Saying Hi

David - Sutton, Massachusetts
Entered on November 7, 2011

Themes: respect
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After supper on summer evenings when I was a boy, my father would take my brother and me for a swim in the lake in the town where I now live… Then it was a farming community of about 2500. Now it is a commuting community of about 10,500. From my spot behind the driver’s seat of the two-toned 1957 Chevy, I noticed how my father would wave to other drivers we passed as we made our way to the lake. Most would respond with a simple wave. Others would raise the four fingers curved around the top of the steering wheel as their sign of acknowledgement; some would raise a finger to the brim of their baseball hat.

When we would turn the corner at the top of the long hill that led to the lake we passed a farmhouse where an elderly couple would be sitting on the porch letting the end of the day come their way— easy in each other’s company. “Make sure you wave,” my father would say. We did every time we passed, and they would always wave back.

Now, I travel other country roads in that same town as I take my evening walk. I do my best to sustain this custom I learned as a boy, but I must confess to mixed results. Although most drivers return my wave, many appear to do so begrudgingly, seeming almost embarrassed as if not quite sure what to make of this guy walking down the road who they do not know waving to them. They seem to wonder what I am up to—wonder if I might be a bit off.

This past summer, a woman new to the road passed me on several occasions steadfastly refusing to acknowledge me or my wave. As she approached, she would tighten the grip of both hands on the steering wheel of her pearl white Lexus and focus with laser-like intensity on the road directly in front of her, intent on not being distracted by my greeting. As she passed I sensed a steeliness in her expression that suggested both a grim determination to accomplish the mission she was on and an equal determination to ignore my wave she apparently sensed as more ominous than a mere annoyance.

I wonder what has happened to cause the devolution of our local custom. It seems no longer enough to acknowledge as we pass that we share the same fine evening, the still unspoiled tree-lined roads, the soft, sweet summer air. It seems rather this acknowledgement is something for which we must qualify—that it is no longer enough to realize that time is short and we might as well be kind.

My first teaching job was in Battery Park High School in rural South Carolina. My students were the poorest in the state—among the poorest in the country, but they were rich in tradition and spirit. One such tradition came from the deep resources of their faith and their music the oratorical device–call and response—in which the preacher declares and the congregation responds in unison. At Battery, teachers would begin an early class by declaring “It’s a great day,” and the students would respond, “…and a righteous morning.”

I too would do this on occasion, on particularly fine Carolina mornings, and when I did the response was always fulsome, always joyful.

Now I teach a seminar to undergraduates on education policy on Monday evenings. I am always the first to arrive for the first class of the semester so I can say hi or hello or good evening to each student as he or she enters the room. They are caught off guard as if they would much prefer it if I would focus on reshuffling the papers on the table in front of me—head down waiting for the bell to ring, but there are no bells on Monday evenings. Resourcefully, they conjure up befuddled responses knowing manners require something in return and that I am, after all, the guy who will one day issue them a grade.

By the third or fourth week, however, something shifts and they become the first to say hi as they enter the room. I see this as a hopeful sign.

I believe it is not good if we become too self-absorbed and harried that we fail to acknowledge each other’s presence—our common interest in a good day, a fine sunset, a better tomorrow.

I believe we should willingly acknowledge that we are on this journey together, that it began well before we joined it, and it will continue long after we are gone, but that while we are on it we should say hi to our fellow travelers.

As the late 20th century American philosopher, John Prine, has sung:

If you are walking down the street sometime

And spot some hollow vacant eyes

Please don’t pass them by and stare

As if you didn’t care, say ‘hello in there’

Hello

It is a great day and a righteous morning.

This I believe