strawberries and pick the ripe ones in the blazing, life-sucking sun. And for all of this effort, if you were lucky, you’d earn five dollars a day.

I didn’t get lucky. I made just under two dollars my first day. At one point during that day, one of the berry bosses said I was suffering from heat exhaustion and forced me sit in the shade for an hour. I made no money during that time. We were being paid by the flat, not by the hour. Today, if you treated a twelve-year-old this way, you’d be charged with callous indifference or the illegal use of fruit. Maybe something worse.

But all wasn’t lost. At the end of the day, and to my total surprise, Hades quickly turned into heaven. The berry boss blew his whistle and we stacked our flats, boarded the bus, and headed home. Within seconds, someone started singing “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” and we all joined in. Throughout the entire ride home we joyfully belted out every camp song imaginable. Like warriors returning after an exhausting and perilous battle, we celebrated our victory by singing songs about beer bottles on a wall and a girl walking into the water. It was splendid. I’m not sure I’ll ever eclipse the happiness I experienced those glorious days singing in the berry bus as we rode home after an exhausting day of harvesting strawberries.

As the season continued, and we pickers jointly faced chilling rain, the scorching sun, and shrinking berries, we bonded into a team of genuine field hands. Unlike sissy kids who did heaven-knows-what all day long, we pickers earned our way. And we helped each other. Boys helped carry girls’ heavy flats filled with berries. Girls taught boys how to pick faster. We were one in unity and purpose.

Eventually, the season ended and I had to face the dreaded seventh grade. As I read through the class rosters posted on the wall near the school entrance, I finally found my homeroom. Listed were the kids with whom I’d be sharing three classes a day. I knew only one other person on the list. One. It was going to be a lonely, scary year.

And then came the eighth-graders. A pack of four of them started walking menacingly toward me. “Hey #&% face!” one of them taunted. I grabbed the waist of my low-slung pants as the hoods inched forward. And then, just when I was about to be pantsed or worse, I heard someone shout, “Kerry! Aren’t you all cute and dressed up for school.” It was a ninth grader—not just any ninth grader—it was a berry-picking ninth grader. And she was a cheerleader to boot.

Soon a bunch of us pickers from the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades were gathered in the hall and reminiscing as the older students helped the younger ones find their way to their first classroom. It had never occurred to me that the older kids I had met and bonded with in the fields would show up at junior high school and be the star quarterback, or the head of the chess club, or a member of the cheer squad. Nor did I think they would be my advocates. But that’s exactly who they were and that’s exactly what they did.

I wasn’t bullied that year. I was welcomed. The next year as the eighth grade unfolded for me, I too became an advocate and protector. Like our predecessors, my classmates and I wouldn’t dream of bullying kids who had worked alongside us. We shared their dreams and fears; we had fought the berry wars together.

And so it should be everywhere. Building a sense of community helps us humanize others. We recognize ourselves in them, and treat them with the respect and kindness we all deserve. And that makes the world a better place.

Oh yeah, and one more thing. Thank your lucky stars that you never had to pick strawberries in the searing sun. For eight hours a day. Up hill. Both ways.

How Do I Say That Category

COVID-19: How Do I Help My Friends Think Differently About Coronavirus Safety?

Emily Gregory, vice president of delivery operations, shares tips on helping friends reframe their perception of COVID-19 compliance for a better outcome. For more on speaking up when it matters most, visit

How Do I Say That Category

Racial Equality: How Can I Be A Better Listener?

VitalSmarts master trainer Maria Moss shares tips for becoming a better listener so you can understand others’ experiences and make informed decisions. For more on speaking up when it matters most, visit

Trainer QA

Outside the Classroom: Navigating a National Crisis Using VitalSmarts Skills

Q. I am not actively training due to COVID-19 restructuring, but I still want to use the VitalSmarts skills I value and love to help my co-workers, company leaders, community and family members navigate the tumultuous changes we are experiencing. Can you offer some tips to help me get started?

A. If you’re like me, you’ve felt unsure and disconnected over the last four months. The COVID-19 pandemic became an all-consuming topic of concern and conversation. Everyone started self-isolating almost overnight, places of work cleared out, travel dropped way off, businesses shut down—everything changed. Then we discovered that it wasn’t going to be a temporary situation that would pass as we hunkered down for a month or two. People’s response to the initial shockwave has been varied—some more effective than others.

Shockwaves like this can cause trauma in people’s lives. They might not recognize it as such, but each disruption, restriction, and change can cause micro-traumas. And while not overwhelming on their own, they have an impact as they start to accumulate. They show up as frustrations, anxieties, helplessness, and, in some cases, anger. How people respond to these crucial moments is the best predictor of what their experience will be in the recovery phase.

During the reaction phase (where I feel many people currently are), people tend to feel disconnected. The nature of how they do their work has shifted and, in some cases, many other aspects of their lives have shifted. People are feeling alone and uncertain.

So, what can you do to as a certified trainer to not only help those you train, but also help your friends, family, and communities to navigate the stress? Here are some tips that might help:

Use your skills to bring comfort. As a certified trainer, you are not limited to the classroom to help people. In a time when everything feels so disconnected, you can help others connect to their new work circumstances by helping them dialogue with colleagues about what to expect from each other. You can help your management teams and co-workers better fulfill their responsibilities to one another and to clients and customers by using your skills to help them adapt and work through the changes. In many cases, you’ve already taught people the skills they need to manage a crisis. You just need to remind them how and where to apply the skills they already have.

Use your after-training resources. One of the easiest ways to remind people is to share the resources that come with each VitalSmarts course. You can share the various articles, podcasts, and instructional videos to help people remember what they learned in class. Some Certified Trainers have shared resources with participants along with a challenge. For example, you might refer people to the post-training tips on the Trainer Zone or share the Keystone Habits from The Power of Habit and ask them to identify what keystone habits help them work from home effectively. You could use the post-training tips sheet on the Trainer Zone from Master Trainer Justin Hale as a refresher for those that have already been through training. You can visit the How Do I Say That? videos on YouTube or download them on the Trainer Zone and share them with your leadership. You can also share Joseph Grenny’s “Be Safe. Feel Safe.” webinar with your management and leadership teams to help them think about their plans in new ways. There are many resources available to you as a trainer that can help you empower others to be prepared and safe.

Use single-point lessons. Create a two-minute video or write a paragraph or two highlighting a single skill along with a single idea on how to apply it. For example, you might highlight the AMPP skills from Crucial Conversations and encourage others to use them to create safety in online meetings when discussing things like racial equality, diversity, or COVID-19 safety and health precautions. Or you might feature Identify Next Actions from GTD so people conclude brainstorm meetings with clear actions they can take. Make these lessons short and provide just a couple of examples of how to apply the skills, and people will find them useful.

Crowdsource it. There are probably many people you have trained who are figuring out how to use their new skills. Previous participants are generally more than happy to share what they have learned about using their skills, so invite them to do so. For example, you might invite people to share how they’re using skills from Influencer to address bias in the workplace, or how they’ve used Make it Motivating from Crucial Accountability to address a performance gap with a remote worker. Once you have some examples, share them with your company. Doing this allows you and your peers to discover new and different ways to apply the skills you’ve learned.

These are just a few ideas to get you thinking about how you can contribute as a trainer, colleague, leader, manager, or family and community member. We’d love to hear other ways you’re helping people connect to the VitalSmarts skills.


Have some feedback? Send it to