I find words of inspiration in so many places. The works of Shakespeare. The journal entries of Thoreau. The poetry of t.s. eliot and Mary Oliver. Essays by Barbara Kingsolver. Church sermons and motivational speeches. But earlier this week, it was the words of a 13-year-old from Belmont that made me reverse course and do the right thing.
The crux of my role as library volunteer coordinator is to ensure that I’ve scheduled one or two volunteers to cover each classroom shift in the school library to assist the full-time librarian. Usually it all goes smoothly until winter hits, and then random viruses, extemporaneous vacations and bad weather cause my volunteers to start dropping like flies, at which point it becomes my responsibility to step in and do it myself.
In this case, it wasn’t even a last-minute call. This particular volunteer had let me know two days in advance that she couldn’t cover her shift. I’d already depleted all my library substitute resources for the week, so I told her not to worry about it; I could cover it myself. I put it on my Google calendar and promptly forgot about it.
When the ten-minute warning alarm sounded on my iPhone midmorning, I couldn’t imagine what the warning was for. I was in the middle of drafting an article and was sure I didn’t have any appointments scheduled for the day. And it was still hours until I had to meet Holly’s bus.
But when I glanced at the screen on my phone, there it was: 11 a.m. library shift. I’d absolutely forgotten.
Can’t do it, I immediately told myself. Too busy. The school librarian can manage without me. She appreciates us volunteers helping out, but she won’t mind covering by herself this once. I won’t even tell her I was supposed to do it; I’ll just tell her that the usual volunteer had to cancel and I didn’t have anyone else to cover. She’ll never know that it was actually me who reneged on the commitment.
And then for some reason, I remembered an interview I’d done a few weeks ago. I was talking to a 13-year-old named Nelson about his decision to step forward and initiate a fundraiser for the genetic condition from which his brother suffers. This was a big step for this young man. He didn’t normally talk much about the fact that his brother was nonverbal and mobility-impaired. And in the particular group that was looking for a cause to support with a fundraiser concert – the 13-year-old’s afterschool music program – he was new and hardly knew any of the other kids yet.
There was no reason, he had previously thought, to discuss his personal life and talk about his brother’s difficult situation with them. For all they knew, his family life was just like theirs, and he was happy to keep it that way.
But then, he told me during our interview, a thought came to his head. If no one else knew about his brother, it was a sure thing that no one else was going to suggest dedicating their fundraiser to research for this condition. Nelson was the only person in the room who had the set of information necessary to propose this idea – and, he realized at that moment, if he didn’t do it, no one else would. Or, as he put it, “My philosophy is that if you’re the only person who can do something and you don’t do it, it’s not going to get done. So I just went up there and talked.”
I thought of Nelson in the moments after my calendar alarm went off. True, I could get away with skipping library duty. No terrible consequence would come of it. On the other hand, I was the only one who knew it needed to be done. In this particular case, it was more my responsibility than anyone else’s in the entire world. Just as Nelson said, if I didn’t do it, it was a sure thing that no one else would.
So I went up to the library and did my volunteer shift. As always, it was easy and fun. Yes, it took an hour out of my workday, but somehow I managed to make up for it by the time the day was over. And Nelson was absolutely right: when you’re the only person who can do a thing, you’d darn well better do it.
Lesson learned, from the most unlikely of places. I love Nelson’s philosophy. It’s a quote you might never see in calligraphy on a wall hanging or inscribed in a book. But it was a fine reminder to me of how to do the right thing, and I feel sure that the words of Nelson Barnett will stay in my mind for a long time – and, I hope, ring out loud and clear once again the next time I’m in a dilemma about whether or not to step forward.