There is a man who works at my kids’ elementary school who has special needs. I’ve never talked to him. I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t even know his name. He helps with some of the facility management at the school and even though I’ve often seen him riding around on his motorized scooter…I’ve never really had a reason to interact with him.
But today I did.
I was bringing the homework folders I had been working on in the hall into my daughter’s kindergarten class when his scooter suddenly stopped right outside her classroom door and seemed to be out of power. I watched him fiddle with switches and work the key, but it was obvious that there was something wrong with it…at the very least its battery was dead. I stood there behind him, waiting to see if he could get it started again and even though it was obvious to me that it wasn’t going to work, I did something that I’m pretty ashamed of.
I hesitated to help.
I didn’t know if he wanted my help. I didn’t know if by offering my assistance…if that would embarrass him in some way. I didn’t know if I would say something wrong when I offered and make us both feel uncomfortable.
For a moment…I just didn’t know what needed to be done.
In that moment of hesitation, I watched in complete disbelief, as staff members passed by him in the hall, not even giving him a second glance. Not one person that he worked with day in and day out checked to see if he was okay. They went about their business, walking with purpose, and keeping their eyes averted from the problem.
I put down the basket I was carrying and asked if there was anything I could do. His slurred speech made communication a little hard, but eventually, he got a hold of the forearm crutches he carried in the scooter and motioned for me to push the scooter down the hall, around the corner, and into a room that would get it out of the way. And as I pushed, also trying to steer it at the same time, once again, we passed his coworkers, going about their days, talking about what they had done over the weekend and other insignificant things while I struggled with the scooter. And he limped behind me on his crutches.
To say I was disappointed in this lack of…well…humanity…is an understatement. How people could watch someone else struggle without even giving a thought to helping was unreal to me. I was angry and judgmental and flat-out annoyed with the situation.
And then I had to remind myself that even though I had helped him…I had hesitated before I offered.
What is it about helping others that makes us feel so awkward? You know…that moment of indecision we have before we move to help someone who clearly needs it? I guess part of it is that we don’t know what to do, what to say, and what will make them feel better and we’re worried about feeling foolish or offensive. And that emotional clumsiness comes whether we know the person or not. I have the same insecurities about helping a stranger as I do a friend. And the truth is…it’s a hell of a lot easier to walk away and keep your eyes away from the problem than it is to walk up to it and boldly try to help.
But as I left the school this morning, I decided something: It’s better to offer to help and risk embarrassment or an uneasy moment rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. And many times it’s better to accept that offer, however clumsy it might be, rather than struggle with the problem alone.
I may have dented a few walls this morning, trying to get that man and his scooter down the hall.
But at least I didn’t just walk on by.