"A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops." ~ Henry B. Adams
While Mr. Adams meant for this post to be about professional teachers, I'm learning that we are all always teachers, just as we are all always students. Every moment that we're living, we're teaching. What we teach to others says an awful lot about who we are and the significance of our lives. Just as we get what we give, we learn what we teach. What we teach is our contribution to humanity, and this is not something to be taken lightly.
What I try to be mindful of in every moment is that every action we take, every word we say has true lasting effects that we will never know. That applies to every stranger we meet, as well as everyone in our personal and professional lives. That means every personal interaction, as well as every anonymous interaction. There is no excuse for leaving out please, thank you, and a smile. There is no excuse for not doing what we say we will do. Being polite, courteous, gracious, and follow-through will get us farther in this world than anything else.
Years later, others will still be thinking about what we said and did and how we treated them. I'd prefer they think well of me than ill of me. And sometimes that requires swallowing my pride a little bit, and not saying exactly what I think all of the time. Publilius Syrus got it right when he said, "I have often regretted my speech, never my silence." I've learned that lesson many times over, the hard way. A little filter is good.
I'm not saying that this is easy to always remember or do. I try to get it as right as I can as often as I can. Sometimes I fall short and in the aftermath I feel a bit badly. I just double-down my efforts and try to do better going forward. At the same time that I accepted that we're all lifelong teachers and students, I also gave up the pursuit of perfection - both realizations have helped enormously.
When I got into my apartment building elevator a few weeks ago, a man I've never met before stepped in after me. I had just gotten home from a rough day, and I wasn't feeling particularly cheery. I could have looked down at my feet, lost in my own sad thoughts. Instead I looked up and smiled at the man in the elevator.
He smiled and asked me, "are you from Vermont?" I laughed.
"No, I'm not," I said, "but I spent a summer there doing a theatre internship when I was in college."
"Oh," he said. "Are they nice there in Vermont?"
"Very," I said.
"You just look like a very nice person. And I always associate being very nice with being from Vermont. You look very Vermonty."
"Well, thank you," I giggled.
"See - that's what I mean," he said. "So polite, those people from Vermont."
He hopped off the elevator and bid me good night. A small interaction considering all of the interactions I had that day. I don't know his name. He doesn't know mine. I may never see him again. But weeks later, I'm still thinking of him. I smiled to myself. Vermonty - that's a last impression I can live with.