The Lost Art of the Handshake

Sep 29, 2011 by

Matthew Amaral – For many years now I have been conducting a social experiment in the doorway of my classroom. The subjects of my experiment have been all shapes, sizes, and colors. Some limp, others drool, many of them have trouble writing down the correct day of the week most days of the week. But I have plodded along, even in the face of hardship and seeming defeat. Miraculously I have avoided contracting tuberculosis, lice, ring worm, and poison oak. Some may even call it the Lord’s work.

For the last five years, I have been teaching kids how to shake a hand.

Yup, I am bringing back the lost art of the handshake. Years ago, when I first began teaching, students tried all forms of greetings meant to say hello. Some came in for hugs, others used clenched fists to pound, and others went for the good ole handshake The problem was, not a single one knew what a handshake is supposed to be.

Ninth graders to twelfth graders, boys and girls, gangbangers to skaters, there isn’t anyone who knows how to shake a man’s hand anymore. I get slaps, wipes, fingertip brushes, and straight-up misses. Some of the biggest toughest gang kids I know walk up to me on the first day of school and put a limp, wet fish in my hand so pathetic I feel like wiping off my hand after their poor excuse for a greeting. Good lord, it’s like they think saying hi is wiping grease of your fingers.

Years ago, I stood around in amazement as droves of these kids rubbed their hands along my palm day after day. Then, as is my custom, I started really flipping out.

“What in the hell was that?” I started yelling at Nortenos and Surenos alike. “Did you just wipe your hand on me? That’s messed up, you think I’m a napkin? You call that a handshake?” They looked at me weird, and walked away

Then I began doing what I do best: Teach.

Every SINGLE wet wipe I get in my doorway I now turn into teachable moments. “No,” I say. “Grab my hand, there you go, like that. Now squeeze it, no, not like an infant with the swine flu, squeeze my damn hand. Now, shake it and look me in the eye. That’s how you shake a hand!”

I no longer accept three fingers placed into my hand as a greeting. EVERYONE gets the lesson, even the girls. I don’t allow hugs from girls as a matter of course, and the girls need to know how to properly shake a hand as badly as the guys.

The good ole handshake is one of those many interpersonal skills our younger generation is losing. Instead of talking to someone on the phone they text. They post on facebook every thirty seconds or so every time they make a bowel movement, but their thumbs are so busy their lips don’t work right anymore. They don’t know how to give a proper greeting aside from “Wuzzup,” and dish out “handshakes” like fish flippers.

But these days in front of my classroom, things are looking up. We have less gang problems than usual, which always puts me in a good mood. We didn’t go through four principals last year, and three out of four administrators returned, which at my school is a miracle. And now, after years of fighting the good fight, I’m getting the payout.

Kids walk up to me now with a strong, open hand. They stop walking, and shake my hand. They take their time, shake it slow, squeeze a good amount to show me their strength, and look me in the eye. They greet me with an appropriate greeting, like “Hello,” or “Sir,” and I give them the same respect back. Some of these kids are fourteen years old. Others are almost eighteen. Imagine that, going through seventeen years of your life without knowing how to shake a proper hand.

This simple greeting is an integral part of how I get buy-in and build trust in my toughest classes too. I find that the tougher the class, the more likely they are not to know how to shake a man’s hand. I encourage you to try the same thing. Get in your doorway at the first bell and don’t let anyone in until they’ve been properly schooled. Do this especially with the kids you have the biggest problems with. Shake their hand, look them in the eye. Tell them you’re glad they’re here today, and give them a pat on the back on their way in the door. You might be amazed at the change in their attitude that day. Then do it two to three times a week—even on days after you suspended the kid for threatening your life. Meet them at the door and shake their hand.

“No, no, no! Shake my hand like a man. There, now look me in the eye. There you go. That’s how a man shakes a hand.”

Like Pavlov’s dogs, even our limping, drooling students can eventually learn how to be a man. Just ask Harry Wong.

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