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Jun 9 2014

Why An Ignorant Comment At Work Made Me Speak Up

By at 2:42 pm

parking-meter

I was late. Lateness isn’t a new concept for me–ever since my daughters’ births, my whole life seems to run behind schedule–but that day, it was especially bad.

I was going to be late for work and I was supposed to represent my school at an important meeting. It was held on the other side of the city, and I knew I’d have to hustle. The weather was not helping. As I merged onto the parkway, the skies opened. Buckets of rain poured down, causing rush hour traffic to stagnate. I got lost. My trusted GPS dropped the signal at the worst possible moment, and I got off the highway at the wrong exit. I had to circle back around and hope to find my way.

Parallel parking was never my strength, but I managed to squeeze my SUV into a legal space. Well, mostly legal. I looked up at the sign, and noted that I’d have to move my car before lunch. I glanced at the time. Better than nothing, I thought.

I hurried towards the school, getting drenched despite my umbrella. My soggy shoes made squishing noises as I jogged up the entry stairs. But when I arrived, I was surprised to find that the school lobby was still packed. Apparently I wasn’t the only one that had been delayed by the weather. I greeted colleagues and waved at the administrator who would be facilitating the day’s workshop. 

“Good to see you, Rachel,” she said. “Sign in over there. We’re starting in a few minutes.”

I turned to a woman sitting at the table, a checklist in her hand. I didn’t recognize her. She must have been new, though I thought she was close to my parent’s age. She handed me a folder full of materials and the day’s schedule. I skimmed it as someone behind me grumbled about the lack of parking in the area. I commiserated with him.

The woman behind the table told us not to worry. “Alternate-side parking is suspended today,” she added.

A spark of hope ignited within me. “Really? Why?”

“It’s Shavuot,” she said, her tone changing, as if she were revealing something ridiculous. She rolled her eyes at me, and assumed I was in on her joke. “Don’t even ask what that is.”

I waited a beat to respond.

And I would respond. I thought of Alina Adams’s latest article. If her children encounter an older person making a racist comment, she agues, they should stay quiet out of respect. (Though I wonder what she’d have her children do if the remark is aimed at them). But personally, I’ve learned that saying nothing solves nothing.

When I was in school, I chose silence. As one of the only Jews in my neighborhood growing up, I heard hundreds of anti-Semitic statements like this one… and many that were worse. I had no issues correcting my peers, but the comments from older folks scared me. I held my tongue–and allowed their intolerance to continue.

I am not a frightened child any more.

This woman needed a lesson in acceptance, and her age didn’t give her a pass. And this was clearly one of life’s teachable moments. I chose a technique I discovered as a teenager, and honed over the past two decades. It is an effective defense against everyday ignorance.

I smiled.

When I spoke, I ensured that my voice was mild as my mother’s cheesecake, “It’s okay. I know what Shavuot is. It’s a small holiday on the Jewish calendar, but still an important one for us.”

The woman behind the table understood me. It was her turn to figure out how to reply. She blinked, utterly stumped. “Um. Well, then. Happy Holiday?”

“Thank you,” I said, and walked away.

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