This I Believe

Susan - Maine
Entered on July 26, 2007

This I believe

One learns young that life can be terribly unfair, and that unfairness often breeds fear, anger, contempt, and, ultimately, pain. But I fortunately learned early that simple respect can eradicate that pain.

In first grade I found myself one day being chastised by my teacher for something another student had done and being sent to “the bench,” the place outside the principal’s office where students contemplated their doom until our principal, Mr. Meenahan, came to dispense his brand of justice. Mr. Meenahan—even his name had the sound “mean” in it!—was a stocky, very stern looking bald man with black-rimmed half-moon reading glasses over which he seemed to pierce students with just a look. As I walked to his office trembling and looked at the bench for the first time as my dreaded destiny rather than someone else’s, I fought back sobs and prayed no one would see me.

When Mr. Meenahan sat down near me, he looked straight at me and asked me why I was there. I told him the whole story of being falsely accused—with every shred of unfairness explained. Mr. Meenahan never interrupted or took his eyes off me. When I was done, he nodded solemnly and told me to go back to class.

But what was I to tell my parents, I asked him. And I launched again into my concern about unfairness—this time of having to “count” a time on the bench that never should have been. I promised to tell my parents everything. But, I begged, could I please tell them this didn’t really count as a time on the bench? I recall fearing my integrity would suffer life-long consequences. And again, Mr. Meenahan listened, never flinching, sighing, or looking at anything but me, even if I was only a wee girl making a very big deal over virtually nothing. And when I had finished, he looked very thoughtful before he slowly answered and then sent me on my way.

I can remember no more empowering moment in my life than that one—when a grown up listened to what I had to say—no matter how petty my concern might have appeared—and responded to my grave concern with equal gravity. I returned to the classroom with my head held high, and I didn’t speak with anger or feel resentful. I felt all was right in the world, even if I had been to the bench. I had been heard, taken seriously, and treated with respect.

In my 40+ years since that day, when I have treated people with the respect that Mr. Meenahan showed me or they have treated me that way, it has turned out pretty well. I haven’t always had the answer people wanted, nor have they always had the one I wanted. But whenever I have seen people treated as if what they had to say mattered, the end has always turned out pretty fair. And it has always counted.