During the oral portion of the final exam, the last hoop before earning my Master’s degree in Public Administration, a professor on my graduate committee posed the following question, “Given that salaries are lower, uncompensated hours generally greater, and the stress level often higher, why are you seeking a career in the public sector rather than private industry?” For several uncomfortable moments, I was silent. Finally, I slowly but confidently stated, “I believe the rewards gained while deflecting the arrows of misfortune suffered in the back of the bus trump any other form of compensation.”
To make sense of that answer, I will have to take you back to fifth grade which was my first bus riding experience. Due to school district consolidation, all fifth and sixth grade kids were loaded on a bus and hauled to another town. I recall very little of the middle school book learning from three and one-half decades ago, but I remember in vivid detail many of the bus rides.
On Valentine’s Day 1975, we stood waiting in our respective stereotypical cliques in the same front to back order we would enter the bus and sit down; Nerds, jocks, popular kids, those just trying to get by, outcasts, and bullies. From my position amongst those aspiring no higher than middle school survival, I could hear the bullies, angry at all of life, slinging arrows at her. Their mouths shot out the familiar labels of slut, psycho, and lesbian. I glanced back at the outcasts. The group was small as was the rural Iowa town we hailed from, and all but the girl had an obvious cognitive, physical, or social disadvantage.
I was never exactly sure why the girl was an outcast. Her huge brown eyes, when she dared raise them, sparkled with intelligence. She was well endowed, and there was nothing unkempt about those brown curls that fell loosely to her shoulders. My family moved often and kept to itself so I was not privy to much of the town gossip, but I had overheard snippets involving her mother collecting Aid to Families with Dependent Children while her Dad was secretly living with them.
Once aboard the bus, I dove into my sack of valentines. As I turned to and fro handing them out to my pals of similar mediocre middle school social status, I noticed that the girl was in the seat behind me. She received no valentines. Not one. My stomach tensed with pain as I realized she wasn’t even accepted among the other outcasts. Suddenly, I had a brilliant idea as I remembered the extra valentine I brought along. I grabbed it out of the sack and handed it to her. She looked directly at me with those gigantic brown eyes and flashed a gleaming dimpled smile bright enough to upstage a toothpaste model.
On that day, I became cognizant of the possibilities unleashed by validating the inherent worth of those relegated to society’s posterior.
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