Just when he was thinking, “Stop the planet, I want to get off,” Pat Brothwell bumped into someone who made him reconsider that train of thought.
I was aimlessly perusing Facebook the other day and stumbled across a status that said, “Stop the planet, I want to get off,” which might be my new favorite saying. It was used as a response to a link proclaiming that “selfie” has been added to the dictionary, but I could personally apply it to the kid who asked me whether or not a passport was required to go to New Jersey, any news item coming out of Florida or the number of people on my news feed that share their bowel movements. It could be used in any situations in which find yourself thinking, “There’s no hope left.” Clearly I kid, but on a more serious note when you read about “knocking” being a thing or people camping outside Walmart a week early for Black Friday and the majority of your students can name more Kardashians then Presidents, it’s easy to question the future of mankind.
Then, once in a while, a chance encounter reminds you that not everyone is going the way of the dodo.
The other night I stopped to get my oil changed. I was excited to find myself in the waiting area with two relatively normal looking humans. Usually Murphy’s Law rules my life and I find myself sharing waiting rooms with people with excessive gas or strong political opinions they just can’t contain. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten my book at home and my iPod was dead, so I would have to go an excruciating 15-20 minutes with no entertainment.
Having the attention span of a four year old, I quickly found myself creeping on the two others in the room, effectively rendering myself the weirdo. I first turned my attention to the woman on my left. I’m endlessly fascinated by people who Skype in public. Do they want to share their conversations with the world? Do they realize that strangers are possibly getting a glimpse into their home or dorm room? After a minute or two that seemed way to invasive so I turned to see what the guy to my right was doing. It appeared he was grading papers. I found myself trying to read along as he corrected and must have been doing so way too intently because after a moment he looked up.
“Sorry for being weird,” I said. “I was just seeing what you were grading.” He looked at me blankly. “I’m a teacher too.”
“Well, I’m not a teacher.” This is super awkward, I thought.
“Well, sorry for being creepy then.” He laughed.
“No, fair enough. I’m sorry you caught me off guard. I do IT work. I volunteer at a literacy organization, so this is for one of my students.” I was interested. As part of the required community service hours I needed to complete as an undergrad at a Jesuit college, I’d gotten certified to volunteer at a literacy center as well. Because the training, at 20 hours, was so comprehensive, I didn’t actually do any legitimate volunteer work and just completed the certification program. It turns out that he went to St. Joe’s, and had first learned about the program in the exact same fashion. It was a weird coincidence so we started chatting.
He also got certified his senior year and also didn’t pursue it past that. We laughed at our terrible excuses. I had a heavy course load and no car (aka it would have disrupted my nightly bar schedule, which I’ll point out, I could easily walk to) while he was struggling to maintain his grades and keep up financially (aka taking a cab to Philly’s Old City bars four nights a week is time consuming and expensive). So, I asked him, what and when made him actually begin to volunteer.
I was preparing to be cynical. Lancaster, where I live, is a very religious area. A lot of the students I teach routinely volunteer through their church and a large majority go on missions trips to help in less fortunate locales. While I applaud the selflessness this takes and think it’s a great trait to instill at a young age, the whole “missions” side of it always leaves a bad taste in my mouth. They’re doing something nice, but with ulterior motives of spreading the word of whatever religious organization they’re affiliated with.
I was pleasantly surprised when his response was something along the lines of, “Don’t think I’m trying to convert anyone.” He simply enjoyed giving back.
I’d actually played around with the notion myself, most recently two years ago during a bout of post-collegiate-why-am-I-still-wasting-my-life-spending-all-this-money-and-consuming-all-this-alcohol-and-not-doing-something-more-meaningful aimlessness that is not uncommon for my generation. I thought giving back would make give me a sense of purpose. Additionally, I teach English. I know first-hand how important literacy is and how many people struggle with it.
I went so far as to email a local organization but then got busy with work or something and didn’t follow through. He knew exactly where I’d been coming from. He’d been feeling similarly listless and had just gotten out of a very complicated breakup and felt he wanted to do something more productive with his life, so he forced himself to go down to the center I’d emailed one Saturday morning after a particularly debauched Saturday night, in order to rectify the situation.
Eight years later, he was now in his late thirties and recently married. It was actually something of a source of contention between he and his wife. They were expecting a baby and she wanted him to quit when the baby came, but he wasn’t ready to. They’d figure it out when the time came, he said, shrugging good naturedly.
“I’m actually not much better than a missionary in some ways,” he mused, “I did it to make myself feel like I’m doing something good.” He had a point, but the passion he had for it was the kind you can’t fake.
“You stayed for eight years though, right?” I pointed out. He said it was a point well taken. He’s had two students pass the GED exam so far under his tutelage and said that cliché is it sounded, nothing felt better. When I told him how cool I thought what he was doing was, coupled with what I assumed was an undoubtedly busy schedule, he brushed if off saying he realized how blessed he’d been with his family and the ease things came to him and the socioeconomic levels he grew up in and that he knew it wasn’t a popular opinion, but he felt like we have an obligation, if we could, to pass things forward.
I would’ve picked his brain a bit more, but someone came in and told him his car was ready. I told him it was nice talking to him and he thanked me for that and before he left also shared that it was cool talking to someone about his volunteer work at the literacy center. He always felt sanctimonious bringing it up on his own. “You mean you’re not constantly posting about it on Facebook?” I said as he left.
“Those people are the worst,” he conceded and went to go see the damage on his vehicle. I couldn’t help but be in a good mood afterwards. It was also a nice reminder that despite what we might like to think, there are still just some plain old good guys out there. While I might not know anything else about him, I know he’s a guy who has a lot on his plate but is still finding time to help others without any ulterior motive or accolades. He’s the kind of guy who makes you say, “Let the planet keep going, I don’t have to get off just yet. “
Moments later the guy who was supposed to simply change my oil came out and listed about eight reasons my recently inspected car was in heinous condition. He could, of course, fix all of them for me with no problem at all. The only thing is it would be much more than the $24.50 I’d been planning on parting with. When pressed, he did confirm he worked for commission.
Maybe I would get off at the next stop after all, if only for a breather.