Lessons on an Elevator

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In my last hour on campus during the fall-winter 2010 semester, during my last elevator ride down from the English/Philosophy Department, I experienced the most interesting confrontation/ conversation. Ever.

When the elevator “landed” at the 5th floor, several people got out and four faculty members — including myself — got in.

One woman was already on the elevator; her dark skin stood in sharp contrast to the knee-length, bright yellow coat she wore. She had long, false eyelashes and long, sparkly fingernails. It was pretty obvious that she was a student as most educators simply don’t have enough hours in the day to worry about simple hygiene let alone more advanced techniques like applying fingernails or eyelashes. She also carried a cute little backpack while we all had little, unattractive wheelie bags laden with books and papers.  She must have accidentally gone up when she meant to go down. Whatever. The five of us crammed into the teeny-tiny elevator.

The door closed.

Suddenly a loud, distorted male voice came from Ms. Yellow Puffy Coat’s hand, “Girl, you better fucking get back on them pills. I don’t want to be nobody’s baby-daddy.”

All of us “newcomers” noticed at the same moment that Puffy Coat was now holding a telephone in front of her mouth, that it was on speaker mode, and its volume was on full blast.

“Dashan,” Puffy Coat said, “Don’t fucking be telling me fucking nothing about what I need to do with my body. You so worried about getting me pregnant again, go buy some fucking condoms.”

We faculty members were silenced.

It was incredibly uncomfortable.

I looked around the elevator as Puffy Coat’s increasingly intimate conversation filled with obscenities continued. I caught one professor’s eye. He shrugged, then looked down. The filthy elevator floor was apparently very interesting as everyone else was looking down, too. The doors stopped at the 4th floor where another professor got in. I recognized her immediately as Professor Sanity.

Puffy Coat kept going.

“I’m not having another abortion…” said Puffy Coat.

“Bitch,” shouted the faceless Dashan, “don’t play fuckin’ games with me.”

I couldn’t take it. If no one was going to say anything, I would be that girl.

“Excuse me,” I said as politely as I could, “that sounds like a very personal conversation. Do you think you could wait to continue until we are off the elevator?”

Polite wasn’t going to work.

“Hold up, Dashan,” Puffy Coat declared. “Bitch in the elevator trying to tell me what to do.” She continued, “Fucking bitch. I don’t know who she is. Just ignore her. Go on.”

Suddenly, the elevator stopped moving. Professor Sanity had hit the kill switch.

“Excuse me,” said Professor Sanity to Puffy Coat. “That is a completely inappropriate way to speak to another person. Please apologize right now.”

Puffy Coat didn’t know what to do.

It was excellent.

“Dashan,” Puffy Coat said, “I got a situation in the elevator. I’m gonna have to call you back.” And with that she silenced her phone.

(Hello, that’s all I was asking for!)

Professor Sanity did not stop. She pointed over toward my way. “When that professor suggested you turn off your phone, she was speaking for all of us. Because when you are in an elevator, you are in a public space. This is a public space.” Professor Sanity gestured a tiny circle above her head. “It’s a really tight public space, so people need to be especially mindful of each other. The conversation that you were having was beyond personal. No one wants to hear about your sex life. No one wants to hear the language you were using. The swearing was inappropriate, and it made us all uncomfortable. This is a place of higher learning. This is your moment to learn something.”

“Is everything okay in there?” A voice from campus security interjected through the intercom.

“We’re fine,” said Professor Sanity with authority. “Just give us a few minutes.”

Gawd, I love Professor Sanity. I soooo want to be her when I grow up.

Puffy Coat was relentless. She would not back down.

“I have every right to talk on my phone whenever and wherever I want to,” she insisted. “I pay my bills. You can’t tell me what to do. This is racism. You all are just picking on me because I’m black.”

Professor Sanity kept her cool, “You know very well that this has absolutely nothing to do with the color of your skin. This has to do with your behavior. You were not acting respectfully toward the people around you. When someone asks you to do something, your first response should not be to call that person a ‘Bitch’ — but that was your very first response. You need to think about that.”

Feeling bolder now that we weren’t going anywhere, another professor weighed in. Skinny, bald, and sporting double-hearing aids, this man looked to be about 80 years old. “Your argument isn’t logical.” (He must have been a Philosophy Professor.) He continued, “Why do you think that because you pay your bills you have the right to do ‘whatever you want whenever you want’? Paying your bills merely gives you the service. This conversation has nothing to do with race. This conversation has everything to do with your attitude of entitlement.”

Puffy Coat was silent. I couldn’t tell if she understood one word that Elder Prof had just said. Or maybe she realized that she was like a punchline in a bad joke: Five tired professors are on an elevator at the end of the semester. A student walks in.

Maybe she figured if she was quiet, things would end more quickly.

And things did end. Puffy Coat did, in fact, apologize. When five educators are staring at you in a stopped elevator, what choice does a person have? I mean, her apology was totally coerced. Puffy mumbled something to the effect that she was sorry for cursing, adding that she had never considered that being on a speaker phone in public could be perceived as rude. It was Guantanamo Bay in there. And that poor girl was being detained by brutally civilized, intellectual savages.

Professor Sanity told campus security to start us back up again, and we silently rode down to the first floor.

What stuck with me after I made it outside was Puffy’s defensiveness and her utter lack of understanding with regard to how to communicate with people. I considered how Puffy spoke to her boyfriend, to me, to the others: I supposed “combative” was her default setting. I imagined a whole heckuva lot of people must have spoken to Puffy with that same hostile tone over her lifetime, so that is the way she approaches the world. Pissed off is a pretty good defense-mechanism, but it doesn’t serve a person well in college, in the working world, or in life.

I wondered how a person could get to be college-aged and not understand how to behave in a socially appropriate manner.

It’s a sad social comment.

I’d like to believe — given the season — that like the Grinch, maybe …

Puffy puzzled three hours, `till her puzzler was sore

and eventually she realized she could be so much more.

“Maybe,” she thought, “I don’t have to be rotten to the core”

“Maybe it’s good those professors blocked the door.”

Maybe Puffy’s small brain grew three sizes that day!

Do you think that it could?

That maybe Puffy actually “got it” — maybe she understood?

Wouldn’t that be amazing? Wouldn’t that be good?

It would be wonderful.

If that’s what she got.

Do you think that she got it?

Alas, probably not.

What have you witnessed recently that caused you to think: “What has happened to civility?”

48 responses to “Lessons on an Elevator

  1. I see so many people of this ilk talk to their children like this at the store. Since it seems every one in Miami carries 17 guns you don’t play Miss Sanity in this town. And ya take the stairs, not the elevator.

    • Funny you should mention that. I did hear a woman swearing at her young daughter just recently. She was really going at it. I let it go initially, but after she kept going at it, I actually addressed it with the mother who was surprisingly receptive. Again, like Puffy, the mother said she had “never considered” that the way she spoke to her daughter might influence the way her daughter might speak to her friends (or teachers) at school. But it might not have gone that way. She could have pulled out a knife and stabbed me.

      My husband is always telling me I’m going to die a violent death because I don’t know when to shut up.

      I guess I’d rather die because I was speaking out than die because I was silent.

  2. I can think of a bunch of people who should read this. I don’t know them but they are offensive simply because of these types of behaviors. Teenage children come to mind but eventually they accept that modifying their behaviors is the path to getting what they really want in life.

    Once upon a time we all talked a little “smack” amongst ourselves, well beyond the hearing of who ever was in charge. The second or third time a neighbor dragged you to your mother (or worse, your father) having overheard poor language or attitude, you figured out that you had to watch what you said.

    Now a days… nobody calls anybody on anything. Fear? Embarrassment? I don’t know. We need more like Professor Sanity. And while one person cannot fix all the world’s ills, our educators can lead by example.

    Rise up and challenge but never do so by getting down on their level! It doesn’t work. Which is why all the Who’s down in Whoville they say were able to gather and sing that fine day. 😀

  3. I would have so been Professor Sanity! My son hates when I do, but I can’t help myself! If you are supposed to be waiting on me and you are rude, I will so turn it around. Hi, how are you today? =D It works every time! They get a wee bit embarrassed, but point taken. If I hold a door for you and I don’t get a thank you, you will get a loud “You’re welcome!” If someone is talking on a cell at an inappropriate moment, I have no problem asking them to have that conversation later. I am polite, but I cannot help but call people on their faux pas! Been to Miami, and I would so take the stairs. =S

  4. Renee!! Love this post! Not sure why? But I do! It’s funny, yet sad. So many kids now a days are so socially inept and yes we can blame technology but sometimes I think we as parents (not us of course) “allow” disrespect because we want to be “friends” with our kids. We don’t correct our child when he or she recall a story about school and calls the teacher a “douche-bag” because we want to relate but what we are really doing is saying its okay to be disrespectful. You’re right when you say it comes from years of hearing it and speaking it.
    GREAT ARTICLE!

    • I know that we have been trying to stress the idea of audience: that there are words Monkey can say around his friends, and there are words he can say around adults. And they aren’t the same words. It’s tricky because sometimes kids do slip, and sometimes their slip-ups are pretty dang funny.

      It isn’t fun to be “the heavy” all the time, but I do wish some people would try it once in a while.😉

  5. WOW, it’s nice to see someone finally stand up and say something. I’ve seen this happen more times then it should. And it really does push my buttons that people are really like this. But here lies part the problem: bad parenting. I’m sorry, but that is the core of it. I’m going to be 31 this year, and I was not raised to act like that nor would my mother tolerate such behavior because I would get a beating/spanking and punished. My mother had rules. She made you fear her as much as she made you love her. I really think that is what is missing these days. Because of that whole child abuse thing, parents can’t punish their children the way my mother and my grandmother used to. Also the absence of parents cause these problems, because they are too busy working or socializing. I don’t blame anyone for working and making money because you need that to live. But the child or children at home need their parents; people have to raise them; parents have to show them right from wrong. And in this day and age, I see so many girls having babies and shipping then off to their mothers and grandmothers to raise. LOL. I could go on and on about this issue, but I won’t. Again, I say thank you to Prof. Sanity for speaking out and making something happen.

    • I don’t disagree that kids need their parents, but they need more than their parents because they spend a lot of time away from their parents — 7 to 8 hours a day at school with peers and teachers. We need to be able to have faith in the climate and culture of our public schools and – sadly – they are failing us, and failing people like Puffy, who seemed genuinely baffled by the idea that speaking aloud in an elevator about her sex life could be considered inappropriate. It had never occurred to her.

      This is a problem that involves the media — where young adults are bombarded by programming that shows HOUSEWIVES everywhere behaving badly, where we have JERSEY SHORE and BAD GIRLS, featuring young men and women cursing, drinking to excess, and exhibiting casual attitudes toward sex. The music young adults listen to comes in two versions: explicit and non-explicit but many parents have no idea what their kids are downloading and have no idea how to monitor their kids’ text messages or Facebook accounts (or other social media) where people routinely treat each other disrespectfully.

      Puffy can do whatever she wants with her body, but I shouldn’t have to hear about it.

  6. Wow! I thought the fact that most cell phones lose service in elevators was one those things that let’s us know there is a god.

    Dashan is one lucky man to have a lady of such refinement.

  7. As a stay-at-home mom for most of my daughter’s growing-up years, I have to say respect and teaching it have nothing to do with working parents vs. stay-at-home parents. It has everything to do with showing your child respect and demanding it back. If you don’t show it though, you have no right to demand it. That’s the way it worked in our house and I have to say (brag) that my college-age daughter is very respectful, not only of adults but of her peers as well. It’s also important for everyone in our society to remember to be respectful of others at all times. Kids need to be taught at home but see respect practiced all around them.
    Renee – another great piece.

    • Kids need to be taught at home but see respect practiced all around them.

      Agreed. This is what made me sad for Puffy Coat. She obviously had not had these kinds of positive interactions with people. She obviously has grown up with a lot of disrespect, maybe she endures it every day. I was fortunate to have been raised during a time before all this technology, when everyone was so plugged into themselves. I was fortunate to have people show me love and kindness daily. I actually felt sad for Puffy Coat.

  8. Great post. Thank you for the story.

  9. Dad and I had a big LAUGH. It is one of your best blogs. Your naming of characters was great. Two things come to mind: CLAUSTROPHOBIA and NO CELL PHONES IN ELEVATORS unless it is an emergency!!!

    • I’m glad that you and dad “enjoyed” my blog entry. I have to tell you, I did not enjoy the experience. It made me sad. It is part of the daily grind that has ground me down and worn me out.😦 The next time you are in town, I’ll take you over to MCC and have you get in the elevator with me so you can imagine how uncomfortable close we were to each other.

  10. Outstanding post, Sam I am!

  11. Renee, that was a wonderful piece. I especially liked the poem at the end, it was very imaginative and could certainly been a Dr Seuss original. I would have liked you as a teacher, you’re awesome. I don’t know this Miss Puffy Coat, but I can’t help but to form an opinion about her and her obvious bad manners. I don’t like Miss Puffy Coat! (How can anyone act like this and be expected to be liked?)

    Since I really don’t like to dislike anyone I thought to myself why don’t I like this lady? She is everything that I was taught not to be, from my mother and father, to my formal schooling, to my friends. I was told by my parents how to act both in public and even when nobody could see me; My teachers all reconfirmed this. The friends that one seeks usually demonstrate the qualities that we have been taught to admire, thus we seek friends that mirror ourselves or what we would like ourselves to be. We are in fact a product of our surroundings. Put all of these products together and this is how we create a class in society. Not the traditional “upper, middle and lower” class, but just a class that separates itself from other classes. Now, if a class wants to be accepted into society it must share its “good” qualities and get rid of or at least hide its “flaws”. The Mormons are not accepted in our society as long as they promote polygamy.

    The problem with sad Miss Puffy Coat is that she is from an entirely different class than you or I. Where if she stayed in her own class she would most certainly be accepted, maybe even admired. Miss Puffy Coat entered into society possibly not knowing what society expects. You and Professor Sanity were representatives of “society” slapping Miss Puffy Coat on the wrist letting her know her actions will not be tolerated. Bravo to the two of you!!! My mother once told me, “If you wanna be a caveman, then stay in the cave!” (Actually I made that up. It sounds more authoritative if I say my mother told me.) One chance encounter for Miss Puffy Coat is probably not going to change her but if she is going to be at school for four years then there is a good chance that she can be converted.

    I am certainly not promoting Separatism, all I am saying is that if you want to be a part of society then share your “good” qualities and get rid of or at least hide your “flaws”. If you don’t know what your flaws are then ask society…it’s a vicious circle!!!

    • I try to be forgiving of people, but the content of her conversation was just so off. Would I have responded the same way if she had just been chatting it up with a friend? I don’t think so. But I do think that speaking loudly so as to make others uncomfortable is an act of incivility, but so many people do it (and so few people speak up) that we are headed toward a dangerous place.

      It’s always scary when the people with the critical thinking skills allow the brutes to do what they want and go unchecked. I wondered why the other professors didn’t say anything. My husband said they had probably had altercations before, like that one. And what do they get you? Not much. A headache, usually. A lot of exasperation, definitely. So I understand their silence, but I will never be silent in the face of incivility.

      • We could use a few more teachers like you and Prof Sanity. Many say they care about teaching but if there is controversy or a possibility of repercussion then they will take the route of silence. I do believe that much of the incivility of the world is due to the lack of knowledge. If you know it or not, you and Prof S, taught this girl something and the question is what is she going to do with the knowledge.

  12. Renee: This was just fabulous and wonderfully written. I have forwarded it to numerous friends. You should consider sending it to some print media. It deserves a wider audience.

    One might also wonder what this “lady” is even doing in college? Great use of my tax dollars and yours.

    • Thank you, Steve. I don’t know who to write to in print any more. I’ve grown exhausted by the delay. But if you know someone who knows someone, feel free to let me know that someone.😉

      • I am trying to think what main stream print media is not averse to the F-word but that piece really deserves a widespread read. When I guest lecture at your school I am usually amazed (not really) what passes for college students these days. It isn’t that standards have come down; they have simply disappeared. You are a gifted writer and observer.
        By the way, I am never on facebook. This is an exception. But you know where to reach me. You are a neat lady!

  13. That’s a pretty intense version of lesser scenes I witness all the time. I would have loved to be on that elevator! I often have to say something to students in the halls who are just so loud for so long and so obnoxious. There’s a big difference between blowing off steam of having an outburst and going on and on in this way. If nothing else, I’m going to be even more assertive next spring when I inevitably bump into these situations again. You know everyone feels the same way.

    • I have never been uncomfortable asserting myself when I catch students acting inappropriately; mainly, because I really do believe that we are teaching them. It is natural for the young to test their boundaries, but it is our job as educators, parents and adults to push back and remind our young adults when they have crossed over a line. Usually the students self-correct immediately. This situation was unique as Puffy Coat didn’t back down. As I said before, I was no hero in the elevator. It was Professor Sanity’s show.

  14. I’m thankful for people like Professor Sanity who speak the truth to others out of genuine concern. It may or may not have happened in this case, but I’m sure that sometimes all it takes is one encounter with someone like that to completely change someone’s perspective for the better. I like to think that there are people who would do that for me if I were in that situation.

    • I have had people challenge my worldview, and it did make an enormous long-term impression. I’m not sure if that was the case here. I kinda hope to meet up with Puffy Coat again one day — just waaay waaay in the future. It would be interesting to know if she remembered the conversation at all. Those few minutes in the elevator made a huge impact on me, but then…I’m always looking for good blog material.😉

  15. First, you are a wonderful writer. Seriously.

    Second. Yay for Professor sanity!

  16. Late to the party, but WOW that is an amazing story. Props to Professor Sanity for staying calm and calling out the student because yes, I witness various forms of this lack consideration every day. Nothing this dramatic yet, but it’s clear that people think the Constitution gives them the right — that’s always the word they use — to do WHATEVER they like without considering their responsibility towards others.

    This is why I’m such a misanthrope; at this point I simply don’t trust people to have any concept of the social contract. I mean, look, I’m a very individualistic person (could you tell?) but I come from the Midwest, where they still (I think) drill it into your head that your rights end where other people’s begin!

    • I’m with you 100% in that I believe one person’s rights end where the other person’s begin.

      I have to say, I was disheartened by the (initial) silence of the full-time professors. The student in the elevator was a bully, and (we) professors were complacent/complicit in allowing her to control the situation in the elevator. I guess this is another reason why educators burn-out. Because even when we are “off-duty,” we are never really off.

  17. Great and sad story. My gast is well and truly flabbered.
    Your power of recall and retelling is very impressive. I can imagine you speaking up and at the same time thinking to yourself that what was happening was worth remembering. And I’m glad you did. Great story.

  18. OMG, as my daughter would say – I’m laughing my fool head off. Having spent more time than I care to admit in elevators, I can completely relate to your experience. WOW. I sure hope that experience left a lasting impression on Puffy Coat, and that she will have learned something positive from it!

    • I will likely wonder about Puffy until the end of my days. As I am not returning to the classroom next semester, I will have to ask Professor Sanity if she ever runs into her.

      I, too, would love to know if getting stuck in the elevator has any lasting impact. If I were a betting woman, I would say the odds are against it.

  19. It’s interesting… behavior in general. This was really a very fortunate event — for everyone involved (uncomfortable as it must have been to have been there). Heck, I was uncomfortable just reading it.

    Your analogy to reverse Guantanamo was perfect for if it were not for the fact that multiple professors were in the elevator, I suspect the lesson would not have been delivered. Let’s not get into the concept of learning. You said yourself you would have let the name calling continue after your initial attempt.

    The old adage holds true… it takes a village to raise a child. We (the villagers) have to remember that we *are* the villagers, we have a responsibility to pass down (teach) the expectations, hold the child accountable to them, and that children can be children a lot longer than their age would have us believe.

    Honestly, I’m not sure if I would have been the one to speak up — I’m not used to being tested that way (certainly not by college students and older) and, frankly, it is a skill to be able to do that. Kudos to you and the other profs!

  20. It was pretty brave of all of you to speak up to Puffy Coat! I work with younger kids, and so I rarely worry about the safety factor in addressing poor behavior–something that may eventually get me into trouble with parents! It’s truly amazing how many kids under age 10 feel that it’s okay to tell me inappropriate jokes (I’m assuming they don’t know what the joke REALLY means), call me way-too-familiar names like “Dude,” and talk back when asked to do (or not to do) something. Being allowed to do these things at home doesn’t teach the child that it’s not okay to talk to adults in particular ways, and sometimes it’s not even appropriate with their peers. At my school, kids KNOW they’re gonna hear it from me, and sometimes they’ll sneak furtive glances my way if they THINK they’ve overstepped and aren’t sure…makes me giggle inside, and lets me know THEY KNOW I EXPECT BETTER FROM THEM. Unfortunately, most of them will not take that lesson beyond 5th grade, because other adults in their lives will not hold that expectation.

  21. Best. Elevator. Encounter. Ever.

    I’m baffled by students’ decisions to recount their entire weekend of bad decisions to the whole class like they’re a badge of honor, when I can easily tell they are exhibiting early signs of Future Convicts of America award winners.

    • Sometimes I think students are just testing me. Like they want to see how far they can go in my classroom. Like they want to see if I will say something. And I do. Every time. Privately. The elevator was a whole different ball of public wax.

      I love that “Future Convicts of America” thing. A+.

  22. Renee, I saw this and thought of your post… http://news.yahoo.com/s/yblog_thelookout/20110617/us_yblog_thelookout/woman-says-shes-too-educated-to-be-kicked-off-new-york-train Just goes to show that it doesn’t matter how educated you are (or THINK you are), you can still be trash.

    • Even “very well educated people” can be rude. I think this woman proves that.

      I imagine she is horrified when she looks at this footage of herself. Or, maybe I am hoping that she is horrified. Thanks for sending the link, SuzyQ. I had seen the link to the earlier train incident. I also have a great little public service announcement about civility in movie theaters going out this weekend. Look for it.😉

  23. I think I live in a bubble and thought the only people who spoke like that were cliched characters on badly scripted TV shows. I laughed though, it was funny as it was sad.

    I wish I were Professor Sanity, but I usually just keep my mouth shut and blog about it later😉

    • I wish it were the case, but — alas — there are people who feel the need to have us know all their business. At the moment, there was nothing funny about it, but as time has gone on, I have come to see there was humor amidst the pathos.

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