Posted by: MC | April 16, 2011

On the Willingness Not to Know

Donetta Brehmer was a cheerleader at Tivy High School.  I think she was even Homecoming Queen one year.  She was two years ahead of me, so rarified on that count alone.  Donetta was pretty much the quintessence of a teen idol in the way of astronomical popularity and such.  You never know who is going to be a teacher.

I sat just in front of Donetta in Senora Paxton’s Spanish class.  We sat in the back of the room in those wooden airplane desks.  It was the 70’s inKerrville,TX.  Senora Paxton probably taught us plenty, but under her poofy grey hair and behind her black rhinestone glasses she was just a bit ditzy.  Given that, it was way too easy for wobbly adolescent self-esteem to take the opportunity to beef up social standing by attempting witty small talk.  Spanish conversation practice just couldn’t compete.

It was in that kind of interchange Donetta Brehmer did something completely unexpected.  No one I had watched, admired, and imitated had ever responded like this.  I played it cool since that’s what, through imitation I had learned to do.  I didn’t know how to make sense of the way this Lady Di of the Texas hillcountry responded to me, but I liked it.

I was craned around in my desk saying something to Donetta about Mexico(thus staying somewhat within the bounds of our academic task).  She leaned forward to hear.  My validated self-esteem was soaring.  On I chatted.  My family had taken a road trip into the interior over the winter holidays and I was describing Morelia, the city in Michoacan we had visited.  When I mentioned the aqueducts Donetta said, “What’s an aqueduct?”


Donetta Brehmer, popular, cool kid, royalty didn’t know.  She didn’t pretend.  She didn’t ask in an aggressive/defensive way.  She didn’t change the subject.  Without any guile or hesitation, without any stutter of self consciousness, she asked.  It didn’t matter.  It didn’t even occur to her that she might look uninformed – or worse, stupid.

Of course, she didn’t look either way.  She looked curious and involved.  She looked interested.  She looked that way because she was all of those things.  And, she simply didn’t know what an aqueduct was.

I was 15.  I’d never seen anyone show that kind of natural humility, grace and curiosity.  Donetta Brehmer has been a role model ever since.  I now understand it as a combination of integrity and engaged attention that rests in a good measure of either self-confidence or selflessness; still working on that last part.

It is kind of amazing to me now that Donetta’s question so surprised me.  It was just an honest question.  It was normal as could be to her.  But we do get schooled from childhood in how to do the look good.  I’m sure even Donetta didn’t escape.  She just had other models and experiences along the way.  She somehow had less fear.  For most of us, the look good shows up later as aggression, dismissive cynicism and judgment to mask weak self-confidence or fear of difference (likely one in the same).

Anyway, Donetta has been coming to mind as I continue writing on the EX:Change trip; reading and rereading the words of the 100 voices.  While not universal, common across the interviews was this same kind of grace.  There was something in the openness of the exchange.  Regardless of our level of agreement I was willing to listen and the EX:Change voices were willing to speak in candid, humble and hopeful ways.

Out of these words from early 2009 solid wisdom keeps showing up, continuing to surprise me because it is so much beyond what I ever imagined when I started the EX:Change.  Amplifying my experience with Donetta is the message from the interviews that to listen and speak in ways that connect while still giving room for difference requires stepping out of fear and defensiveness.  It requires getting past the sense that who we are is not enough and so must be cloaked in pretension – pretension studiously disguised as confidence.  No wonder we feel crazy.  No wonder communication breaks down or never starts in the first place.

Donetta didn’t bother with pretension and, as a result, she connected.  At Tivy High School in the early 70’s, she was popular and appreciated in large part because she was willing not to know.

One of the most urgent challenges of our time is to learn how to get along.  Donetta and the EX:Change voices are helping me see ways for getting from that fact to addressing it.  The willingness not to know could be key.  Maybe we could try it out and see.


  1. thanks for that story, Mary. That is a new kind of willingness–to not know & it sounds comfortable actually.

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