Tag Archives: civility

Lessons on an Elevator

Aufzugsschiebetür

Image via Wikipedia

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?”

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Bullying: Please Don’t Post This

Yesterday, I posted a blog entry about bullying and received a few responses, but many more people privately emailed me with messages that said, “Please don’t post this, but we are having a huge problem with bullying…” or “Please don’t post this. My daughter is a terrible bully and I don’t know what to do about it…” or “I wish I could tell my kid to just punch her bully in the face… Please don’t post this”.

So there is obviously a lot more to say about bullying, and I kind of wanted to continue the dialogue by proposing a few quick scenarios about physical bullying and how parents handle it. Stay with me:

Scenario 1:

Your child comes home from school and reports someone kicked her during recess.

What is your response?

Scenario 2:

Your child comes home from school and reports that she kicked someone during recess.

What is your response?

Is your response gender-based, which is to say, would you say something different to a son than you would to a daughter?

When Parents Are The Problem

From Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are

After winning baseball games, our team sponsor – the local Hess station – promised the players free Avalanches, those frozen drinks with the fun (artificial) flavors and colors. One night, my son’s team played particularly well. It had been a hard game, and even my kid made an out and (uncharacteristically) added three points to the scoreboard. Usually, I try to opt out of these kinds of mass-eating-crap-before-dinner kinds of events, but everyone was stoked, so we went.

Before we even left the field, I noticed one heavy-set kid eating a hot dog that his mother had purchased for him from the concession stand. I’m surprised I noticed him except it was hard not to. This kid was going at it, and he put away that hot-dog in three bites. I know this because I watched him: Bite. Chew. Swallow. Bite. Chew. Swallow. Bite. Chew. Swallow. Gone.

photo from horizontal.integration @ flickr.com

Later, at the Hess Station, while the boys were reveling in mixing their (artificially flavored and colored) cherry and cola and blueberry drinks, I saw hot-dog boy again. Only now he had a 64-ounce Avalanche in his left hand and not one, but two extra large Snickers bars in his right hand. At that point, I heard hot-dog boy say (actually, it was more like a loud whine), “I’m still hungry! Can we go across the street and get a hot dog?’ (I thought Snickers were supposed to “really satisfy you.”)

Hot-dog boy’s parents tried (briefly) to reason with their son, to no avail. He begged, he pleaded. He got louder, insisting on how hungry he was. In fact, he was not just hungry, he was starving. The word “no” was clearly not in their lexicon, and hot-dog boy and his parents were last seen walking across the street, presumably to get another hot-dog from the fast food joint across the way.

I’ve been thinking about this whole scenario for a while now. And I’ve been trying really hard not to be judgmental. In fact, I’ve been thinking of a million reasons to justify the allowances they made for their more than a little husky son.

I’m thinking, maybe they didn’t want to make a scene, so they just went along, that they don’t usually behave like this – these parents – but this one time, this one day, they were tired. Maybe they didn’t have food in the house, so they shrugged their shoulders and gave in. I mean, we did, right? Usually, hubby and I take our son straight home after baseball games, but on that day, we said, let’s go buy crap and celebrate with everyone.

I wondered if it was a full-time working parent “thing”: I have seen that many times before, the guilt some parents seem to have in saying no to their children. They don’t want to be the heavies. On weekends, they want to have fun, not discipline.

I considered that maybe the parents liked keeping their kid stuffed. When his mouth was full, he was quiet. He wasn’t loud or obnoxious or demanding, so why not cork him up with some candy or gum or a hot-dog and get a little peace of mind. Truthfully, I don’t know the deal, and it doesn’t matter.

My husband and I have a guiding principle: our child is here to augment our lives, not control us. Granted, it’s easy to have this guiding principle when you have only one child. We have him outnumbered; he can never beat us.

I know others do not share our adult-centered worldview, and I see variations of this “child-running-the-show” theme all the time. I see kids screaming at their parents in the mall, demanding expensive name-brand clothing, shoes and accessories. These kids relentlessly work their parents, generally declaring they won’t be “cool” or have social lives if they don’t have the “right” clothes or purse or game system or cellphone. And that’s okay. That’s what kids do. They cry. They get dramatic. They stomp around. What surprises me is when the parents of these children-behaving-badly cave in to their children’s demands, thus passively accepting their children’s disrespect and assuring a repeat performance in the future.

When I witness these uncomfortable public displays, I often picture myself, a spectator at some weird circus. I can’t help but imagine the child standing center-ring in an over-sized red jacket, black chaps and tall boots acting as a ringmaster. The child is always holding a whip and a microphone. This child is a performer in a well-rehearsed routine. At the same time, I imagine the parents as white fluffy dogs, standing on their scrappy hind legs, being told to wait and then jump and run in a circle. It is a pretty pathetic show.

image by id-iom at flickr.com

You can be sure that as a kid, I asked my parents for all kinds of stuff. And guess what. They generally said no. No, you can’t have a pony. No, you can’t have those jeans. No, you can’t see that movie. No, you can’t sleep at your friend’s house on a school night. No, you can’t eat dessert before dinner. I heard a lot of “no’s” while growing up. I don’t hear too many no’s these days.

What I saw that night at the Hess station was a child masterfully controlling his parents. He knew how to do it. He’d clearly done it before. He knew just how long and how hard to push, and he knew his parents would ultimately jump. He was the ringmaster. Ick. What adult wants to be controlled by his children? It’s our kids’ jobs to push against the boundaries we set (which feel imposed and unfair to them), but it’s our job to remind our children where the boundaries are and to police the borders. To push the kids back, to remind them to be civilized, and to offer consequences to them when they have overstepped, to say no.

Why is it so hard for so many parents to say no?

Stealth-Mode Purse Texters: OMG!

As if The Mosquito Ringtone isn’t enough (see a few blogs back: 5/22/10), teachers also have to worry about making sure students aren’t texting in class. At Monroe Community College, once in a while, I’ve seen students swishing around in their backpacks and purses for extended periods of time. I usually approach these students and quietly tell them to turn off their cell phones. I want my students to know that I notice what they are doing, that their behavior matters to me.

In “How to Successfully Text During Class: Using Your Purse,” Laura Mae instructs students on how they can master stealth-mode texting. She writes:

First, [get a big floppy purse]. Instead of holding your purse in your lap, try laying it sideways on your desk. Keep the opening … facing toward you. Place your phone near the opening. … Your teacher won’t be able to … see your phone … because he/she will be at his/her desk. So you’re good there. If they suspect something and get up to walk around, casually, without looking, push your cellular device back into your purse with your finger just enough so you’re [sic] phone is covered.

If you have a Qwerty keyboard, you can text, but not as easily as if you have an original keypad. If you do have an original keypad, … memorize how many times you need to press each button for the desired letter. I believe every phone has that little bump in the number 5, so that should be easy to navigate to the letters if you find it. Example: While your [sic] not looking, move your finger to the number five. Move up one key. Press three times. Wait a few seconds. Press once. Move back to the center. Move down one key. Press once. I just spelled “cat.”

The dozens of grammar errors in Laura Mae’s article make it clear to me that Laura Mae has not been listening to her instructors for a while. How could she possibly be paying attention when her brain is expending so much energy on composing blind messages as well as thinking about where she has to place her fingers and how many times she has to tap-tap-tap in order to send her messages so that they will be coherent upon receipt? Or maybe it isn’t so much that she isn’t paying attention, but that she seems to care more so much more about her social life than fine-tuning or editing her ideas, important skills which she will need to draw upon in the future.

The pervasiveness of text-messaging in class poses problems for teachers, particularly in the area of  test security, as students can send answers or hints to fellow students via cell phones, destroying the integrity of an entire test with a few keystrokes. Obviously, cheating damages classroom culture, but this is not really the main issue in my essay driven classroom. More annoying is the fact that instruction is interrupted when someone is caught texting. Then the problem extends beyond breaking the rules and not paying attention because instructors have to stop teaching to handle the situation, disrupting the learning environment, wasting time and tuition.

Some people will give me their best Darwinian argument: Students who honestly pay attention will do well on their tests and papers and end up doing better in life then those who are screwing around with their cell phones in class, so let the texters text and grow up to be ditch-diggers. I’m sorry, but I just can’t buy into that argument: Not at the college level and not at the high school or middle school levels either. And my reasons only partially have to do with concern over future skills. I’m genuinely concerned with civility and respect: Two other important values Americans seem to be eagerly flushing down the toilet.

Is it really so much to ask to turn off the technology and respectfully tune-in to and engage with other humans for 50 minutes?

idk.