fork in the road

Image courtesy of sacks08

It was my first year of college and I was anxious to find out who my dorm roommate was going to be that year. I had been in this dorm in a previous year for high school (I attended a boarding school on the same campus), so I felt like I was in my element. That was when Greg* walked in. He was big. Really big. It turns out he was a weightlifter and even though he was wearing a fairly puffy jacket on this cool fall afternoon, I could tell he would be able to snap me in half if he really wanted to. I just hoped he didn’t want to.

It turned out that Greg was a big softy. While he was dedicated to his weight training, he was a pacifist and as kind as he was muscular. He kept his side of the room in immaculate condition and kept a rigid schedule of going to bed early so he could get up early to work out, doing his homework before going out, and reading a book in the evening. I could set my watch to him; he was that dependable.

I, on the other hand, was having too much fun to worry about such trivial things as studying, cleaning, and exercising regularly. Actually, I was pretty much the opposite of Greg. While he was studying, I was out with friends avoiding my work. While he was working out, I was sleeping. When he was reading, I was playing games on the computer and cranking my music much too loudly.

I liked Greg. Something about him intrigued me and made me feel a bit guilty about my attitude towards work and exercise. Also, no matter how much I didn’t respect his space (my stuff flowed out of my part of the room and into his section), his time (I would wander in really, really late and turn on the light so I could get ready for bed), or his need to get work done (my music), he never, ever complained. I mean it. I never heard a bad word come out of his mouth. Instead, he was always a complete gentleman and would even do things like invite me over to his parent’s place for dinner since they only lived a short drive from the school. I went throughout the year without giving him much thought at all. I never gave much thought to how I was acting or treating him. I was too busy trying to impress my friends.

After spending two years in a fairly strict boarding school, the latitude given us in college felt like freedom. All those things they told us not to do over the past two years went out the window as I tried to walk my own path. I started hanging out with two guys who could care less about college as they were only there because they won tuition in a draw (long story for another time). We had a lot of fun, but there were a lot of times that I did things I didn’t really want to do, but I participated only because I felt the pressure to conform. In turn, I started pressuring others to join in or feel our rejection. I didn’t realize that was what I was doing, but in reality, I was hurting a lot of people in the process without even knowing it.

Then came the meeting. The Meeting. Our resident assistants asked one of the higher-ups in student services along with a couple of professors to meet with all of the men in the dorm to talk about bullying and some of the issues that had come up during the semester. Being a fairly conservative school, I thought they were just being too sensitive and so my friends and I sat at the back and mostly zoned out during the meeting. They talked about some of the things we had done along with things some others had done before calling on one of the men from the dorm to talk about his experience. I sat up a bit since I knew he was one of the men we tended to give a hard time to and I was worried we were about to be exposed by name. While he did talk about some of the things we had done, he never mentioned us by name. We all breathed a sigh of relief and settled back into our chairs. That was when The Challenge happened. The Challenge, as he called it, was to ask those who felt the need to apologize to those they had hurt to step up and approach those they had wronged and ask them for forgiveness. “Yikes! Not me!” I thought. Slowly, some people got up and went over to others to ask for forgiveness, but I stayed where I was.

Then it happened. Greg got up. I was stunned. Who could he have wronged? He couldn’t hurt a fly! He started walking my direction; I started looking around for his target. Then he stopped in front of me, dropped to his knees and asked me for forgiveness. I was stunned. I had no idea why he was doing this. “Why?” I asked. “I haven’t been a good roommate to you. I have often wanted you to leave me alone and had hoped you would leave. That isn’t what you deserve. I am sorry” he explained. I broke. Something inside of me snapped and I started to cry. I didn’t know why, but all I knew was that this was an incredible gift that I didn’t deserve.

I changed in that moment. Really. I look back at moments in my life when my trajectory changed and this was one of those pivotal moments. I would love to say that I changed overnight, but it didn’t. It was a long process, but from that moment on, I started to think of my actions in the light of others. I also learned a valuable lesson on what it means to pressure others, “bullying” others, into doing what you want them to do.

I look at what is happening with the media, social pressures, social media, and so forth, and I see a disturbing trend. While we want to make a difference in helping society change for the better, especially in areas of equality and rights, we sometimes overstep our bounds and wander into the waters of “bullying” others to change. While I was guilty of falling under the pressure of my peers and doing the same thing to others, Greg was quietly demonstrating to me what it meant to be an agent of real change. I saw it, I wanted it, but I just didn’t know it. It wasn’t until he made that step towards me did I realize how much I needed or wanted to change for the better. My pressure on others forced some to conform, but it was only acting, a show for all to see. Greg’s action were genuine and sincere, graciously changing me from the inside out.

If we really want to make a difference in areas of equality in education or other areas of society, we need to be like Greg, thinking of others and how our actions can often be more powerful than shame or scorn. I am not advocating for inaction, but for loving action: change from the inside out. Changing someone’s behaviour only changes their actions; changing their attitude towards something also changes their actions, and often for good.

I think of some of the remarkable people in the world who have transformed society through their actions: Rosa Parks, William Wilberforce, Mahatma GandhiChiune Sugihara, and Ginetta Sagan. These people wanted to see real change, not just in action, but in attitude and understanding. As teachers, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to become agents of change. When we focus on actions, we fail to get deeper and allow for real transformation to take place. Rules for the sake of controlling a student’s action will not do any good. Allowing students to become part of this change, from the inside out, by allowing them to see the reasons behind the rules, we give them the chance to reset their own trajectory and become agents of change themselves.

For our part online and in face-to-face communication with one another, we need to become more aware of the difference between forcing someone to change and leading someone to real change. Mocking others, shaming them, or despising them will not transform them. Greg thought a lot of things about me that weren’t kind, even though they were justified. Instead he chose to think about the person behind the actions and hoped that he could help me become the man he wanted me to be. He did that in part through his actions and inaction. He could have said more, gotten justifiably angry, but he didn’t. Instead, he asked me, ME, for forgiveness. I will never be the same.

* Greg is not his real name. I have lost contact with him over the years and I would have asked for his permission to use his real name, but I suspect he wouldn’t have given me the green light on that. He is just to humble to do that.

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