Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Little Things Matter

I've never been real comfortable with the "R word" argument. This is not to say that I don't think it's an ugly word, but I often feel like I'm slogging uphill on that particular battle and some days it is just too steep.

Last week a commenter expressed the sentiment that sometimes people are just too sensitive about what other people say. I couldn't agree more. Sometimes it feels like people are just looking for something to be upset about and so I hesitate to post things like a particular word or phrase that I dislike.

I got reminded of something this weekend though. I was reminded that just because a thing is hard to do, that doesn't mean it isn't worth doing.

Thanks to the wonder that is Facebook, I recently connected with a former student of mine. While he was my student, he'd gone through a pretty rough time and I had tried a number of things to try to keep him in school. My final step was driving out to the building he was living in and telling him that he needed to come to school.

It felt like a pretty pointless gesture at the time. The odds against him were huge--he was living on his own, supporting himself, he was learning disabled, and had little in the way of a support system. As I stood on the front porch of a house he was living in (a mattress on the floor and no electricity), watching the police circle the block, I felt completely helpless.

He went on to finish high school and these days he's in the army, currently stationed in Iraq, and has a family of his own.

Today on Facebook he thanked me for "everything" I'd "done for him." Truthfully, the effort I put out was small compared to so many other things I've done. I was doing more than teachers are expected to do, but in the grand scheme of things, it wasn't difficult or hard.

I realized that the little things do matter; the details can be important when we're dealing with other people.

Those little incidental changes can add up: smiling at the person in a wheelchair rather than looking away, catching yourself when you're about to call something "retarded," refusing to laugh when a friend tells a racist joke. Maybe people are too sensitive, maybe they should lighten up, but that doesn't mean that we can't try to be better. Slowly, these things gain momentum and we never know what the tipping point will be.

We will fail. We'll use a word we wish we didn't. We'll offend someone when we mean no harm. We will make mistakes. We should keep trying because the little things matter. They do.

Charlie learning about plants. He felt like he needed to taste the soil--strictly for research purposes, of course.