During the month of July, we publish “best of” content. The following article was first published on September 29, 2015.
Throughout my teenage years, I worked for my mom and dad painting an eighty-year-old boarding house they had purchased. It was a sprawling, artless, clapboard building that hadn’t been given much attention for decades, so it took me several summers to finish the job. It was like painting a giant sponge. Plus, the job almost killed me. I learned that if I placed a giant, borrowed, professional extension ladder nearly parallel to the front of the house and stood chest to the wall on my tippy toes, on the very top rung, I could paint the highest point on the house—which I did.
I didn’t plunge to my death, but according to our next-door neighbor, I should have. In fact, he had bet on it. It turns out that he and the other men in the neighborhood had taken to watching my insane painting maneuvers (of which there were many) and wagering on whether I’d get injured. Apparently, my neighbors mixed up the notion that it takes a village to raise a boy with the idea that it takes a handful of village idiots. In any case, my neighbors underestimated me. Not only did I make it out alive, but the painting job provided me with money for college—money my parents promised to pay me one day when I went off to school.
Unhappily, when I finally did head off to a junior college in Rexburg, Idaho, I was woefully unprepared. For starters, I had no idea how cold cold can be. There are days in Rexburg when your nostrils freeze shut just from breathing. The light jacket I wore because it was (1) the only jacket I owned and (2) very James-Dean like, put me in danger of frostbite whenever I ventured outdoors. So I finally broke down and bought a thick coat (good idea) with all of the food money my parents had given me for the semester (bad idea). In short, I traded cold for hunger.
Not being one to suffer silently, I wrote my parents and asked for more money. Mom feared that I would waste any additional cash she sent me on dating and other such non-food items, or—if left to cook on my own—I would only prepare junk food. So she sent me a check for forty dollars and insisted that I purchase a cafeteria punch card that could be used to buy dinner for, hopefully, a couple of months. Students who lived in the dorms and ate at said cafeteria, ate all the food they could eat. My puny card granted me entrance to the facility. However, when I arrived at the end of the line, since I didn’t live in the dorms, a cafeteria employee would take my paper card and punch out the price of each item I had selected—eventually reducing my card’s value to zero.
I quickly learned that if I bought a full dinner each day, the card wouldn’t last until the end of the semester. Not even close. This turned dining into a tortuous, lonely affair. I couldn’t sit next to the dorm kids. They would look at my solo scoop of mashed potatoes and ask why I didn’t take more food. “It’s delicious!” they’d rave as they wolfed down a slab of meatloaf large enough to serve as a flotation device. So I sat alone and ate soda crackers to supplement my mashed potatoes. For dessert, I sucked cinnamon from the cafeteria toothpicks.
After a couple of weeks of nursing my food card along, I fell into a routine. It centered on Molly, a farm girl from Rigby, Idaho, who now took classes at the junior college and worked at the cafeteria punching my card. As Molly took inventory of my tray, she would ask me about my classes, encourage me to buy more food, and tease me about my losing weight. “You look like your cells are dying,” she once told me. Molly never asked about my financial circumstances, but I could tell from the look in her eyes that we were now playing a game. She was the Red Cross volunteer and I was the refugee who had washed onto the shores of Rexburg.
We played this game until my Spartan diet began to wear on both of us. One day, while serving a thick slice of chocolate pie to a regular dorm patron, Molly looked at me apologetically, as if somehow she were responsible for the vicissitudes of capitalism. Later, when the pie came back with only a couple of bites out of it, she kicked the garbage can. It was growing positively Dickensian.
Finally, a couple of weeks before the semester came to an end, I started loading more on my tray so I could make it through finals. I piled it on for several days without having the courage to examine my card. And here’s where it gets weird. With each new food item I added to my tray, Molly seemed happier. In fact, she now tracked my intake with an odd flourish. “Take that!” she would shout as she punched my card.
Eventually, I pulled out my meal card to determine when my life would start turning ugly. To my surprise, a miracle had transpired. Molly had dutifully punched my waning card, but it still had several dollars left on it. How could that be?
As you’ve probably guessed, the farm girl from Rigby had wrought the miracle. The day I started loading more food on my tray, Molly started punching the air, and not my food ticket. Once I figured out the deception, I was extremely grateful, but said nothing. The least I could do was to quietly accept Molly’s offering—even if it meant colluding to steal from the college. Eventually the semester ended, we went our separate ways, and Molly vanished from my life. Years later, I paid back the school (a hundred times over), trying to make up for my criminal ways. Nevertheless, I still have a tender place in my heart for Molly, the selfless guardian angel who had risked expulsion on my behalf.
Decades passed without my thinking about any of this, until I started teaching an MBA class that was offered during the dinner hour. Since many of the students came to class looking hungry, I decided to honor Molly by paying her kindness forward. So, for several years, I provided MBA students a meal (tacos, pizza, etc.) at the beginning of every class period. Many thought I was trying to curry their favor. Others suggested that my actions were guilt-induced. The truth is far more complicated. It all started with a careless kid who fortuitously didn’t fall to his death while painting a house. This was followed by a string of payments for painting that house. Next came an act of kindness—since the payments were never fully completed. Then, the careless kid grew up and honored the act of kindness by paying it forward.
So, here’s what this weird chain of events boils down to. Let us look at our own lives and see where we can pass on the kindnesses we’ve been shown—let’s see how we can be the hero for someone else. Who knows? Maybe our own small acts of kindness will have a ripple effect in the world we live in.
When MBA students asked me whom they should thank for their dinner, I told them to thank Molly. She’s the hero of this tale. You can’t be a selfless, punch-faking guardian angel who risks being fired and thrown out of college to help out a hungry stranger without being a hero.