I called a friend last week to chat, but she couldn’t talk for long because she was doing the lion’s share of a group project. We spoke long enough for her to give me the grim details of what she had to do and why she was the one who had gotten stuck with finishing everything in time for their presentation. It was the same story I’ve seen repeated over and over again…the one so familiar to us all. One person, one committed person, gets taken advantage of by all the others because he or she has a reputation for following through.
My grandmother used to talk to me about the big themes of life by telling me short little phrases. One of the most memorable ones began with her telling me that I would get all the recognition I wanted by investing all of my heart in doing my job well. Then people would recognize my accomplishment, and I would feel good about the attention I received. She was right. Whenever I “acted out” or did something half-heartedly, I would hear her voice in my head chastising me for not trying my best.
My grandmother also taught me about the nature of respect. She told me that by doing things for myself I would earn worthy recognition, but that I would not earn respect. “Respect,” said my grandmother, “comes when you do not just do things for yourself, but you do things for others.” That’s why she insisted that I respect the people in our community who did things for us — my teachers, the person who rang up our groceries at the market, the firefighters who waved hello to us – because not only did they do things well, they did things that aided and assisted other people’s lives.
My friend’s challenge with her project group has made me reflect on respect. All of us high school students are trying to learn independent skills and to gain recognition for what we accomplish with those skills. After all, that recognition is what’s going to get us into college. But aren’t we often thrown together in situations that require us to do a part of a task that affects other people? Aren’t we often expected to contribute our piece at a certain quality level on a certain time schedule? These are the moments when we have the chance to learn how to earn respect. These are also the moments when we can let ourselves and others down, fail our commitments, and are tagged with the label of “unreliable.”
Some of us do hard work for others. We volunteer at non-profits, tutor struggling peers, and find ways to make others’ work easier. Sadly, sometimes we are still driven by a wish to add just another accomplishment to the list for our college applications. Are we really allowing ourselves to connect with the people we serve in the same way that the adults around us serve us every day? Are we letting the moment of service change the way we interact with others and help us grow from the experience? If colleges not only required us to send in lists of our accomplishments but also asked our community, “Has this person earned your respect?” would our behaviors towards one another change?