Fifth grade kids are inspiring.
If I walk into my classroom and say, “Whose granola bar wrapper is this on the floor?” at least five children will stop what they are doing, drop to the floor, and look for that pesky wrapper. One will retrieve it and toss it in the wastebasket. They all will return to their seats and get back to work without another word.
I could later pull any one of them aside and have the following conversation:
Me: Thank you for picking up the wrapper. Was it yours?
Fifth Grader: No, I don’t know who left it there.
Me: Then why did you pick it up?
Fifth Grader: Because I am the one responsible for picking it up.
No blaming. No accusing. No conjecturing as to the perpetrator.
I have Kitty to thank.
Last year, when this same group of kids began fourth grade, I had the good fortune of being their new teacher. On the first day of school I told them the story of Kitty and how her story changed my life.
Kitty Genovese was walking to her apartment about 3:15 a.m. on March 13, 1964. A man followed her, stabbed her twice, then ran away. Kitty stumbled, attempting to get to her home. The man came back ten minutes later and continued to stab her, then assaulted and robbed her. The time from the beginning of the first attack to the end of the last was about 30 minutes. There were witnesses.
On March 27, 1964, The New York Times reported “Thirty-eight Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.”
I first heard Kitty’s story as a college psychology student. Why did thirty-eight people look out of their apartment windows, watch this woman die, and fail to call the police?
Psychologists attribute it to what they call “the bystander syndrome.” People assume “surely by now someone else has called the police.” But no one has.
Years later, they discovered that perhaps it was no one’s fault after all. Not one person had the ability to see the whole attack from start to finish, so they could not have really known what was going on. Perhaps they should be absolved from their failure to call the police.
Kitty’s story affected me so greatly that it led to my personal mantra: It’s My Job.
I vowed from that time to always be the one responsible for taking care of a situation that needs it. There is no need for me to wonder if someone else has already called the police. I know it’s my job to make that call.
If I’m at the grocery store and I see wet produce in the aisle, lying in wait for a lawsuit-happy customer, I take care of it. I already assigned myself that job. There’s no wondering.
Cow in the middle of a curvy road? I’ve already successfully dodged it? Not to worry. I’ve already called the Sheriff’s Department so that you don’t hit it when you come around the bend.
Thanks to Kitty, my students are well trained. No longer are they the neophyte fourth graders who would respond thus:
Me: Who dropped a yogurt lid upside down on the carpet?
Voices at once: Danielle had that kind of yogurt. No, it was Jeremiah. P.J. knocked it off her desk though! No, I didn’t! No, it was not Danielle; that was Hannah’s yogurt.
Me: But who is responsible for cleaning it up?
Voices: Danielle! P.J.? No way! It should be Jeremiah, right?
Me: Who was responsible for calling the police when Kitty died?
Suddenly the light would come on and one of them would say, “Oh yeah! I am the one responsible!
Now they are experienced fifth graders who usually don’t wait for my questions. They see something on the floor, they pick it up. Someone has fallen down, they are right there with an outstretched arm.
We’ve come a long way, Kitty.