Sometimes I feel I have been cursed with a long, slow adolescence. Some days I feel my body has been put together wrong, like my awkwardness is genetic. Broadcast without my ability to help it.
At my new job, where I manage administrivia for a class of city social workers, I was required to call a student out of class and relay to him that there was a family emergency. My boss relayed the message from his cel phone; he was not going to be able to tell the student, and he didn’t tell me the nature of the emergency over the phone. For a moment I panicked. I have never been called upon to be the sole carrier of really bad news before. I frantically cast about thinking of someone else who could do it. I didn’t think I would be sensitive enough.
To my relief this was not unexpected news to the student in question, a soft-spoken, solid man who pulled himself out of the class and followed me down the hall to the phone. He told me both his parents, who lived far away in another country, were very sick. I murmured condolences with what I hoped would not be read as feigned concern. I did feel awful.
He called his supervisor. He had some difficulty reaching her, so he left the office saying he would return to call in a few minutes. I stayed glued to some paperwork I was doing, unable to really process it but worried I would seem nosy if I was there listening and not doing something else. I scanned the page over and over, aimlessly waving my pen above it. I thought I should surreptitiously replace the chair he’d been sitting in to use the phone with the more comfortable chair I was occupying. He came back to receive the news. I found myself twisting my hands. His father had died, and I was hearing about it from his end of the conversation. His rich voice went hoarse. Only then did I realize that the socially appropriate thing to do would have been to leave him alone while he made the call, but I was trapped with him between me and the door. To get out at that point I would have had to push past him, or ask him to get up.
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One thing I have learned from my interactions with people from minority groups is that no matter how bad I feel about a given social exchange, I should consider how much worse the exchange may feel to them. It never occurs to me until after the fact.