The Principal’s Office

Our friend, Joe, has posted some really funny things on Facebook. One of my favorites are his lists of “Things I Don’t Care About” like

Kwanza recipes
How to clean a shovel
“Harry & Meghan”
Beings of Light
My cat’s preferred pronouns
Everything Star Wars
Professional Foosball
The Knicks
Tips for reusing mouse traps
The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Assholes

Today, I woke up feeling a little under the weather (rain, rain, go away) and realized that there are things I don’t care about when I’m feeling this way

Smiling at people 
Waving at people
Talking or Listening to people

In other words, I briefly turn into a member of Herman’s Hermits and a charter member of the Curmudgeon Club. I’m not proud of this, mind you, but I use a lot of energy when I’m healthy. Smiling, waving, talking and listening require energy I lack when I’m feeling sick.

Being a social being is part of the social contract, especially where I was raised. In my hometown, you said “thank you” to an adult or you were sent to the principal’s office and your parents were called in for a conference. Manners were important. And respecting parents (other people’s parents, especially) was paramount.

That’s why it’s so amazing to me how few kids have them anymore. It’s my job to be in schools, so I encounter thousands of children from all different types of backgrounds. I know rich and poor and every class in-between. And here’s the truth – the overwhelming majority of kids I meet act like I do when I’m sick. They don’t want to smile, wave, talk or listen. And when I go into a faculty room or walk the halls, it’s often the same from teachers.

This is not new. Thirty years ago, Beth and I noticed the decline in manners among children and, sadly, many adults. Aggressive behaviors and indifference have been steadily rising since we began traveling across the northeast. We see it on the highways, in convenience stores, from telemarketers and, of course, on social media from adults. So, it’s no surprise, really, how children have come to model their elders.

Things change, of course, as kids and adults get to know us. Once we become “Beth & Scott, the people onstage,” we become stars in their community worthy of attention. This doesn’t mean that their manners improve, but their energy does change. They want us to notice them, to listen or to respond to their waving at us. Some get shy, but most want to establish a connection with us once we prove worthy of their attention.

In some ways “manners” are the way we give and get something from one another. It’s the way we connect. Indifference and its sinister cousin, aggression, are what happens when the system of connection breaks down, when we become “sick” as a society and become wholly focused on our own needs. Or we become afraid of reaching out.

So, as I nurse myself back to health I may take a short break from spreading kindness everywhere I go. I may even think about “things I don’t care about” and have a chuckle. But here’s the interesting thing – Joe was among the first to say “give me a call if you want to chat” when he heard I was a little bit ill.

There’s nothing wrong with looking at society or parts of it and saying, “this stinks”, “my salmon came without a lemon” or “that guy is crazy,” but it’s also important that the fabric of decency and connection remain a part of who we are. The waiter in the diner, the man who pumps your gas, the politician who is asking for your vote – they are us. They are our brothers and sisters. And if we think they are not? Then we need to go to the principal’s office.

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