WHEN I WAS A BOY, my father would take my brother and me for a swim in the lake in the town where I now live. Then it was a farming community of about 3,500. Today it is a commuting community of about 10,500. From my boyhood spot in the back seat of the two-toned 1957 Chevy, I noticed how my father would wave to other drivers we passed as we made our way to the lake. Most would respond with a simple wave. Others would raise the four fingers curved around the top of the steering wheel as their acknowledgment; some would raise a finger to the brim of their baseball hat.
When we’d turn the corner at the top of the long hill that led to the lake, we would pass a farmhouse where an elderly couple would be sitting on the porch. Make sure you wave, my father would say. And we did, and they would always wave back.
Now, I travel other country roads in that same town as I take my evening walk. I do my best to sustain the custom I learned as a boy but must confess to mixed results. Although most drivers return my wave, many appear to do so begrudgingly, seeming almost embarrassed, as if they’re not quite sure what to make of this guy whom they do not know walking down the road and waving to them.
I wonder what has happened to cause the devolution of our local custom. It seems no longer enough to acknowledge as we pass that we share the same fine evening, the still unspoiled tree-lined roads, the clear, crisp autumn air. It seems rather this acknowledgment is something for which we must qualify — that it is no longer enough to realize that time is short and we might as well be kind.
My first teaching job was in Battery Park High School in rural South Carolina. My students were the poorest in the state, among the poorest in the country, but they were rich in tradition and spirit. One such tradition came from the deep resources of their faith and their music — the oratorical device call-and-response, in which the preacher declares and the congregation responds. At Battery, teachers would begin an early class by declaring, “It’s a great day,” and the students would respond: “And a righteous morning.” I, too, would do this on occasion, on particularly fine Carolina mornings, and when I did, the response was always bounteous, always joyful.
Now I teach a seminar to undergraduates on education policy on Tuesday evenings. I am always the first to arrive for the opening class of the semester so that I can say hi or hello or good evening to each student as he or she enters the room. They are caught off guard, as if they would much prefer that I focus on shuffling papers on the table in front of me, head down, waiting for the bell to ring.
There are no bells on Tuesday evenings. Resourcefully, my students conjure up awkward responses, knowing that manners require something in return and that I am, after all, the guy who will one day issue them a grade. By the third or fourth week, however, something shifts and they become the first to say hi. I see this as a hopeful sign.
I believe it is not good if we become so self-absorbed and harried that we fail to acknowledge one another’s presence — our common interest in a good day, a fine sunset, and a better tomorrow. We are on this journey together, and the journey is short. While we are on it, we should say hi to our fellow travelers.
It is a great day and a righteous morning.
David Roach lives in Sutton. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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