When I Learned that Being “Nice” wasn’t Enough

saag paneer

While I started this site as a way of sharing my love of young adult media and literature (and I have done a great job with that so far), I also wanted to share stories from my youth and the lessons I’ve learned from those experiences.

One moment in my adolescence that occasionally replays over and over in my head occurred when I when I was in middle school. I think I was in eighth grade. It might have been seventh grade…or maybe I was in ninth grade. It definitely wasn’t in sixth grade…and I’ll explain in a little bit why I know that for sure.

Before I get to the story, I suppose I want to explain why my mind settled to this moment in my head. During work today, I was thinking about my prep school days. I went to a school that catered to sixth grade all the way to senior year in high school. It was a small, private school. One had to (at least during my time, maybe things have changed since then) take an entrance exam (and presumably do well on it) to get admittance into the school. Despite doing crappy on the test, I still got accepted for the sixth grade, mostly because I had older siblings who were attending the school (that’s another story for another time). The point of all this is to say that I spent seven years of my schooling life with, for the most part, the same 70 classmates. I couldn’t redefine myself and “start over” when I entered high school because I wasn’t transferring to a new school (that’s also another story for another time).

To put it simply: I was the “nice” kid. That’s how everyone described me. Nice. I don’t think I did anything particularly, or especially nice. But I was very shy and quiet and I smiled a lot. Admittedly, I tried to hold fast to this “niceness.” Without it, I didn’t really have any other identity. Behind that smiley exterior, I was a boring, insecure enigma. Besides my closest friends, it was very hard to open myself to other people. It was hard for me to retain a conversation. The older I got, the more insecure I got. And being boxed in this small, private school where everyone was seemingly glamorous and rich didn’t help. I was afraid to trip, because I knew if I did, everyone in the school would know about it by the end of the day.

So I tried to be nice to everyone, even the people I didn’t particularly like, or the ones for whom there was no reason for me to be nice. But, sometimes, trying to be accommodating to everyone…is impossible.

The moment that replays over and over in my head occured when I was in, let’s say, seventh grade. In my school, all the sixth graders were required to participate in something called “International Day.” That is when each sixth grader chooses a country (like, say, India) and creates a presentation about the country. On this day, each sixth grader displays a poster and a dish from that country for the whole school. Although this day is supposed to be an opportunity for everyone in the school to learn…most students only get excited for all the free international food brought in. Most students attended during their lunch break. If you were lucky to have a free period right before the lunch hour, then you most likely had first dibs on the food.

I was in seventh grade, and it was that time again. In sixth grade, I agonized over creating my International Day poster and preparing my food. But, as a seventh grader, the day was more celebratory. The sixth graders were lined across the hallways and in a few classrooms. For the most part, they were separated by continent (African countries, European countries, Asian countries, etc…) From swiss cheese to Canadian bacon to Vegemite (didn’t try that), there was SO much food (and learning, of course). I walked through the presentations, taking any food that looked appetizing. One of the most popular food items that day was saag paneer, which was being served by the Dixie cup fulls by a bushy-haired kid who did his presentation on India. For some reason, that didn’t seem very interesting, so I didn’t initially seek it out (as an adult, nothing tastes better than spinach and cheese so I don’t know what my taste buds were thinking during that time). However, everyone else seemed to want that Indian dish.

This kid, let’s say his name was Rob, despite having this seemingly bottomless pot of spinach, decided that no one was allowed seconds. It was fair. He only wanted to make sure as many people as possible had a chance to try the food. However, there was this older kid, let’s say his name was Rick, who deemed that one Dixie cup of saag paneer wasn’t enough. Now, I never really liked this guy. He was sweaty and obnoxiously broad. He was never really nice to me. Frankly, he was an asshole. But, for some reason, when he asked me to get him another cup of saag paneer, without thinking, I agreed to the request.

I went to the line for the food, which trickled out of the classroom, where the presentation was, into the hall; and when I finally reached Rob, he asked me, with a slit-eyed, suspicious glance, “You’re not getting this for anyone who’s already been here, right?” I quickly said no, and accepted my Dixie cup of this slop. Now, I thought that I would be able to leave the classroom and hand the food to Rick in secret. But, immediately after I turned around for the door, Rick popped in and immediately grabbed the cup from me, laughing with his always blushed face, enthusiastically saying, “you’re awesome.” I was in such embarrassed shock that I quickly left the room without looking back.

Because this was a small school, I probably saw Rob in the halls at least once a day. We were never friends before…and we continued to ignore each other after that moment. Rick continued to be Rick. And I continued to be deeply regretful of that day. I had many regrets during my school days…and this is one that still stays ingrained in my head. It’s stayed in my head because of the irony of situation. I always thought it was important to be “nice” to everyone…but sometimes that niceness made me sort of a pushover. By doing what someone asked me to do, I ended up hurting (and compromising the trust of) someone else.

I have another quick anecdote that sort of relates to this story. In eighth grade, I was on school trip to some sort of museum. I was in line for a special exhibit. A friend of mine, say Billy, came up to me. He wanted to see the exhibit too, but the line behind me was long. So I let him cut me. Behind me was a father, his wife, and his upset children. Apparently, as the father explained, by allowing Billy to cut me, I was also allowing him to cut everyone else behind me. It wasn’t fair. I had thought I was helping a friend by allowing him to get in front of me…but I didn’t consider who else this “niceness” would affect.

Throughout high school I thought of that moment during International Day. I could never fully enjoy another International Day after that year. In fact, I usually took the time to read the posters, and I never sought out any food. I guess the guilt stayed with me. It took me years to realize what lesson I could extract from this. I realized that, yes, being nice is important, but so is having the bravery to say “no.” Blindly accommodating anyone can sometimes lead to inadvertently hurting another person. It is important to think and consider the consequences of an action before agreeing to do it.

When Rick asked me to get him that saag paneer, I should have said “no” because it was wrong (or because I had better things to do than help a guy who would have never done the same for me). Or when I was given the Dixie cup and little spoon of spinach cheese and Rick obnoxiously popped into the classroom, I should have pushed him away and said, “Leave me alone!” – then I would have confidently walked into the hall and discreetly thrown the cup away in the nearest trash can. In any case, I should have really thought about what I was doing and/or spoken up.

Would the proverb The road to hell is paved with good intentions apply to this story? Being “nice” is overrated. Being honest, respectful and cognizant of our actions is really the way to go. Helping someone lie, cheat, or steal…is lying, cheating, or stealing. I remember these things when someone asks me for a favor.

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