The undergraduate

I work at a university and that means I get to stand in line with some undergraduates from time to time at various coffee shops and greasy spoon restaurants. As an avid eavesdropper, I don’t actually mind. I like hearing about this girl’s classes, that boy’s girlfriend and who went where last night. I never do anything with this passive information but I listen sometimes thinking I’m old, that college was really, really fun and that, as a good friend always says, you couldn’t pay me to be 22 again. I’m always a little taken aback at how young college kids look to me. When I first started working on campus I remember seeing a group of students walking in a herd across the oval. I thought to myself that this group of middle schoolers must be touring for the day until I passed the group up close and saw their college IDs hanging around their necks. They were all members of the incoming freshman class. They didn’t look old enough to drive much less old enough to be in college and it was then that I realized I had the same problem with teenagers that some people have with children. I can probably tell you a person is in their teens just as someone can say that a child is a child, but beyond that I cannot tell you how old they are. Ages 13 to 19 are a little blurry for me.

So I can’t begin to peg the ages of the young couple I sat next to at lunch today. But over a salad in a sunny window seat I heard them talking and almost had to leave so as not to interject.

“Yeah, I played last night,” he said. “I did really well.”

“Open mic night?” she said.

“Yeah, last time I played an open mic, I’d give my performance about a C. There was a girl who went before me who played, like, really, really sad songs and she had, like, 15 people there cheering her on. But three or four people cashed out as she was singing because her songs were depressing…anyway then her friends left when she was done and it’s kind of hard to play well when there are only three people listening.”

Insert no opportunity for the girl to comment.

He went on (and on and on…): “I played some Bob Marley tunes…you know the one ‘Is This Love.’” He went on to sing a few lines.

“I know that song,” she said.

He kept singing. And talking. Non stop.

By this time I started thinking of an old friend who used to warn me in graduate school about the undergraduate. She had a whole list of behaviors she attributed to the undergraduate and none of them were particularly flattering. For example: the undergraduate does not arrive on time. The undergraduate is often half dressed. The undergraduate will wait until the last minute to do nearly anything. And, most important for us graduate students who served as teaching assistants, the undergraduate can’t be trusted. Now whether this boy was living up to my friend’s image of an undergraduate or nervous to be at lunch with a girl or someone who likes to hear himself talk (and sing!), I don’t exactly know but sitting there listening to him made take a deep breath as I thought of my own daughters sitting across from someone like him one day.

There are, I realized, a few things I’d like for them to know.

Someone who cares about you asks interesting and interested questions of you. They stop and let you answer. They make eye contact. They listen when you have something to say. They approach conversations as two-sided conventions.

As I thought about these things I realized these little tidbits are just as useful in kindergarten as they are in college.

I watched Lucille struggle this week with being left out. The girl/girl business starts early, friends. I stepped in and held her as she cried. A little while later she got stung by a bee and started howling. Four other children came over to check on her and give her a hug.

After the screaming had subsided, I asked how she was feeling and she said she was okay.

“Why didn’t they share with me?” she said as I wiped tears away that weren’t totally about the bee sting.

“I don’t know babe,” I said. “But think of the friends that came to check on you. Remember the kindness they showed.”

A little while later Lucille saw one of the children who had checked on her sting.

“She was nice to me,” she said.

“She was and so were lots of other people,” I said. “Because you are a kind girl with good friends who care about you.”

I carried her down the hill hoping that something in my heavy-handed response sticks with her. Little love, hold onto the people in your life who are good to you, I thought, because you deserve to be treated well. Always. Learn this lesson now. Choose to be kind and expect it in return. Don’t put up with mean girls, not now, not in middle school and not beyond. Try, really try because it can be hard, not to be a mean girl yourself. And if, when you’re in college, you are ever at lunch with someone who isn’t letting you speak, get up and move on.