Crucial Skills®

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Kerrying On

Good Golly Miss Molly

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.

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51 thoughts on “Good Golly Miss Molly”

  1. Rebecca

    Another moral of this story: It’s ok to steal if you give it to someone else who really needs it because they’ll pay it back later.

    1. Bonnie

      This is a wonderful story! No Rebecca, I don’t think that is the moral of the story. The moral of the story is to help people in need. While Molly did what she could to help, she probably didn’t have anymore money than the young man (or she wouldn’t have been working in the cafeteria). AND while what she did wasn’t right, she risk a LOT for the young man. I’m sure she saw a LOT of waste and a young man that was starving. He is right, she is a hero and he certainly has been motivated to help many, many others as a result. Another moral of this story, look for the positive not the negative!!!

    2. Kathy

      That’s not very nice, Rebecca. Life is complicated, Kerry and Molly were doing their best, and it turns out feeding Kerry was a really good investment that thousands of people have benefitted from.

      1. Rebecca

        This will be my last comment on anything for this site since other people feel they can attack me for expressing my opinion of the story because they don’t agree with it. I get enough of that at work thank you very much.

        1. Amy

          Rebecca….I think you meant well by your comment…it was simplistically stated though. A lesson to learn I think you meant to say, is that sometimes the rules are broken in dire situations for the overall good. Please don’t be upset. I will pray for you at work that communication improves…that must be upsetting…

        2. Kerry Patterson

          When I first wrote this I worried that others might think I was simply justifying my wrong behavior–because that is a plausible and reasonable interpretation. I could indeed be hiding behind good intentions or pretending that the ends justified the means. So thank you for pointing that out Rebecca–to help bring this part of the story to the surface. I chose to write the story because I also wanted to say that when we do take a misstep, we can do our best to make restitution. If we’re sincere and look for ways to set thing straight, there are paths to redemption..

          Thanks for sharing your honest opinion.

          1. Amy

            Amen. The ends do not always justify the means, but we grow through our mistakes or we would be born perfect! We must grow or we stay in the mud, so to speak.

  2. Diana

    Great true story, I wish our kids these days would learn life lessons the hard way, like the one above, and they would learn NOT to take everything they have for granted…
    Paying forward is what we all should do at least once in our lives

  3. William

    Great story, thanks!

  4. Hvidovre

    Is’t this what Crucial Skill is all about. Yes it’s stealing, but on the other hand a life was saved and a great lesson learned and others now are blessed for it.

  5. Rebecca #2

    This a great example of a Crucial Conversation that should have happened between you and your parents regarding the need for a warm coat, and how the lack of that conversation forever shaped you into a completely different person.

    1. Kerry Patterson

      Yes, I should have talked to my parents. But I was eighteen, prideful, and trying to make it on my own. Plus I knew my folks didn’t have much money. All of this helped contribute my not speaking up when I should have simply spoken openly and honestly. Oh yes, one more thing. This was done through regular mail–which didn’t exactly help.

  6. Shirley

    Powerful story. Thank you for sharing it. Small acts of kindness just may result in many more paid forward- and our ultimate survival.

  7. bill

    More than a few messages in this story. What got me? We all have thousands of events in our lives. But taking time to reflect on them, and see how they made us who we are, that can lead to inspiring ourselves and others. Thanks for the story of painting and being a hungry student.

  8. Kathy

    Thanks for sharing this story. I love all of your stories and always look forward to the Crucial Skills newsletters because of what I can learn from you and from them.

  9. Amy

    What a touching and inspiring story….a true example of careful discernment on Molly’s part to help someone truly needing it. Sometimes, a little sustenance goes a long way to foster kindness later. I lost my house once, was in danger and a friend took me and my kids in for 4 months. I want to pay that forward. We need more careful kindnesses in this world…and face to face.

    1. Kerry Patterson

      Four months? Now that’s a friend.

      1. Amy

        Yes. Her boys actually gave my kids their own rooms to stay in while they stayed in their parents’ room. I had a guest room. They are amazing Christian people. My ex-husband was violent and was breaking his restraining orders and they risked their own safety to protect us. I have an amazing amount of love poured into me I must pay forward. I pray for those who need help like this…

        1. Kerry Patterson

          Such lovely friends.

  10. Dave Blazak

    Kerry– your story really touched me. It illustrated the point that these kind of pains and struggles in life (and our reactions to them) determine our character; they determine why we think the way we do.
    I often feel the same as the comment made by Rebecca– guns blazing, very matter-of-fact. But don’t give up on communicating, Rebecca.
    Diana, Amy, Bonnie and Kathy– I wish I had your ability to say things so nicely!

    1. Amy

      Aw…Dave….you just did! It is the sentiment expressed and not the packaging it is in! 🙂

    2. Wanda

      Poor Rebecca (#1) yet another slam. A factual statement is “guns blazing.” I think the emotional pull of the story, being poor, getting help without asking, paying it forward, etc., overrode the message about communication. Lack of good communication with the parents, with other school mates as to the situation and yes even asking for help could have prevented Molly from feeling she needed to put herself in danger of being fired and heaven forbid getting a criminal record in order to be compassionate.

      1. Amy

        Sometimes risking to help someone is worth it…thank goodness healthcare workers risk their own heath to help others heal, for example. We are all imperfect creatures in progress-needing help and refinement in every stage of life from others. I admire Molly’s courage to help; observing Kerry’s need over a significant period. Who’s to say she didn’t pay for those meals herself? It may not be known…or perhaps she had asked her boss if it could be donated? We cannot say nor do we always know the whole truth.

  11. Melinda Flannery

    Very touching! I hope Molly reads this.

  12. Sande George

    None of us makes it through life without the sacrifices and kindness of others. This story caused me to stop and reflect on people to whom I owe much: my encouraging teachers, the babysitter who listened to me read every day, my friend’s mom who taught me manners and grace, and so many more. I’m thinking about the ways to say, “Thank you” to God and the universe by noticing those around me and being open to showing kindness, giving encouragement, taking time to listen.

    Thank you for the story.

  13. Ralph Parker

    Great and fun story…your parents should have paid you for the work at the time it was delivered…forget the guilt trip!! Just do the best you can each day and hope the other person wins!!

  14. Sheldon

    Thank you for being a real person. We’ve all had similar experiences. I’ve enjoyed all of your articles over the years. Your experiences are “tangible” material I apply to my life.

  15. James

    Memories are a wonderful thing. I’m remembering getting burned cookies in the school lunchroom. I was well fed at home and my mother would have been horrified but the lunchroom workers couldn’t give extra cookies but they could give burned cookies or rolls. So I learned to love burned rolls and burned cookies cause I could have all I wanted. Always find ways to be good to other folks even the most odd things can really be appreciated.

  16. Farren Spaulding

    I loved this story and related to every bit of it. I was born in Rexburg, Idaho and my grandparents and their siblings farmed behind the college and to the south up to and behind Kelly Canyon Ski area. I spent many enjoyable day in the cold and snow. The message is powerful, if we let it be. The mere fact that you recognized the issues being played out there at Rick’s (now BYU Idaho) and did something to restore others is penance enough. My wife has taken your crucial conversations course at work and I have read portion of the “Crucial Conversations” book. I can tell you are a good egg. Let me know when you plan on being in the Sacramento area. Like to attend one of your sessions and swap some Rexburg stories.


  17. Lan Tai-Neveux

    Molly, where are you? We would love to hear you thought about this crucial conversation.

  18. Linda

    I went to college directly from my junior year in high school, first in my family ever to go, no scholarships and no money. I had no clue what my parents had to sacrifice for me to do this. I was just able to honor their memory by setting up a scholarship fund at my alma mater for students in similar situations. I am blessed to be able to pay it forward!

  19. Wanda

    Good point Amy and goes back to the communication topic. As taught in curical conversations we should avoid making up our own story. While Kerry stated she wasn’t punching his card, he may have just assumed she wasn’t paying for it. She may indeed have been paying out of her on pocket. I’ve done that myself a few times when working retail when a small child was getting a gift for a parent and was a little short on the cash he made raking leaves. I made up the difference myself, but let the little fellow think he was just getting a discount.

  20. Sheila Robinson

    And what about Molly? Tenacious, compassionate, caring, kind, and of course engaging! So here are my thoughts-Perception is everything and good conversation triumps all! Inspiring and empowering!

    As not just a visionary-I see a movie!

  21. Sonny

    I can relate to Kerry’s story. I was raised in a family of four. Extremely poor with an abusive alcoholic father. Mother did the best she could with what we had. But being the older son, before school in the mornings she would tell me to get my school lunch money from my father who was usually passed out in bed. So rather than waking him and taking the chance of encountering his wrath, I would sneak into the bedroom, crawl under the bed and get the money from his pants laying on the floor. Was this wrong? Sure. But don’t judge others until you have walked in their shoes. By the time my sisters and I were 10 years old, we had seen, heard, and experienced more violence than most people should experience in a life time. Would I change my past if I could? Sure, but I can’t, so like Kerry I use these memories as incentives to keep a vigilant eye for others in need. My wife works at a rural elementary school cafeteria that feeds 400 children daily. Rarely a day goes by where some child may need hugs, words of encouragement, clothing, or (against the rules) lunches paid for by the cafeteria staff. Didn’t plan on this being so long but we all must be aware of the needs of others. The main goal in our lives should be to pass on our blessings to those less fortunate. If we look, we will see plenty of opportunity.

    1. Amy

      Beautiful sentiment well said, Sonny. Thank you for sharing your story. You are an inspiration.

    2. Wanda

      That is really sad. As for taking the money out of Dad’s pockets I don’t see any way that a crucial converstation could have helped resolve that. At that point you were in crucial conflict and even children will do what they must to survive. But what kind of converstration could the cafteria staff have so they aren’t put in a position of breaking the rules to help the kids? Is the school aware that some children would be going hungry without some charity? Is there a free lunch program for kids who can’t pay? Could the staff talk to the school management about setting up a charitable fund for the occasional times when a child that doesn’t meet the free lunch program but can’t pay? Perhaps the school counselor could help.

      1. Sheila Robinson

        Hello Wanda,

        Good Conversation/Excellent Questions-

        One point that I would like to make is many children and adults who are hungry especially students, are at often times embarrassed and will do whatever they can to hide the fact that they need food. Perhaps if it is the norm in our society to help those who are in need of food, such as students then the stigma of not being able to fulfill a human/basic need would be alleviated-

        Just a thought!

        1. Wanda

          Good point. Stigma is a big barrier to crucial conversations. We may find it easer to just silently help out rather than address the real issue with conversation, be that with the student, the parent or social services. I grew up poor too but on a farm so food was never an issue. One summer a young boy from down the road starting hanging around at lunch time. My mother would always invite him to eat, but she began to suspect that there was some underlying problem going on. She had a crucial converstation with the little boy. He finally told her that his mother gave him cereal with no milk for breakfast and then locked him out of the house until his father got home from work. My mother was standing on the porch of the little boy’s house the next day when his mother was kicking him for the day. Another crucial conversation occurred, not very productive as the lady was already intoxicated. The end result was that social services was called, the lady got into AA and the little boy wasn’t locked out of his house anymore. It would have been easier for my mother to just keep feeding him. We had plenty to spare, but it wouldn’t have gotten the real problem addressed.

          1. Sheila Robinson

            Hello Wanda,

            The power of conversation and of course the desire that your mother had to close the loop in solving a human/social problem rather than just putting a bandaid on it is insightful. This brings back fond memories and thoughts of yesterday, whereas my mother would often say we are not rich just the opposite, but when it comes to food our door is open.

  22. Joyce

    I am a teacher who works with a faculty who are considering the book “Change any-thing” for faculty reading. We have already used the book “Crucial Conversations” as discussion material.

    Kerry, your story spoke to my heart as I also try to pay forward with my students by providing a crock-pot of soup for many clinical’s in facilities working with patients. I feel that if his or her busy day has sent them to evening or night shift clinical without a meal, then my contribution is to ensure enough energy to do their best.

    While in the military and on separate rations which meant I was paid a stipend to buy monthly food, I sometimes was without and went to “Midnight Chow” at the hospital where I was a medic. The sergeant fed those of us hungry even though we were not working a shift at the time. I am now simply “paying forward” what was given to me.

    Thanks again for the story, and for your gratitude as you “pay it forward.” Hunger is a scary thing. Our conversations should focus on making the work environment and those under our tutelage a better place for all.

    Thank You,

  23. Emily Ungar

    I really enjoyed this article, as I enjoy all of Kerry Patterson’s articles. It seems to me (after reading prior comments) that Mr. Patterson has reached the level of post-conventional moral reasoning, and Rebecca (prior commentor with differing opinions) has not. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just that most people, according to Lawrence Kohlberg, never reach that level and can’t understand the people who do.

    It’s the people who reach the post-conventional level of moral reasoning–who understand and even create phenomenons like “pay it forward”–who change the world.

    1. Gladys

      Whoa! Another attack on Rebecca based on a assumption. In the crucial conversation training I took one of the things taught was not to make up your own story without the facts. I don’t recall her saying that what Kerry did was wrong only that his lack of communication put Molly in a position where she felt she had to steal to help him. Kerry later tried to make up for that by paying it forward (good for him). No one knows what acts of kindness Rebecca has or has not made so moral judgements to make a judgement of her moral reasoning. I thought this post was about crucial conversation communication skills, not morals. I supposed now I’ll get attacked like Rebecca and stop making posts too.

      1. Emily Ungar

        Interesting that you viewed my post as an “attack.” That in itself is a story that you are telling yourself. Because by definition, an “attack” is subjective. Is it not?

        1. Gladys

          Touche! Should have just said comment on her moral reasoning that could be perceived as a negative comment.

          1. Emily Ungar

            I like that the column inspires critical thinking and conversation. I certainly meant no unkindness to you or other posters. It was good to have this conversation and hear your thoughts. Gets my mind active on this Monday morning!

          2. Gladys

            The written word is often difficult to use to convey our emotinal intent. That’s why converstations are so important. I’ve learned over the years that certain words like attack, morals, etc. can easily get a person doing down the wrong intentiion path. So can all captials in an email. 🙂

  24. Carol

    I always love your stories because I learn something every time, but I think this one is my new favorite. Thank you for sharing.

  25. Marlene Caroselli

    Can you YouTube your stories? They and you deserve to be shared with the world!

  26. Evelyn LSM

    Thanks for sharing this story, Kerry! All of us could do with a leg up at least once in our youth. Some of us do get it! Good for you!

  27. Sarah

    Great real life story. Thanks for sharing…

  28. Douglas W. Robertson

    You write so well. I am trying to write well so my children and grandchildren will take an interest in life’s lessons.

    Thank you for sharing your talents.

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