As a teacher, I try to be cognizant of the fact that I’m often leading a giant group of thirteen-year-olds around campus. “Be nice to the lunch ladies, you guys,” I say sternly. “No complaining about the food in front of them. Don’t even pause too long in front of the options.”
“But none of them look good,” they whine, being people who have not yet learned that food costs money and that any opportunity to eat is a good opportunity.
“I know. But you can speculate about the exact biological nature of the meat AFTER you’ve left the line. And while you’re at it, while we’re walking past the buses, stop aiming theatrical hacking coughs in the smokers’ general direction. You are but thirteen-year-olds and unwise in the ways of the world.”
Behind my back, they roll their eyes, but at least they’ve stopped doing it. It is important to be pleasant to others, of course. We all know this. Being considerate is one of those rare things we Americans do not because it earns us money or gains us fame, but because it is the right course of action.
Also, when you catch someone else at it, it’s very endearing. The other day, standing in the buffet line, I realized that one of my favorite things about my dad is how nice he is in public situations where everyone’s dashing around willy-nilly. Once, near Christmastime, we were trying to go sit at the Roseville Barnes and Noble for a few hours, as is our wont. The parking lot was a snowy madhouse, but somehow my father spotted a single-aisle parking spot and aimed the Jetta at it. (This was before the days of his treasured Passat, of course – if we’d been in the Passat he would have insisted on parking as far away from other cars as possible, even if that meant traversing several snowy medians on the way into the store.)
As we pulled in, though, we realized that we were not alone in coveting this spot. Waiting on the other side of it was a little station wagon; behind the wheel was an increasingly angry middle-aged woman. I was close enough that I could see her mouth some Christmastime swear words at us.
Instead of just parking and getting out, as I thought he was going to do, my dad sped up and slid smoothly out of it, delivering a cheery wave with his leather-gloved hand.
Her mouth dropped, and he laughed and laughed. “Did you see her face?!”
I don’t remember where we ended up parking, nor which book I convinced him to let me get, but this is still one of my treasured childhood memories. I’m sure that had I not been in the car, he would have done the same thing. I have faith that, even unobserved, he is still prone to joviality around strangers.
However, when I’m not around my family or a bunch of people who (somehow) see me as a role model, my own determination to exude gentle good cheer slips a bit. The other day, in the library, fully in Teacher Mode but momentarily unaccompanied by minors, I was hunting for a stapler. When I finally found one, it bit gently into the paper and left no staple behind. I stared at it in distress for a second, then gnashed my teeth and headed for the checkout desk, where a few of them waited.
For a few seconds, I stapled merrily away. Then it occurred to me that what a truly good and unselfish person would have done would be to deliver the librarians the defunct stapler and let them know it was empty. How else would they figure it out? Was it seriously someone’s job to, in the summertime, go around refilling staplers? And even if that were the case, wouldn’t it similarly madden other staple-seeking patrons until it was refilled?
I dithered, wondered if I should head back, and then the stapler I was holding ran out.
I stared dumbly at it.
Surely this was my punishment. (I am still Catholic enough to believe in that sort of thing.)
Of course the kindly librarian noticed immediately, and came right over to slide some new ones in. And I blurted, “Sorry. Lotta copies. There’s another one out too.”
“Oh really?” she said. “Where at?”
I waved my hand at the computers. “Um. Somewhere over there.” My mind was as empty as the staplers. “In the desks. Or something.”
And she sighed, and trudged off, box of staples firmly in hand.
But the kicker is what happened at the salad bar today. I have been eating from this salad bar for a month and a half now, and my formula is very simple: take one scoop of literally everything it offers (except for water chestnuts – why do they even exist?), pile it all onto a plate, cover with the pink dressing, then snag some tuna from the sandwich bar. It’s food. It does the job.
However, other groups are not so jaded. A Symposium of middle-aged academics has descended upon our dormitory; they seem very eager to be staying in college again, even if only briefly. As such, the whole dining hall thing is like a fun adventure to them. I stood behind two bespectacled ladies who were ladling lettuce, seemingly leaf by leaf, onto their plates. One of them left after that, but the other one proceeded down the line, considering the options.
“Oh, tomatoes,” she said. “Cherry tomatoes. I like tomatoes.”
I waited for the other woman to respond, then looked around. She was nowhere. And still the woman was considering each topping out loud. “I like green peppers,” she said. “I like carrots too. I haven’t eaten garbanzo beans before, but I think I like them too.” It was all in a monotone, her face pressed against the sneeze guard as she eyed all the vegetables with the greatest of care. “I like mushrooms.”
I realized she was talking to me.
And I’d just woken up from a nap. And really I just wanted to pile my salad high then take it out into the park to eat it, staring at the birds and talking to nobody. And frankly I hated that she was forcing me to respond to her – this in my off hours, after people talking to me all day. And if I’d been my dad I’d have been able to think of some kindly remark, some funny joke that would have made her smile and go, “People at this school sure are nice, aren’t they?”
But I wasn’t.
“I like peas,” she said. “I like them.”
And so the only thing I could think of to say was,
“WELL, SHOULD I BE TAKING GODDAMN NOTES?”
… But I’m Minnesotan, and if we can’t think of something nice to say (and I couldn’t), we don’t say anything at all. So I just stood there taking impatient scoops, silently watching her talk to me, seeing her badge and realizing very slowly that the Symposium she was attending was a Holocaust symposium, for God’s sake, and how would THAT have looked.