This I Believe

Dr. James Harris - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Entered on January 15, 2009
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: respect

I believe that life’s most essential lessons are best learned through personal experience.

Throughout my childhood my grandmother provided me with unconditional love but always reminded me that “you are no better than anyone else, but you are just as good as anyone.” To her, it was important to treat others with dignity, no matter what their position in the world and by doing so you would earn respect in return.

Although I thought I knew what she meant, I guess I never really understood why she was always encouraging me to treat people with dignity no matter their station in life. That was until I was 17 and got a summer job as a janitor cleaning the restrooms in some local factories in my hometown. It was a humbling experience for me as I learned first hand what it was like to be “invisible” as I scrubbed floors and toilets and watched people walk right by me and not even recognize my presence. There were even people I knew from my childhood who worked in the factories that seemed not to remember my name. It outraged me that people couldn’t see past my job and my uniform to recognize who I was as a person. This made me feel angry and wanting to strike out at those who were treating me poorly.

When I complained to my grandmother that it felt as if they were viewing me as less of a human being she reminded me that the problem was not with me but with them. She told me to never forget the feeling of being “invisible” and to do the best job I could because it was still my work and in that I should take pride. She also stated that it would make me a better man some day.

Make me a better man someday? She must be joking, I thought to myself. But, I needed the job to pay for college and there were few other jobs available, so I bit my tongue and did the best job I could for the rest of the summer.

What I learned through that experience was to always take pride in my own work and to respect the work of others no matter what their role or title in an organization. I pledged I would never become so self absorbed with my own importance in life to not personally pay attention to others who might not have the same title, position or good fortune as me.

That experience influenced me profoundly as a man and as an educator. Today, when asked what job helped prepare me to assume the leadership of a major metropolitan university I tell people it was my summer job cleaning restrooms. Not the work itself, but the whole job experience. It shaped me as a man, and down the road, as an educator.

I firmly believe that experiential learning energizes education, and helps young students draw direct lines between what they hear in a classroom and what they do within their community. Getting out of their comfort zones in order to get deeply involved is essential for students to find value in every person, no matter who they are or what they do for a living.

Sure, you can learn facts from books and by taking tests. But I seek the lessons that can only be understood by walking in a lot of different shoes.

It’s the only way, as my grandma would say; to learn that you’re no better than anyone else and nobody is better than you.