Sometimes You Step In It

At a 4-year-old’s birthday party this weekend, I came upon an accident immediately after it had happened. One child chose a high-traffic staircase to the backyard as his resting place. The bottom stair upon which he was sitting became his seat and table both, his colorfully frosted piece of chocolate birthday cake snug beside him. Another child, blinded by her own gi-normous piece of cake, flew down the stairs. Her foot went in, the boy yelled: "she stepped in my cake!", and the adults rallied with paper towels and a new slice. All was good in the universe once more.

Monday, I started teaching that graduate course about which I blogged. I arrived early so I could get a key to the building where my mailbox was located, pick up some papers, and prepare for the evening ahead. I also had to get my faculty photo ID from Human Resources. As I stepped off the elevator and into the hall, I noticed that my foot was sticking to the floor. There was a bathroom right next to the elevator, so I slipped inside. Once in a stall, I lifted the offending shoe and was not surprised to see a big hunk of gum stuck to the bottom. The situation was remedied with some toilet paper and patient scraping off of the dirty-minted item. Moments later I had my photo taken.

In September 2001, I began working as a Peer Mediation Coordinator at a middle-school in Dorchester, Massachusetts. It was my first week, and while I had a good amount of experience working with youth and mediating, I was nervous. The morning of my second or third day, I was sitting in my office when I noticed an unpleasant yet familiar odor. I told myself it couldn't possibly be. Then I checked. Yes, on the bottom of my shoe a relatively fresh layer of dog shit was caked inside the crevice. I hop/walked down the hall as quickly as possible putting my weight on the other shoe, and entered the dirtiest, seldom occupied faculty/staff bathroom I could find. I took off the shoe, put it in the sink, and let soap and water work its magic. I left the bathroom, relieved to have averted a potential disaster: kids would not have been afraid to vocalize the stink. Less than a week later, the Twin Towers came crashing down; a plane flew into the Pentagon, and another plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. My anxiety about making a good impression in a new work setting seemed minuscule, even irrelevant, in comparison.

Three shoes. Three messes.

We don't know what our clients have stepped in, literally or figuratively, before they walk through the door. We don't know the impact that their footsteps may have had on others along the way. We merely know what they choose to tell us. We also know that, try as we might to do everything perfectly, we may find that the shit we stepped in before the mediation still enters the room, despite our best attempts at hiding it, cleaning it off, or fixing it. We don't know what events might happen later that day or the next day or the following week that could impact the parties' perspectives or our own. We do our best. We dodge what we can. Yet there will always be those days when we just can't keep from stepping in it.

By Laura L. Noah
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