Where do we get our moral compass from and when does this happen? We often mistakenly assume that young children do not understand enough of the adult world to learn values and morals. Reflecting on some of my earliest memories, I clearly internalized lessons about justice. And we learn in tiny pieces that come together to create our older selves.
My earliest memories of learning right from wrong, for example, were at a market with my beloved father. I’m in a shopping cart at our neighborhood market in San Francisco with my daddy, who’s only 37 but looks so old – so daddy-y. I’m young enough to fit into the cart, my chubby thighs barely sliding through the two huge metal squares.
I stand in front of my round-faced father who is elated in one of his favorite places, surrounded by the foods he loves. He feeds me grapes while he shops. “Daddy,” I say, “we didn’t buy these. That’s stealing.” “Oh,” he replies, “they want you to try them.”
Somehow the discomfort in my stomach lingers, and maybe then my early moral compass will solidify. I feel deep in my stomach (always my emotional weather vane) I don’t really think they want us to taste the grapes while driving through the market. I don’t, of course, envision the hardworking itinerant farmers with their backs bent as they pick those green sweet treats or the possible pesticides that should be washed off before enjoying. It’s the late 1950’s and I just think we took something that doesn’t belong to us. That’s enough for my little being for today.
Empathy is nurtured by our environment and reinforced by role models who remind us that we need to be considerate of others. Understanding their plight through a deeply rooted compassion has been one of the recurring themes in my life. I was sad for the lonely little girl on the playground eating her lunch in silence on an empty bench when I went to sit next to her. I know what it’s like to be picked last for a team. But I’ve also met people who are hardened to the feelings of others. Your empathic connections are weak and undeveloped. I learned from a young age to keep such people at a distance.
It’s my first time in sleep camp and I feel very vulnerable and lonely, but I’m also with a very good friend, Anna. Or so I thought.
We sat on a bench by the campfire and it was our first day. I went to use the restroom and asked Anna to hold my seat. When I come back my place will be filled by another camper. “I asked you to reserve my seat,” I reminded Anna. “But she wanted to sit here,” pointing to another girl who we both didn’t recognize.
This seemingly harmless interaction cemented the definition and depth of our friendship for the future. I always thought we were so close and that she understood my trepidation and insecurity about not being home, but of course Anna had a different definition of our friendship. I learned who she was in that moment and she was the same as we grew into teenagers and young adults. “A fair-weather friend,” my mother called Anna. Decades later, I’ve eliminated from my closest circle of friends those fair-weather friends who refuse to save my spot.
While we are heavily influenced by family and close friends, we sometimes have encounters and conversations with people we hardly know that evoke life-changing events. Times like this have had a profound impact on my career.
I am 36 years old and I teach English as a Second Language (ESL) at night at a nearby community college while my husband stays at home with our three children. I love what I do, helping second language learners navigate the English language. I feel like a superwoman, a mom by day and a teacher by night, as I transition from my mommy clothes of jeans and a dirty formula-stained shirt to professional attire.
I’m at the end of my fourth year as a part-time teacher and one of my very perceptive Venezuelan students asks me, “Is that all you want to do with your teaching?” I’m shaken by his comment, and in this way I’m suddenly questioning my teaching, the status quo that works for me and for our family. I hadn’t thought of a full-time job, or teaching during the day, or teaching a different level of the course. I tossed and turned comfortably until this question literally forced me to answer inwardly. I smiled at him and told him I love this job, but that night, with that question, the process of asking more for me and my career began.
I’m thinking about going back to university for my PhD. This crazy idea starts when my two older sons are in college and my younger son is also preparing for it. I’m talking to an acquaintance who recently graduated from high school.
I share my dilemma with her: financial responsibility with my own three children in college; my schedule interferes with our personal lives, let alone my full-time job; and my age. I tell her, “I’ll be 50 when I get my PhD.” She replies, “You’ll be 50 either way, so why don’t you go back to school?” The logic in that answer helped me make my decision. Four years later I walked across the stage to receive my diploma.