Friday, December 5, 2008

What I Learned From the Generosity of Others


This post is a bit different for me. Robert Hruzek at Middle Zone Musings put this challenge to me, and I decided to accept. (Anyone can participate.) You'll note, however, that this post actually does have something to do with the workplace, and the difference one person can make on the job.


Everyone has a story about 9/11 – where they were and who they were with when they learned of the terrorist attacks.

I was in a class with about 50 other journalists from around the country as part of a fellowship for The Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University Maryland. As you can imagine, half the class left immediately to head back to their newspapers to help with the coverage, while many were dispatched for nearby Washington, D.C. or even New York.

As the days went by, the rest of us continued to meet for classes. We phoned home as often as we could, talking to our families and trying to figure out when the heck (or even if) we could get home.

Several days later, it was time for me to catch my flight home. Unbelievably, the Baltimore airport had opened just that day and was offering limited flights. Things were touch and go – the airport was offering no guarantees about flight times.

Of course the airport was swarming with National Guard troops, Maryland Highway Patrol and what appeared to be additional private security. People were jumpy – an abandoned backpack immediately sent up an alarm and security came immediately. (The guy who left it while he went to the bathroom was greatly embarrassed when he was questioned and had to reveal the pack contained an extra set of underwear and a novel.)

Hour after hour I sat in the airport, watching it grow dark outside as the disembodied voice over the intercom system continued to note another flight had been cancelled. Eight hours went by when it came time for my flight – which had been rescheduled numerous times – and I stepped up to the ticket counter to be checked in once again.

A woman behind me asked me where I was headed. “I’m headed home, I hope,” I said. “I’m trying to get home to my husband and kids.”

Conversation died after that as we watched a group of intoxicated young men begin to harass a ticket agent who appeared to be Middle Eastern. It was clear they had passed the time in the airport bar.

By that point, I was numb. Both my parents had died recently, passing away within 17 months of each other, followed by my grandfather three months later. All the grief from the attacks and my own personal loss was a lead ball in my stomach. I waited for my turn to get a ticket.

As I finally stepped up to the counter, the employee began tapping into his computer. “This is our only flight tonight. We’ll see what we can do. We’re obviously overbooked,” he said.

I nodded and headed back to my seat, prepared to wait some more. I figured I’d be spending the night in the airport.

Within minutes, he called my name.

“I heard you say you have children,” he said.

“Yes.”

“And you want to get home.”

“Yes.”

“Have a good trip,” he said, handing me a ticket.

“Thank you,” I said, smiling.

I gazed at him for a moment, and he smiled back. A world of understanding passed between us at that moment. He was the Middle Eastern employee who had taken the abuse from the drunken men. But I saw him only as a man trying to get a mother back home to her children.

As I got onto the plane, I began making my way toward the back, figuring my seat was somewhere just shy of the onboard toilet. A flight attendant looked at my ticket, and soon corrected me.

“You’re in first class,” she said.

Surprised, I found my seat. As I was served a wonderful meal, my weary head resting on a soft pillow, I thought of that employee who decided to make sure I got on that flight not just because it was his job, but because he had chosen to step away from all the ugliness and simply do a generous thing for a stranger.

I found this quote from Quaker missionary Stephen Grellet that sums up my thoughts on what I learned: “I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good thing, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow human being let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”




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