This past winter, yet another mass shooting in a school took place, this one in Parkland, Florida, in which 14 high school students and 3 adults were killed outright and a number of others were injured. Some of the fleeing students called or texted their parents as they ran or hid, expressing what possibly could be their last ever messages. In interviews given by some of the surviving students, one stated that the main lesson from this experience was we should all tell everyone we know right away that we love them, because we never know when it will be the last time we see them.
Such experiences make it difficult to continue to fuss about small daily inconveniences like bad traffic or yet another foot of snow. Instead, that traumatized student’s advice should guide how we treat everyone in our lives, not just those who are closest to us. Is a co-worker particularly out of sorts today? Was the service in the café where you grab your morning coffee a little slower than you would like? While asking questions may be ill-advised and possibly too-personal prying, acting kindly requires only a little extra patience.
Three weeks after I arrived at college, half a continent away from home and everyone I knew, one friend called to tell me that another of our friends had just died. At 17, Patty had already had half a leg amputated to try to rid her of cancer, but less than a year later the invading cells had conquered her. Putting myself through college meant I had no money to travel to the funeral, and instead had to drag myself off to one of my part time jobs, serving lunch in the college cafeteria.
My semi-zombie look while doling out over-cooked string beans earned me a public tongue lashing from the cafeteria supervisor: my responsibility was to leave my personal life, especially boyfriend problems, at home and smile more or I could expect to lose my job immediately. He knew nothing about what the problem was and did not care. As he turned away, I struggled to keep tears from rolling down my face, an unsanitary situation for which I could also be fired. Another woman on the shift sensed something more than “boyfriend problems” was wrong, quickly trading positions with me so I could be away from the front and just bring endless pans of food out from the kitchen. The physical activity helped calm me. When I told her after the cafeteria had closed what was going on and thanked her for her interception (thereby saving my job), she asked if I needed a hug. I accepted, but was glad she asked instead of just doing it.
In retrospect, admittedly the supervisor did not need to care about the cause of my distress. But it would have been less polarizing if he had not made a presumption about that cause (a stinging wrong accusation) and had not made it such a public beating in front of a horde of co-workers and hungry students. Other students on staff had started muttering about the supervisor even before the shift ended. It wasn’t a good working situation.
In my surveying career, another boss indulged in similarly public outbursts against those he felt were under-performing. We surveyors privately joked about getting t-shirts saying, “Ream Away.” On his departure, we had a secret going away celebration for him to which he was not invited. Lesson: Don’t be That Boss. Newer perspectives on good management urge more cooperation, less adversity.
It is difficult, particularly in our current highly sensitized times, to know when stepping out of usual roles is acceptable and how our actions, inactions, and words will be perceived. What we can do, however, is to refrain from immediate presumptions about people’s looks or behaviors. In recent months there have been an increasing number of reports based on bad assumptions. In one local example a college student called police about a woman she did not know who had fallen asleep over her books in the dorm lounge. The sleeper was another student living in that same dormitory, guilty only of what police characterized as “studying while black.”
We have evolved from my early days in surveying, when two male surveyors separately and publicly confronted me during NSPS conferences to make it clear that women had no place in “their” profession. One was accusatory, sure that I was taking work away from men, while the other was more condescending, sure that I should be doing something more traditional—like staying home and raising a family. It encourages me to now see more women (and overall diversity) at surveying meetings across our country, involved and respected. The shift in perspective is not complete, but it is moving to a more inclusive one.