Sunday, March 27, 2011

the smallest acts

I confess...I am a big believer in the value of small acts.  High school was miserable for me, I was successful academically but the social world was a mystery.  I went out for maybe five social events in my entire high school career.  College was much better but I still entered with a social disadvantage.  I still have a distinct lack of social confidence.  But a bit of a boost, a bit of a lesson in acceptance and welcoming, came from on boy.  We'll call him SG for Smilin' Guy.

SG was a sophomore.  He was involved in the orientation program (called "Customs"...we had 2-3 sophomores living with freshman as advisors of sorts...RAs with no actual power) but wasn't assigned to my group.  Somehow, he knew my name and every time we passed, he said "Hi Cheryl.".  It was simple.  And probably not something he ever thought about.  It seemed natural to him.  But, for reasons I can't quite express, it made a world of difference to me. I'd pushed my way through crowded high school hallways where I saw few welcoming faces (huge HS, very tracked so I only knew the "honors-level" crew in my year).  Here was someone who had no reason to know me but did and always took the moment to greet me.  It made me feel welcome.  I certainly thought he was cute but it was never a crush or anything like that.  It still made a world of difference.

And I always wanted to tell him but I felt awkward.  I actually have often gone out of my way to thank people for little things.  I'd send notes through campus mail to say thanks to people who made a difference to me...both friends and also more casual acquaintances whose little kindnesses mattered.  But I never told SG.  It felt too silly.  I had the perfect moment.  It was near the end of his senior year and we were both waiting to speak to a professor.  We were in the hallway of Woodside Cottage, a small house converted into offices for the English department.  It was quiet and would have been an easy moment to tell him...the professor would come soon so it wouldn't linger oddly.  But I didn't do it.

I got to law school and was again thrown off-balance socially.  I got lucky and found that some wise person picked the perfect suitemates for me and found some great friends even before the first day.  And, when the class gathered for some sort of mingling opportunity, I found SG was among the first years (aside: there were three Haverford grads in my UVA Law class and SIX in the class below us...I think that, if you looked at it in proportion to size of graduating class, there were more of us than folks who came from UVA undergrad).  I knew the universe had some message for me.  Some unfinished business.

SG and I were, again, friendly but not quite friends.  One day, I'll admit it was after a few drinks, I found SG alone on a bench in the school.  Using the added courage of being tipsy, I told him.  I'm not sure what words I used but I told him I had always meant to thank him.  That the small act of knowing my name and greeting me had made a world of difference to me.  He was clearly surprised, I doubt he could have guessed that something that was so natural to him mattered so much to me, but he took it well.  I eventually told the story to folks who selected the law school equivalent of orientation folks, which apparently made him even more of a shoo-in for selection.  I know he gave me props at one point too.

It's a small story, but I think there's a lot there.  People make huge sacrifices and sweeping gestures and they certainly count, but I think it is the smallest acts that matter the most.  Yesterday, MM used my car to pick up some gas for lawn equipment and topped off my tank while he was there.  It wasn't much (I'd had it 3/4 full) and he didn't say a word, but it was a small act of thoughtfulness.  And it made me smile.  Small acts rarely receive verbal gratitude, especially not the kind that compares to some big gesture.  But they still matter, often more than the giver realizes.

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