This I Believe
The most important life lesson I was ever offered came from the most unlikely of sources, in the most unexpected of places, and passed in a matter of seconds. I wasn’t ready to receive it then.
Seventeen years ago, in the middle of winter, I was riding on a crowded commuter train with my then two-year old son Liam sitting on my lap when I noticed that the very disheveled, very sad, and mildly intoxicated elderly man sitting next to us was leaning toward my son. He then reached with great effort into the torn pocket of his dirty coat, pulled out a crumpled dollar bill, and stretched out his arm to put the bill into Liam’s tiny hand. I whispered to my son “Don’t take it” and turned him in my lap to face the opposite direction. The man looked at me briefly, his eyes seeming to say “But I wasn’t giving it to YOU” and then he moved away, his arm hanging in the air for a moment before he stuffed the dollar back into his coat.
I believe that every person I meet has something to teach me.
My own three children when they were little, and the children I worked with for ten years as a teacher in preschool, understood that life is curriculum, and their questions and comments often startled me with their straightforward earnestness. “If that’s a bad word why does Mrs. D. say it all the time?”; “Aunt Maria told me worms are nasty but I think they’re cute!”; “Daddy said if anyone touches me, whack him! What’s whack mean?”
I don’t teach children directly anymore; now I teach adults. These students come to class at night, having jumped a multitude of hurdles; financial problems, English language challenges, medical and family issues, and sometimes just with the discomfiting knowledge that the world is racing ahead of their mid-life skill sets.
Yesterday I taught a class with a particularly assertive and unruly student who is, in her other life, a manager. As one activity came to a close, and I tried to engage the students in a follow-up discussion, she continuously and unremittingly interrupted. With time tight and my nerves unraveling, I responded more harshly than I intended. At break time I stood outside, breathing in the cold air of another New England winter, and felt angry, unappreciated, and ill-used. Then I realized that it was myself I was mad at; disappointed that I had reacted emotionally to a person who relied on me to be supportive, calm, and unruffled. Patience…a lesson I’ve needed to hear again and again.
Sometimes in my classes, I bring up the story of the old man on the train. The last time I did, one of my students said “You did the right thing! You shouldn’t let your kids talk to strangers or take money from them!” And when that happens I think; I believe that I can learn from every single person I meet and I believe they can learn from me. Even if it takes seventeen years or more, one old man, or one child, or one recalcitrant adult student, or one middle-aged grateful instructor really can make a difference.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.