Something happened to me last month that caused me to lose sleep. It taught me what it might feel like to walk in someone else’s shoes, but it also enabled me to experience friendship in a visceral way.
I belong to a local community-based group on Facebook that allows people to give away something they no longer need or ask for something they do need. “One person’s junk is another person’s treasure,” as they say. The idea behind the group is to help your neighbor while at the same time reduce consumerism. The types of “gifts” range from something silly, such as a bottle of hot sauce, to something valuable, such as a $10,000 piece of art.
In an unusual offer, a school teacher offered school supplies and thousands of books, “Come to my classroom on Monday 9-5 and take anything you want…and bring me food since I’ll be there all day!” I had been looking for books that my 4th-grade daughter might actually enjoy reading.
When I saw this offer, I thought this classroom would be an ideal source–better than the library because the books are already curated by the teacher.
I arrived at 9:15am and found the door ajar but no sign of the teacher. I left a note asking if there was a better time and 2 tangerines, then left to go exercise. I figured she would receive sweets from other people, so I thought she would appreciate something healthy. In fact, when I was driving off I saw 3 people walk toward her classroom with what looked like a breakfast treat in a white bag. I came back afterwards and still no one was there. I didn’t take anything (either time) and gave up. On my way home I called my friend, who was one among many who had also expressed interest in the teacher’s offer. We talked about how it was a waste of time (I saved her a trip) and odd that the teacher wasn’t there.
The next day the teacher posted that she was changing the date to Wednesday. Soon after, she claimed that people took items from her classroom without her permission. She was angry and felt violated, and people (many of whom were teachers) were outraged. I decided to reach out to her to let her know what I knew, thinking that it might help. Maybe she knew the people I saw. Maybe the time table would be helpful. If I were her, I would appreciate any info to put the pieces together. Do unto others…right? I messaged her, reiterating that I came and left a note. When she said she changed the time, I didn’t bother pointing out that it was a day and a half after the event. I empathised with her and said, “No good deed goes unpunished” and our conversation ended.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. She then posted close to midnight that she was cancelling the “classroom giveaway” and that people who are not already her friends must not contact her or come anywhere near her or her classroom. Then around 1:30am I noticed she messaged me saying that I must have been the person who stole her items because she went back to her classroom and found my note. She was going to report me to the group administrators and accused me of illegal breaking and entering.
At best, this was a simple misunderstanding but at worst, a situation all gone wrong. It would not be the end of the world if I was expelled from the group, even though I had really been enjoying participating–both giving and accepting gifts. However, the thought that the community, especially the teachers, could think that I caused all this hurt made me sick to my stomach. That’s why my husband urged me to describe my side of the story in public. I was being wrongly accused because I was transparent and identified myself. She brought this all on herself, but unless people closely followed the thread, they might have realized that. She was vociferous that her classroom was her sanctuary and everyone resonated with that. She said she would bring the full force of the district and teachers union against the culprit(s).
Now it was my turn to say, “No good deed goes unpunished.” to myself. I left a note to identify myself, and now all her anger was directed at me. I stayed up until 3am writing a message to the administrators and the teacher, explaining that I had only the best intentions and that I did not take anything. I was hoping I could reach them before they took any action. In situations like these it doesn’t matter who is right and who is wrong because at the end of the day it was a “He said, she said” type of situation. My husband wanted me to cc my friend since she knew what happened, but I didn’t not want to drag anyone else into this, especially without her permission, and did not want to delay my response.
I didn’t get much sleep that night. I was experiencing what it feels like to be wrongly accused. I imagined what it would be like to have the administration/people with clout (our beloved teachers) against me. I shuddered at the thought of charges actually being brought against me. Sound familiar? This is what people of color experience on a daily basis. Black, indigenous and people of color have to choose between doing what’s reasonable or what’s necessary to stay out of trouble.
How does this story end? I received the best gift from my friend. Unsolicited, she called the administrators and vouched for me. Fortunately, the administrators believed my side of the story and the teacher accepted my apology for entering her classroom. The teacher quit the group out of anger because the people who “stole” had not brought back everything that was missing. Thankfully, the group still thrives and I’ve enjoyed many positive experiences since.
Through this experience I learned what it’s like to be on the receiving end of unjust accusation, something our friends of color experience everyday. I also experienced the gift of friendship. It’s nice to be able to have a friend to call on in time of need, but you know you have a true friend when she helps you without your asking.
BILLY’S COMMENTS : This story above reminds me of an early experience at Phillips Academy Andover. One winter evening in front of the Library building, a bunch of us students were having fun throwing snowballs at each other. I had just scooped up some snow and was packing it into a ball . Abruptly Mr Benton the chemistry teacher appeared, grabbed my arm, and accused me of having thrown a snowball that barely missed him. That was not true as the snowball in my hand was the first one I was building, but my English at that time was not good enough to defend myself and by earlier Chinese teaching I was taught never to rebut or embaress one’s teacher. The feeling of being wrongly accused was truly insufferable, however. I actually cried silently for days.