After school, several of the teachers gathered for an informal meeting. We were discussing the cancellation of a trip that had been planned for the Easter vacation, and we were trying to get to the bottom of why it had to be canceled. The meeting remained civil, but it devolved into an attempt to determine who was "guilty" of dropping the ball. Was it me, or was it the new woman teacher? We each seemed to be accusing the other.
As the argument grew heated, I raised my hand and pointed at her, saying, "You know very well it was your responsibility! I was not on the committee to plan the trip. If you waited to act because you were waiting for something from me, then you should just take responsibility for it!" Though part of me derived some perverse pleasure from doing that, immediately I felt guilty for having participated in letting things reach this point.
It was clear to everyone that we'd allowed unprofessionalism to pollute the atmosphere, and - since it was an informal meeting - everyone quickly adjourned.
An older man, who had been teaching at the school for as long as anyone could recall, called me over as everyone left. He asked me if I'd join him in the cafeteria. I looked at my watch. School was over; I had some paperwork to do, but otherwise I was free. We walked in silence to the cafeteria. It was closed, but faculty members were allowed to serve themselves beverages. He carefully poured two cups, then led me to a seat by the window.
We were still silent when he held up his cup so we could share a toast.
"Here's to the best in each of us," he said in his deep, strong voice. I smiled as we tapped cups.
"Tell me about the Easter trip," he said carefully.
I spoke freely, trying to fill in all the details.
"So, in reality," he summarized, "there is plenty of blame to go all around, wouldn't you say?"
I HAD to admit he was right. Though the trip had not been "my" trip, technically, there were numerous ways I could have done things differently, including making phone calls to other staff members.
"OK, but here's the real reason I asked you to come in here. It was that sign you made at the new teacher."
"Sign?" I was dumbfounded. I honestly did not recall making any sort of sign. What could he mean?
He held out his hand and pointed a finger at me.
"This sign," he explained.
"Oh," I said, embarrassed.
"I once had the bad habit of pointing at people, doing that same thing. Another teacher took me aside - just as I'm doing with you - to tell me what finger-pointing really means."
He had my undivided attention.
"Just look," he directed. "Look at what you are doing when you point at people, blaming them for something. Yes, one finger goes out at them, but guess what? Three point right back at you. And, as I guessed, rightfully so!"
I was silent. He had no anger or animosity in his voice. In fact, he was kind. He took another sip of his drink.
"You see," he continued after a while, "all of us are pretty much in the same boat.
"Any time we get all huffy, complaining about anyone else - especially in those staff meetings - we invariably start accusing others of the very things we do wrong ourselves. I've seen this happen many times over the years." He paused, as if thinking about it some more.
"I'm not saying that you should never point out someone's shortcomings, especially in cases like this where it is almost your duty to do so. I'm just saying that it's important how you do that pointing out. When you do it at someone, you always have those three fingers pointing back at you.
"We need to work on our shortcomings, yes, but fellow teachers need to be supportive, not antagonistic. I know it's not easy," he said, looking at me with a knowing smile.
"It's not easy, but it can be done. And here's the secret that was told to me. Whenever you feel that urge to point a finger at another person, don't. But you can - and should - point a mental finger of supportiveness that shoots out some guidance to the person in need. Just send a mental finger of support. Try it.
"And if you'll look again at your hand when you're pointing that finger, take notice of the upward-pointing thumb. That stands for the upright mental attitude and guiding power behind the pointed finger. Then, you're going to discover that while three fingers are still pointed back toward yourself, this time you'll feel three-times uplifted and elevated."
He smiled, and said softly, "Yes, we are our brother's keeper." He gave me a light slap on the back as we got up to exit the cafeteria.
As I walked back to my classroom, I had the most notable uplifted feeling, as if that older teacher had been proffering divine guidance. It was a most remarkable day!