Mike's Notes: Lessons from the Mute Button

Posted by Mike Henriques


In a cacophonous world, in a time when it can feel like whoever is the most persistent, is the last one talking out the other voices to claim the narrative, the truth, the facts, the mute button has something to teach us. This Zoom, WebEx landscape may not be such a bad thing for us to experience these days if we can take this one little lesson, a lesson that is reminiscent of what my mother used to remind me whenever I used to blurt out some inanity without thinking, “Please…just please remember to engage your brain before you engage your tongue.”  

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I can still hear her voice - crisp, somewhat amused, and with just a little bit of parental edge. And now, whenever I am on a WebEx meeting where the standing etiquette is to mute your mic (no one likes to hear the rustling of papers, the side conversations, crunch of potato chips or half formed thoughts), I quite enjoy the mute button. It gives one time to do just that: engage your brain before speaking. 

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Whether it’s the COVID facts coming from the WHO or Johns Hopkins, the latest figures on greenhouse gases (down almost 8% this year - some good news!), the heat wave in the west (more worrisome news), or questions coming from parents about the opening of school next year, the mute button reminds us to listen. Those facts? They matter. Those scientists? They might just know a little more than we do, and slowing down before reacting just might make some sense. It’s just a little button on the side of the computer screen, a microphone silhouette, and when you press it the outline goes red to signal stop. Shush for a moment. Engage your brain. Maybe this is one of the good things to come out of all of this on-line engagement, the way we are relearning the art of the pause and the value of listening before speaking. 


At Proctor we are listening hard. We are trying to take in the flood of information that is generated weekly and seems to change daily. The webinars, the news feeds, the calls between peer schools all goes into the information cache that we sift through. We are listening hard to figure out the fall, the start of the year, the academic schedule, a calendar flow that makes sense. Start early? Start later? Will testing be available? Will PPE be available? What about sports? By fall, will best practices be masks for everyone? The mute button is a reminder to take it all in before speaking up, to engage in thoughtful deliberations as we try to measure out our communications and come up with sensible solutions. 


On Wednesday morning I reached for a book of poems while taking my first early cup of coffee. I flipped open a collection of Mary Oliver poems to land on Invitation, a poem about goldfinches gathered to sing in fields of thistles. Included below are a few lines from the poem: 

 Their strong, blunt beaks

    drink the air

as they strive


        not for your sake

           and not for mine

and not for the sake of winning

   but for the sheer delight and gratitude -

       believe us, they say,

          it is a serious thing

just to be alive

  on this fresh morning

      in this broken world.

Sometimes just listening opens us back up to the wonders of the world. So maybe there are some positives to all that screen time, some practices that we can carry out into the bustle of being when we get to scale back on screen time. And that time is coming, and when it does, hopefully we won’t forget the lessons from the mute button. Don’t always just react. Listen. Slow down and really listen.


Mike Henriques P'11, P'15

Proctor Academy Head of School

Click here to read: From Fear to Freedom: Who We Could Become


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