Doing the Right Thing

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.

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  1. Gary Schultz

    I know the feeling you experienced in the cafeteria. It’s a feeling like being paralyzed for a moment and then asking yourself “Why didn’t I jump up and help?”.
    Now and for a long time I have practiced helping people in all different situations. I think one can change their way of thinking and become more aware of their immediate surrounding area . A few weeks ago I took my MacBook in to get rid of a virus. Waiting in a short line I was listening to a much older man, I am 67, trying to explain the problem with his granddaughters computer. I could tell he and the attendant were somewhat frustrated the way the conversation was going. Shortly, the conversation ended and the man closed the computer and slowly turned to walk out. I could see he was very frail and struggling with the computer in one arm. I stepped out of line and asked if I could help him out the door and to his car, which he accepted. He was unsteady. We carefully went down three wooden steps and then to his car. We had a little conversation and he told me he was 100 years old and has live in this town of Kimberling City, Missouri his whole life. He was by himself. I also asked him then if I could see him home but he refused and easily drove away. Amazing, but I felt good. I was awarded my original space in line.

  2. John Nesbitt

    Thanks for sharing your observations. It is interesting to hear from others and to hear their stories.

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