are you paid to be nice at work?

Grade 11 was the worst year of my life. Knowledge that my step-father had sexually abused me when I was younger reached the authorities and I was going to have to testify in court. At about the same time my boyfriend had broken up with me and I had no idea why.

I was interviewed by the police about the incidents in my childhood, and in the interview, I was asked if I had ever told anyone about what had happened to me.

I had. I told them that my boyfriend knew. The one who had just broken up with me.

At school the next day, I went up to my ex, told him about the interview and that I was asked to disclose if I had ever shared my secret with anyone. I explained that they now knew that he knew.

His face had always been friendly and even through the hurt and confusion our unexplained break up was bittersweet, so I was taken aback when his eyes narrowed to a hardened gaze. His expression darkened; he was irritated by what I had just told him. I didn’t have to tell the police that he knew, he said. He didn’t understand why I had done that. He didn’t like the position I had put him in.

“Well, I kind of feel the same about the way we broke up,” was my internal reply. I turned away from him as my eyes filled with tears. Clearly we weren’t meant to be friends.

I felt so alone. I was scared. Now that people were finding out that I had been abused I thought no one would ever want to associate with me ever again. This was, in part, why I had carried the painful truth about what had happened to me for so long.

At lunchtime I sat on the speckled floor leaning against my locker. I heard footsteps pass but I never looked up. As far as I was concerned, I was alone.

Then a brown shoe entered my vision and I heard the crinkling of a jacket as someone slid down the adjacent locker to sit next to me. I glanced up. It was my grade 9 English teacher, Mr. Pearce – one of my favorite teachers from high school.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey.” I managed.

“You’ve got stuff going on.”

“Yeah.” I nodded.

I had told the school guidance counselor what was going on at home and she told my teachers so that I had “special permission” to come and go from the classroom as I needed. I guess word got around. I had never talked about my break-up though and yet, somehow he knew. He asked me what my ex had said about what was happening at home.

I told Mr. Pearce about our exchange earlier that day. His sigh made him sound even more disappointed in my ex than I was. This caught my attention. His response was unexpected given that I was telling myself that no one would ever want to know someone as screwed up as I was.

“He thinks that life is about living with a squeaky clean image. It’s not. He let you down. He had a choice to be kind and he didn’t take it. I know him and I’m disappointed that he did that. I’m sorry.” said Mr. Pearce.

I hadn’t been able to hold anyone’s gaze for a few days because I was afraid of the tears that inevitably came to embarrass me further. But I looked into Mr. Pearce’s eyes and hoped that I eeked out an audible “thank you” while the tears of gratitude came.

He smiled warmly and told me that I would be fine, but that he wasn’t too sure about my ex. I smiled back. Were teachers allowed to say stuff like that aloud?

He got up and slipped back into the nearest classroom where I heard him raise his voice to tell the class that it was time to reconvene. The door behind him closed softly.

Mr. Pearce didn’t have to do what he did for me. He didn’t even have to know what he knew about me. I, for one, thought that he’d long forgotten who I was after grade 9 English because he never taught me again after that. And for all I thought shouldn’t be, Mr. Pearce saw himself differently. Obviously.

Somehow, we get mixed up about what our work is and who we are. Employers and employees alike. We forget that first and foremost we’re human. And when we forget that we’re human, we don’t see those we interact with or serve as humans either. I’ve worked with people in charge of companies that rely solely on the success of their service who aren’t listening to themselves when they say, “I hate people” and hide in their office.

So many of us not only disassociate our humanness from our work, but ask others to do the same. We forget that you can’t pay someone for things that they do in their job that aren’t necessarily part of their job. Like being kind.

And that’s not a bad thing.

This is why you need to create work (or approach your very same work) in a way that you can be nice. And if you’re not doing that, promise to do whatever it takes to learn about why that’s not happening so that you can do it. It’s as much for you as it is for someone else.

There is work for you in which you can effortlessly be a compassionate and kind human being. You can’t help it and in these cases pay is a moot point. Because compassion and kindness are not things you can be paid for. It’s who you are and who you would be … job or no job.

P.S. I don’t think of grade 11 as the worst year ever anymore. It was a year of preparation for adulthood in which I learned some stuff that I have valued ever since. It was a difficult year to be sure and at the time it was the worst year of my life, but (thankfully) I’m not 17 anymore.

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