Time and again I remember an innocent moment, over thirty years ago, when I was sitting in the college cafeteria at lunchtime. As was the custom at the time at our small college, the instructors sat with classified staff and students, all of us like a family. On this day, one of the students came out of the kitchen, stopped, and dropped his tray of food. Utensils crashed, glass broke, food scattered, and people laughed.
Most of the people who laughed were students, but ours was a good-natured community, and some employees may have laughed as well. I know I didn’t. I felt sorry for the student, not to mention awkward for just sitting there. He was a ranch-and-rodeo fellow, named Clay, who was part of a substantial social group, and I don’t think his friends were being malicious. They just thought it was funny.
He didn’t. He stood there looking mortified, lost. I took refuge in that feeling that many of us know, that feeling that I was glad it didn’t happen to me. Time drew out for only a few seconds, and one of my fellow instructors from the table closer to the student got up and said, “Here, Clay, I’ll help you.”
In that moment, I knew the difference between what I was up until that point in my life and what my fellow instructor was: the person who knew what to do. He didn’t think about himself; he saw someone who needed help, and he knew, by nature, it seemed to me, how to do it.
The student’s dismay faded, no one laughed any more, and the incident passed. I doubt that very many people remember that little event, but it has stayed with me. It has caused me to wonder how some people know what to do and do it with no hesitation, while others of us hold back, uncertain, waiting.
My fellow instructor was older than I was, he had taught in the public schools as well as at our college, and he had three teenagers at home. I had grown up in difficult circumstances, had had to learn to look out for myself, and was just then beginning to think about how to be useful to other people beyond my work as an educator. I think my colleague was also just a different kind of person. What came to him by nature had to be learned by some of the rest of us.
The good outcome of this story, the reason the experience has stayed with me, is that it showed me how to be a better person by appreciating the actions of others. In more specific terms, it showed me that a person can learn how to be open to moving out of oneself and doing the right thing. In the intervening years, there have been moments in which a student has spilled a drink in class, has dropped papers and books all over the floor, or has had a similar mishap. Rather than stand and stare, I have helped clean up, or have offered, or have stood near and given moral support. Even when I am not much help, I know I am not leaving the student alone with the embarrassment.
I might have learned this on my own, as part of the maturing I was already moving into at that point in my life. But as with many of the lessons we learn, in which we look back at a small defining moment, I date my awareness in this one area to that time in the cafeteria when my fellow instructor, not thinking about himself, did the right thing. Whether he was that way by nature, as it has seemed to me, or whether he learned it along the way, he was a good model for all of us.