Kerrying On

A New Gratitude

Norman Chadwick didn’t mind walking to high school even though it was nine blocks away. He did mind the fact that most of the students who shared his route made fun of his shoes.

“Hey, Clodhopper,” the boys would shout as they passed by Norman. “Do you think your shoes are big enough?” Or, if they were feeling especially clever: “Hey Clod, Sasquatch called and he wants his shoes back.”

This particular Monday, Norman (big shoes and all) walked into the community’s cream colored, 1930s, WPA high school building and quietly pressed his way through a tangle of students rummaging through their lockers. Buck Forester, the school’s star linebacker, saw Norman coming and shouted: “Hey Clod, how’s ‘bout an Elvis song!”

Norman enjoyed performing Presley numbers in the hallway. A throng of students would gather and laugh and clap as he climbed onto a bench, strummed on his imaginary guitar, and launched into his best imitation of “The King.” But not without repercussions. As much as Norman enjoyed performing, no one on the faculty approved of his spontaneous shows—especially Mr. Hunter, the football coach.

“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” Norman bellowed to a group of kids gathering near Buck’s locker, “cryin’ all the time.”

“Go for it!” Buck shouted, “Rock out!”

The crowd grew as Norman’s tortured gyrations and off-pitch caterwauling reached new heights of awkwardness.

“You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.”

And then, as the crowd’s derisive hoots and hollers reached their zenith, Buck yelled: “Go Clod! Work your guitar, swing those hips, and . . .”

Bang! Buck’s locker exploded as Coach Hunter grabbed Buck by the collar and lifted him off his feet. The once-grinning linebacker was now pinned to his locker—grimacing in pain while his feet frantically banged out a call for help.

“Shame on you!” Mr. Hunter barked to the crowd as he lowered Buck to the floor. “Go straight to your classes! You all know better than this!”

The moment Buck regained his footing, he scurried off to his upcoming class while complaining to anyone within earshot that the coach had attacked him even though he had just been “kidding around.” Coach Hunter took several deep breaths, shook his head in disgust, and escorted Norman to the special-education classroom.

For the next few days, students talked about what had taken place. Some focused on the coach’s violent outburst, while others discussed how cruel Buck had been in the first place. After all, Buck and his friends had egged on a special-needs tenth-grader who thought he was being applauded for his Elvis act, when he was actually being ridiculed. It was disgraceful. And yet, nobody tried to intervene. A few kids wanted to shut down the spectacle, but they didn’t know what to say or do.

Decades have passed since that shameful episode and the question still remains: “What’s the best way for an individual to express his or her disapproval when others start to behave inappropriately? Equally important, how does one respond without mirroring Coach Hunter’s regrettable reaction?

To find an example of how to deal effectively with a breach of civility (from minor acts of disrespect to full-fledged episodes of bullying or harassment) we need not travel any farther than a few paces down the hall from the spot where Coach Hunter demonstrated how not to deal with Buck, the errant linebacker. This time, I was privy to the incident in question. Actually, I was part of the incident. To be totally honest, I was the incident. It took place on the first day of my tenth-grade geometry class. Miss Grace, the school’s aging geometer, had been lecturing at the chalkboard when I made a wisecrack to a classmate across the room. Miss Grace turned to face me and said, “Why, Kerry, you talked while I was talking!”

My first thought was, “Of course! That’s how things work around here. It’s how students make school tolerable.” Only, on this day, when Miss Grace said that I had talked while she was talking, her look of utter shock and deep disappointment was something you’d expect to accompany an outcry such as: “Why, Kerry, you robbed an orphanage!”

The impact of Miss Grace’s startled reaction and look of total disappointment was immediate. Classmates who usually laughed at my tomfoolery were now chastising me. “What were you thinking?” asked Susan LaMont (the girl seated next to me). “Miss Grace was talking. You can’t talk while Miss Grace is talking.”

So powerful had been our geometry teacher’s reaction, it wasn’t long until everyone in her class adhered to her rules of comportment. Weighing in at about 90 pounds and with less than a year until she retired, Miss Grace’s wide-eyed look of astonishment and disapproval carried with it a force that Mr. Hunter had been unable to generate with a choke hold. The coach was correct in recognizing that what Buck and his friends had been doing was shameful, but when he allowed his disappointment to grow into a violent reaction, he created a whole new set of problems.

So, what should a person do in order to follow Miss Grace’s positive example while avoiding Mr. Hunter’s egregious reaction?

When people around you begin to grossly misbehave, it’s important that you do something. Fleeing the scene or clamming up only makes matters worse. For instance, turning a blind eye to a racist comment, or shrugging off a harassing remark, suggests that you’re giving tacit approval to dreadful behavior. Not good. It’s also unwise to verbally attack the original offenders for their disrespectful actions and then strut around triumphantly as if your own brand of abuse just saved the day. Instead, it’s best to replace silence and anger with surprise and disappointment. Acting surprised may not eliminate dreadful behavior in a single stroke, but it helps set a clear standard. Showing disappointment provides a proper sense of magnitude without being abusive on its own.

And now, returning to the hallway kids . . . one might predict that recent advances in the social sciences have led to improvements in how humans treat one another. Even members of that rowdy hallway bunch may have picked up a few social skills along the way. Then again, the explosive arguments and debates that are repeatedly aired on TV are so crammed full of vile tirades and personal attacks that it makes one question the viability of one’s own species. Maybe we aren’t getting any better. Maybe we’re getting worse.

Fortunately (according to former classmates who are in the know) most members of Buck’s hallway gang have emotionally and tactically matured—replacing cheap shots and verbal attacks with acts of respect and benevolence. Equally encouraging, many of the individuals who had once been voiceless dissenters have learned to step out of the shadows and tactfully, yet firmly, deal with inappropriate behavior. And as far as Norman is concerned, I’m told that he’s treated with the kindness and respect he deserves—as a matter of course.

And for this . . . I’m truly grateful.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

7 thoughts on “A New Gratitude”

  1. Thanks for your insight, I would like some canned phrases for such incidents that won’t cite the current disrespect of our society when people are called out for their actions.

  2. I think that maybe a sincere personal conversation, after the event, may be a healthy and effective response. It’s difficult to come up with exactly the right response that will “turn the crowd” in the moment. But fortunately, in most work and personal situations, you have more than the moment, in which to build relationships. And the teams we work in are not just a bunch of students who happen to be in the hallway at the given time. So one can build from a private conversation to a team agreement as to how we want to do things. It may not be instant, but it can be worthwhile.

  3. Most often these days the bulling I see is motivated by racial discrimintation. When someone is saying “go back to where you came from” how does the surprise and disappointment idea work. It feels a little dangerous to me.

    I have been using the strategy of talking to the person who is being attacked . Sitting next to her, asking if she is ok and ignoring the bully. But have often wished I could address the issue directly. Can you tell us a story about how it did go well that’s more about dealing with strangers?

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