Human Decency Is Best Tought With Action, Not Words

If young people are just as cruel and inconsiderate as ever, I often wonder why that is. A lot can be said about hormones and peer pressure, and things of that sort. But there is an elephant in the room that adults don’t like to acknowledge, and that’s themselves. Teachers and caretakers of our youngest children know what I’m talking about. Mimicry is not a form of flattery for kids — it is literally how they learn.

One day, I became conscious of this fact during an otherwise ordinary science class when I was a freshman in high school. My teacher was one of those teachers that sometimes had entire days in which he didn’t teach a single thing that was actually on the syllabus that day. He would talk about current events, or go around the room and ask students individually about their extracurricular achievements.

We all felt like it was the best class of the day. We felt like we learned the most when we we were off topic. We were glued to our teacher every day, whether he was teaching us things that would be on the test or not.

He was also the sort of teacher that was willing to make a lesson take as long as it needed to. He was always making eye contact with every student before moving on to the next point, just to make sure everyone understood. He was the kind of teacher that made each student like myself really feel important.

One day, he must have had it, though. That day, still as kind and respectful as ever, he felt the need to teach us about basic human decency. It seemed very deliberate, and he did it without using shame or fear or anything of that sort.

The thing that was weighing on him that day, which resulted in him deciding to devote a good chunk of time to teaching us this very basic lesson, was how to be respectful in the hallways.

To do this, he brought a student up front and demonstrated what he saw all too often between classes, which was the inconsiderateness of pushing through someone. After getting the student’s permission, he demonstrated it by slowly but firmly pushing past the student, and then said, “sorry.” He was looking away and said it under his breath, without even making eye contact, suggesting the apology was meaningless.

Then he did it again, but this time, putting a hand gently on the student’s shoulder from behind, saying, “excuse me,” and waited for the student to turn around. Then he said, “pardon me, but can I get through?” He looked him in the eyes the whole time, and for some reason, this blew me away at the time.

Being an introvert, I am wired to avoid interactions with strangers as much as possible. But I saw how much eye contact really matters when it comes to showing someone respect. Sometimes the difference between an action being disrespectful or not is whether the other person even feels acknowledged.

I’m so glad that my teacher did this as a demonstration, too. I am a visual learner, so being able to see it is so key to me comprehending it. He could have just said, “say excuse me,” and tell us to be decent to each other. And this may seem like common sense, but when you are a kid and your brain is still developing, there is simply no substitute for a role model.

Nowadays, a teacher would get into serious trouble for even considering a physical demonstration where he would be putting his hands on a student, and so he might have just decided not to and gone with verbal education only. And students like me might have missed the point.

Being able to visibly recognize negative social interactions is a part of growing up. When you see it, you commit it to memory. But in the absence of adult guidance, it can easily be rationalized. “Maybe he’s having a bad day.” “Maybe the person really was in the way, and it is HIM that is being inconsiderate.” Etc, etc.

It is little moments like this that contribute to an overall reduction in our minds of anyone else that stands in our way.

Perhaps I am crazy for remembering this very brief and otherwise basic lesson in my own childhood development, but it is a lesson that too many adults in my current life could benefit from having learned.

We are so polarized as a country, that denying the humanity of others in the most mundane and unnoticeable of ways, such as that which provoked my teacher so long ago, has gone painfully unexamined.

This teacher had so many lessons like this. There is another demonstration that I’ve seen elsewhere, but saw from my teacher first. A volunteer is asked to hold his arm out and keep it extended while someone attempts to push it down. It always fails, until the person is asked to repeat something along the lines of, “I can’t do it.” Then, without fail, the volunteer is unable to withstand the force against his arm. It is a crazy psychological reality that telling ourselves we cannot do something ends up being most of the reason we can’t do it.

The impact of lessons like these on a young person’s mind is profound. I knew it then, and sensed it whenever I talked to this teacher. I always felt treated like an adult, which is why I knew I was acting like a child whenever I heard him say so.

I also remember him being quite candid about subjects like religion and politics, which you are not supposed to be as a teacher. I couldn’t, for the life of me, tell you what we even really talked about. But the level of respect he showed me was enough to provoke my then-girlfriend and I to put together a fundraiser for his wife, who was struggling with cancer.

Overall, what he had to teach me was more about what he did than what he said. Every day I was in his class, I felt like I was seeing how a civil and caring grownup behaves.

This is why I am so disappointed in adults these day. Kids are always watching, and they are learning bad things from us. They are learning that threatening people is rewarding, people with certain opinions don’t need to be treated as part of society, and that everything is hopeless. Those who promote these toxic beliefs and behaviors are teaching all the little ones to do the same, and we could all stand to do better.

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