Tuesday, July 08, 2003


Mr. Rees, my senior high school English teacher, was a peculiar man - eccentric but stern, culturally literate but old-fashioned, sharp-tongued but mindful of courteousness. But one thing I will always remember about him was his way of responding to the occasionally impolite behavior of his students. Although he was widely respected and sometimes feared in class, sometimes a smart-aleck would make some impudent comment, usually good-natured, but still just to get a rise out of him. In reply, Mr. Rees would stare back at the offender, hunch his shoulders, press his eyes into a squint and snarl, "RUDE!!" He responded thusly not overly often so as to dilute the impact of the word, but often enough to sink in over time and impress upon me, intentionally or otherwise, with the importance of civility in dialogue and communication. Not that I needed so much correction like some others around me, but it was enlightening to see a forceful response to disrespectful behavior that doesn't sink to the level of the initial offense.

I recount all this now because I had an event today which made me say "RUDE!!" to myself. I was walking down the stairs of my office building, on my way to the fitness center for a solo workout and a run around the ponds. At the base of the stairs is a large glass window and a glass security door that separates the lobby of the building from the interior, and access to all the employee areas. As I reached the stairs, I could see into the lobby that a woman who I met recently at a social event had just entered the building. We saw each other and I even smiled and waved through the glass. At that moment I was turning the corner to walk away from the security door, when the thought came to me that I should open the door for her (since I knew she was a fellow employee, and was on her way in).

But for some reason that I cannot divine, I didn't. Instead I just walked on.

She was still several seconds away from reaching the door, but was close enough that I could easily have waited. It wasn't as though I was in a hurry to go someplace.

I mean, I wasn't blatantly rude or mean, but I could easily have opened the door for her, at least sparing her from having to get out her badge to flash past the electronic detector. Once I took a few seconds to imagine the situation reversed, I immediately realized how much I'd have liked it if she had done the same for me. That's when the castigating voice of Mr. Rees came resounding from all directions. My technically defensible but suspect action, or rather inaction had been caught by my conscience, but only too late.

So why did I let that opportunity for politeness pass? I don't know. For some reason I seized up, as though the thought came into my mind that if I opened the door, I'd seem like I was trying to curry favor. In my desire to stay cool and aloof, I then estimated to myself "Aw, she can get that door. I'll just keep walking - purposefully - the other direction. That'll prove my independence."

And no, that reasoning isn't supposed to make sense. It certainly doesn't to me now as I write this. But it did several hours ago when it happened.

Hopefully that's the last time I make some lame excuse for not doing a nice thing for someone just because it wasn't absolutely necessary.

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