When I was in college I was a part of this amazing group of students (aren’t college students always amazing?) Well no, we were authentically amazing and we had gathered for the summer to serve our university by ushering/greeting/welcoming/helping/teaching/confusing and congratulating the upcoming class of freshmen, and their parents.
I had signed up for this.
I had interviewed for this.
I was excited for this!
I had no idea this would involve waking up so early.
But I did, we did. There were probably twenty-ish of us. And we had spent the preceding semester preparing for this summer of service. We took our Myers-Briggs tests, we did our trust falls, we did the travel on a bus to an out of town conference for workshops and skits, we literally sat in a circle and sang kum ba yah (or a Dave Matthews song, it was probably a Dave Matthews song as I’m certain someone had a guitar), we memorized the university handbook and course codes and pre-recs, and what to tell parents when their kid chooses a liberal arts major, and for the only one in our group that managed to be in this group without already knowing the school fight song, we practiced the school fight song and the ten other chants/songs/dances that you would need to know to make it through a school football game without getting kicked out.
Then it got real.
6 am every day for six days a week for 12 weeks is hard for a seasoned adult let alone a college kid. But we were committed. Well, I think we made it to day three and then someone was late. For this, he received angry eyes from our bosses, but nothing more. The next day, three more of us were late. And all the sudden we had ourselves a problem.
It was quickly explained that each time someone was late, the entire group, all twenty-ish of us would have to come in five minutes earlier the next day. But five minutes for every minute that person or people were late.
Wait, that’s not right. (right?)
The group of three was three minutes late, so we had all just lost fifteen additional minutes of sleep for the next day.
We didn’t say this sort of thing back then, but if we did it would be: efffffffff.
So we did what all college kids are good for– we gave it the ol’ college try and somehow each of us managed to get there the next morning just.in.time.
The morning after that I was early. The, I could sit down and eat a leisurely breakfast and still be early kind of early. Probably because we were meeting in my favorite part of campus and I knew we would be near the restaurant with the tator tots, ahem, I mean hashbrowns.
But instead of a warm breakfast of hashbrowns and diet coke I went to run an errand for my boss. She had forgotten something extremely important in her office and asked if I wouldn’t mind running to the opposite end of campus pleaseandthankyou to retrieve it. In the summer. In Florida. In this humidity. (yes, even at 530ish in the morning.)
(internal sigh) “Ohsure, notaproblem” I said, and off I went.
By the time I had returned I was about 15 minutes past the scheduled meet time.
OH if lookscouldkill.
No one noticed me hand our boss her papers (I would later wonder if she really even needed those papers). Everyone was focusing on doing the math of 15 x 5: Carry the two and oh yeah, that’s 75 additional minutes!!! Oh noo.
Even though I knew I was actually early, even I got anxious because our boss was not addressing this very dire situation, she just continued on with the morning meeting.
Wait for it. Wait for it.
Her speech went something like this:
So you may have noticed that one of your team members was late this morning. (One of your team members? Seriously, they all focused their dagger eyes on me when I came in, just say my name.) Well, what you didn’t realize is that your team member was actually here early, early enough to run an errand for me. You see (in what I would now call her Don Draper voice), I sent your team member on an errand, but you didn’t realize this. Instead, when she came back, all you did was judge her. You judged her and started blaming her for something when what you really should have been doing was waiting, waiting to hear why she was so incredibly late to our meeting. What you should have been doing was giving her the benefit of the doubt.
And there it was: benefit of the doubt.
Such beautiful, freeing words.
I felt proud, honest. I did in fact feel like a team player. It felt amazing to have more benefit than doubt.
Benefit of the doubt, benefit of the doubt, benefit of the doubt.
These words would continue their echo into my life, for the rest of my life.
I think it is easy to use this idea both poorly and appropriately. I remember dating a guy once and he suddenly stopped returning calls and not being home. I also seem to remember a hushed phone call the last time we hung out. I offered this relationship so much benefit and so little doubt because I wanted him to be interested; I wanted to be wanted, I wanted no doubt.
Then once in my first teaching position I had a student not turn in an essay assignment. I was prepared to be strong in my refusal of late work. I had plenty of cause with this particular student to have a whole bowl full of doubt, and I had the spoon to dish it out. But at the last moment I had the idea to just talk to him after class. When we spoke I learned his family had been kicked out of their apartment three days before and his father was back in jail, again. No apartment, no computer, certainly no ability to concentrate on the literary devices of our Zora Neale Hurston novel. I think ZNH would offer plenty benefit of the doubt in this situation, and I exhaled a silent prayer that I had been given enough grace in the moment to offer what little benefit I was carrying around.
Benefit of the doubt, benefit of the doubt, benefit of the doubt.
I hear it whispered in so many occasions. I find it (sometimes) easier to offer to my friends, and then I hoard benefit of the doubt from my family, especially my husband.
A friend forgets a lunch date, fine no problem: Benefit of the doubt, benefit of the doubt, benefit of the doubt. My husband in his after-work-mandated-shopping-trip forgets my bananas and brings only milk: he must not love me and wants me to fail.
Yes, this is for serious.
I struggle with the effort it takes to offer this benefit, when I have needed this benefit on too many occasions. The idea that someone may not have been intentionally trying to push me down, keep me out, stifle my creativity, smash my hopes and dreams, let me down, or forget my bananas takes a physical strength that I often am unable to summon.
Certainly there are people not willing or interested in being my champion. Sure. But the rest, the other 98.9% of those in my life, are generally in my corner. Can I be the champion to others that I so earnestly seek?
I struggle to give more benefit with my doubt. I get stuck on the math, sorting out how much time it’s gonna cost me, how many minutes of sleep I will lose, how many bananas I won’t get to eat, and so forth. I am fighting to keep my doubt and offer instead some: benefit of the
I submit this post in honor and memory of the boss I mentioned. She was an amazing light that left us too soon, and I credit her with instilling in me the wisdom behind offering those around us some benefit with our doubt, and some pause with our judgment. I fight for the strength to live this lesson more completely.
May your legacy continue, Rest in Peace.