Life Lessons: Standing Idly By

March 15, 2011 at 4:01 pm Leave a comment

In mid-2010, I entered an essay in the 2nd annual Life Lesson Essay Contest hosted by Real Simple magazine.  The essay topic?  Finish this sentence: I never thought I’d…

I didn’t win, of course, although a slight (okay, large) part of me dreamed I would.  But there are thousands and thousands of entries, and thousands and thousands of talented writers.  In fact, I just finished reading the winning essay in the April issue of Real Simple.   And there is a reason why her article won: it is excellent.

But the silver lining is that I can now share the piece I wrote with you.  (Contest rules precluded me from publishing the essay before; to be considered for publication, the essay could not be previously published in any fashion.)  Here ya go.


You hear the stories all the time: stories about people who stand by while someone is mugged, who walk around someone lying hurt in the street, who do nothing and say nothing when their neighbor walks out the front door with a blackened eye and busted-up lip after a particularly loud night with her spouse.  As a girl from the midwest, these were stories from the big cities, where people had so many of their own problems that they couldn’t expend one iota of energy on others’ dramas.  In my head, I would never be so callous and jaded as to ignore someone who obviously needed my help.  I could be relied upon in a crisis, and I would step up and help others without hesitation the moment the opportunity presented itself.

I never expected to be someone who did nothing.

As college freshmen go, I considered myself to be fairly mature.  My parents had raised me to be conscientious, polite, and hard-working.  They had also shown me – by example – the definitions for generosity and kindness and compassion.  At eighteen, I wasn’t worldly or wise, but I had a big heart and a good head on my shoulders.  I was someone others expected to be level-headed in a crisis, looked upon as a leader and a doer.

I carried a full load of courses, and participated in a college-sponsored showchoir that practiced and performed at least ten hours each week.  Despite these demands on my time, when a college instructor offered me a position as her assistant three hours each week, I jumped at the chance to earn a very-little-bit of cash.

Her closet-sized office was located just off the main gymnasium, an arrangement that was less a testament to her status on campus than a report on the college’s dire need for more office space.  She shared a hallway with three other teachers, all of them refugees from other departments who had been shoved into the only offices available.  The building always smelled faintly of sweat and a fog of humidity hung over the hallway, generated by the hard work of athletes practicing in the adjacent gym.

My, ah, work space was a tiny desk shoved into the only available corner of her office, housing only a few pencils and a basket containing the papers I was supposed to grade as part of my job.  The view from my desk was a brick wall in front, and a bookshelf to either side of me; my back was directly to the door of the office.  Every time someone walked by our shoebox, they were heralded by a squeak-squeak-squeaking on the twice-daily mopped and waxed floor of the hallway.

The office directly next door was occupied by an older teacher, and which courses she taught I never knew.  I never learned her name.  I don’t think we ever had a conversation.  She was not one of the teachers in the departments I frequented.  I only knew her by sight and sound; she used a walker, and so her squeak-squeak-squeaking down the hallway was distinguishable because of its different rhythm.

One beautiful spring day, I was alone in the office, as the teacher I worked for often had a class or a meeting during my scheduled work hours.  I had just sat down at my desk when I caught the sound of the walker and its owner coming down the hallway.  But this time, something was different.  As I picked up a red pent – the kind favored by teachers and dreaded by students for grading and commenting – the squeaking was halted by a loud thump.  It was not followed by a cry of pain or surprise, it was merely a loud thump followed by an equally loud silence.

Curious, I went to the door and looked out.  Our neighbor had fallen on the slick floor, lost her balance despite the assistance of her walker.  It looked as if her fall had been broken by her mouth; blood was pooled both on the floor and on her chin.  She looked dazed, as if she wasn’t quite sure how or why she had fallen, and wasn’t sure how or even why to get back up.

I know she saw me.  As I peered out from the office door, she wiped her chin and raised her head, her eyes meeting mine.  She said nothing, only looked at me in a way that seemed to say, “Now what do I do?”  She never spoke, not even when I broke her gaze and slowly walked backwards through the door and back into the office.

I should have gone to her.  In my head, I’ve replayed the scene a hundred, thousand, million times, and each time I’ve gone to help her, called for assistance, gotten her back on her feet, fetched something to help clean her face.

Yet I did nothing.  I retreated back to the safety of the office, feeling a bit sick to my stomach.  I didn’t call for help.  Instead, I hid.  I listened for sounds from the hallway that indicated she was getting up, she was fine, I wasn’t needed after all.  What I heard, after a few minutes, was the sound of someone else finding her lying there, helping her up, doing everything I should have done.

When I look back at it now, I wonder why I didn’t help.  I could blame it on the fact that I was eighteen, still just a kid, but I don’t let myself get away with that excuse.  I was old enough to know better.  In the end, I think it came down to that age-old reason why most of us don’t help others in need.  I just didn’t want to get involved.

In the sixteen years that have by since that incident, I have tried to redeem myself.  When someone is hurting now, I always try to do something, even if it’s just the littlest something.  I can still remember her eyes meeting mine, admonishing me to be a solution to the problem, and it drives me to go out of my way to help out.  But as much as I try, I know all those somethings will never make up for the time I did nothing.


Entry filed under: Life in general.

Comedy by Alissa Oh, Lord, what have I done???

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