My parents taught me many things…as parents are expected to do…. and hopefully, the right things. Among these, I was raised to believe in myself, to know right from wrong, and to understand the importance of sharing with others. As an only child, the hardest one was accepting the importance in sharing. I recall, after several of my birthday parties, many of my toys had missing parts or were totally destroyed by too many little hands. As an adult, it changed to believing in yourself, especially at those times when life kicked you in the teeth. And in the butt.
But I was also raised to believe that all people are created equal. It never occurred to me that not all people were treated the same. But this was made clear to me one day when my father sat me down to talk about respect. The need to respect all people, regardless of their color or religion, or their economic status. The belief that no matter who they are or what they do, they deserve respect.
Dad was a teacher in my high school, the head of the Science Department, the school photographer and beloved by both his colleagues and the students. He had guided a number of young student teachers through the ropes and as I was about to head off to college and a career in teaching, he wanted to talk to me about respect. Not just for my future employers, but for those who had another kind of control. I noticed Dad had a special relationship with our school personnel, in fact, with all the support staff. He was kind, supportive himself and treated them as if they were as important as the school principal or even the school superintendent. In turn, he always received a bit of extra attention. Perhaps a bit larger portion of a cafeteria dish he liked, or some extra cleaning in his classroom by the custodians. The school secretarial staff were always willing to do a bit more for Dad. He explained all this to me. He wasn’t doing this to get that extra scoop of macaroni and cheese, or some extra sheets of carbon paper he’d requested. Or his wastepaper basket emptied more often than required. No, he did it because he respected them as people and the services they provided. In response to his kindness, they reciprocated in ways they could. He said, “The support staff in any place you work can make or break you. They need you but you need them just as much, maybe, even more. Remember that and treat them well.”
These words had a profound effect on me. I carried them with me as I embarked on my teaching career and in every job I’ve had since. While others would denigrate the custodians and the office staff, I would do the opposite. They became friends. Not because of what they could do for me, but because, in most cases, I genuinely liked them. Oftentimes, more than my colleagues.
Just recently, one of my friends commented on her cleaning lady and how she sometimes was late or had to cancel. We share the same woman. I would tell her that she had to consider the fact that Sheila had an adult child with special needs and both her parents were elderly with serious health issues. If her child’s caregiver was late or was ill herself, she would be late as well. My friend was surprised I knew this much about Sheila. “You mean you talk to her?” she said, amazed. “Of course I do. She’s a lovely person and she has a lot on her plate. She’s a single mom and her child is a handful.” I told her. “But she’s your cleaning lady?” The concept of treating your cleaning person with respect apparently hadn’t dawned on my friend. I found this a sad reflection on our society.
And these days, in our current political crisis, it’s hard to respect those who seem to be on a different planet in their beliefs. But I try, especially when it’s friends and family.
My husband is sometimes shell-shocked when I tip our delivery person 20% or considerably increase our Instacart shoppers standard tip. But I do it anyway because it’s the right thing to do. And I know Dad is smiling and giving me a “thumbs up.”