A couple weeks ago, I stood in the checkout line at the Preserve, purchasing a bottle of kombucha and listening to a very fed-up employee vent about her earlier experience at the pizza counter. Apparently, a student had felt that the best and most admirable persona they could adopt was one who threw their crumpled up receipt at the employee and demanded “‘za.”
It would be a shocking story in any context, but at Colorado College it seemed frankly unbelievable.
CC proudly thinks of itself as a socially progressive school, an island of liberalism in the conservative sea of Colorado Springs; it’s one of the reasons I chose to attend CC, and for the most part, I haven’t been disappointed. From the active bystander trainings offered through the Butler Center, to the queer meditation nights at Shove Chapel, CC truly wants to become an inclusive campus where all viewpoints are valid and peers stand up in defense of one another. There are dozens of volunteer opportunities offered every month through the Collaborative for Community Engagement and their partners in the city, and the newly-formed CC Refugee Alliance is working hard to help refugees find home and humanity in Colorado Springs.
So, how is it that employees of our own school could be made to feel like second-rate citizens? How can we treat people we see every day with such indifference, at the same time as we work so hard to champion the rights of immigrants, religious minorities, and the value of nonwhite lives in America?
The answer, according to Patrick Bright of the Preserve, is that we as a student body are terribly, horribly, and painfully awkward.
I laughed when he told me his assessment because, genuine as he seemed, when I sat down to interview him, I couldn’t help thinking he was being just a bit too generous.
Bright thinks highly of us as a student body. While he admits it’s strange seeing the same customers at work every day, he says that we are the best part of his job. “I have met a lot of really interesting people,” he told me, “a lot of really good people. A lot of people that give me hope for the future. Here you see the brightest and the best every day.” It’s not often that we give a lot of thought to the remarkable privilege of our presence at such a prestigious educational institution, but it seems that Bright does. When I asked whether it was the students’ choice of majors that gave him more hope than typical restaurant customers, he replied, “the fact that they’re studying makes for a different clientele.” He ought to be right—at least, that ought to be why most of us are here: to educate ourselves in order to shape the future of our country for the better.
CC has been kind to Bright—a definite improvement from his 10 years of struggle with depression and a hellish two weeks working at McDonald’s to make ends meet a few years ago before being hired by Bon Appétit. Though he jokes that the hell of McDonald’s gave him a lot of good material for his standup comedy, he’s truly grateful for the job that turned his life around. And of course, CC students are a “better crowd than the McDonald’s crowd. A lot better.”
But like anyone, Bright doesn’t want to spend his whole life making pizzas for college kids. Bon Appétit isn’t his whole life at the moment, anyway; he performs brilliant standup comedy and adores spending time with his cats, Bean and Eep. Yet, looking beyond his time at CC, Bright says, “I want be famous, I guess. Or not really famous, but I want to, you know, be respected. I don’t want to be poor. I don’t necessarily need to be rich, but I don’t want to be poor. And getting married would be nice, having children.”
Bright is loath to speak ill of the CC student body, but his dream of being respected is perhaps too good an indication of how much respect he and his coworkers find themselves receiving from students on a daily basis. Yet, Bright is blessed with the sort of comedic personality that allowed him to transform his horrifying experiences at McDonald’s into prime comedy material. “I’m constantly on,’” Bright told me when I asked what gets him going on bad days, “trying to find the funny side of things so I’m not at rock bottom.”
Perhaps it’s this sense of humor that allows him to view the CC student body with such a generous gaze. “As I’ve worked here, I’ve learned that a lot of kids are just really awkward,” Bright admitted. “And so you could say that a lot of them are standoffish, but I don’t think they mean to be. I think they just don’t have the communication skills or confidence to actually say ‘thank you’ or ‘please.’” He acknowledges that it takes a lot of compassion and understanding to be able to love us despite our flaws. Not all of his coworkers share his patience, however, and he knows that often the staff is “irked” by our presence. “You can be really pissed off at what some of these kids do sometimes, but you just have to roll with the punches.”
I was amazed that Bright could think of students as awkward rather than rude, given my own experiences of conflict with “standoffish” customers. “Well there are certainly rude people,” Bright admitted, “but I think that stems from their discomfort. Everybody is trying to impress everybody. Everybody wants to be well liked. Some of them are just really bad at it,” he laughed. “Really bad at it.”
While sometimes encounters with intoxicated students can result in $12 jars of gefilte fish falling to the floor, “most of the time it improves our interactions, because it softens the edge a lot of these kids have,” Bright said. “So we can have a banter going back and forth, a little more conversation, rather than just the regular, ‘Pizza. I need pizza.’”
Despite, or perhaps thanks to, his sense of humor, Bright knows he has the easiest time of all his coworkers. We, as students, don’t make life easy for them. “This is a hard job if you have a lot of rage.” Bright said, no longer laughing. “I’ve seen it, and I see it everyday. It’s hard. It’s really hard. It’s really, really hard to work here. It takes a lot of work, concentration, and hope.”
Bright’s sense of humor helps him give us the benefit of the doubt, to believe that we are awkward rather than rude, socially challenged rather than socially superior.
Yet even with the benefit he gives us, I can’t help but believe there must be something more at work than mere social anxiety. Why are we incapable of making eye contact or conversation with the person preparing our curry expo, but can talk with ease to a Carnivore Club member flipping us a burger?
It often seems as though the glass of the expo counter separates two worlds, a separation with which we have yet to come to terms.
“It’s true,” junior Gabi Magnani agreed, “if it’s a CC student serving me, I just assume we have enough in common that if I start a conversation, we’ll find something to talk about. I don’t always assume the same thing about Bon Appétit staff.”
It’s an unconscious assumption made by most of the students at least some of the time that we don’t have enough in common with the folks who so generously and patiently serve our food upon which to base a conversation—or better yet, a friendship. So we stand in silence, staring off into space while our pasta heats up on the stovetop, unsure whether to strike up a conversation, or what to say if we did.
But what is it that separates us, beyond the thick glass pane above the counter? What is it that calls for a difference in behavior towards a fellow student or an employee of the school?
I refuse to believe it’s because we’re really so entitled, but I do believe that the socioeconomic privilege from which a large percentage of the student body benefits creates a certain blind spot where food service workers reside. Many of us have never been on the other side of the glass, never been the ones thanklessly providing for people who cannot even bother to say good morning.
So we’re awkward, and sometimes we’re rude. It’s most likely unintentional, but we cannot escape the fact that there is something preventing us from smiling, chatting, and sharing something of ourselves. Perhaps it’s our socioeconomic privilege, or the fact that we don’t know whether or not the person piling tomatoes onto our salad has attended college, which leaves us unsure how to speak as equals, as friends. It’s like Bright said: “once you become friends you can be an asshole, but until that point, you know… say please and thank you.”
Even if realizing that we all spend most of our time at the same institution, in the same city, in the same country, with all the same current issues and events, isn’t enough common ground for a conversation, nothing is more fundamental than the bonds of shared humanity that connect us all. Our minds are complex, filled with creativity, connections, and care. Each one of us experiences the world in a unique way, but, unless we ask, we can never know the thoughts living just beneath the surface.
It seems a silly thing to be telling such a liberal body of students that we’re all human. After all, there’s a reason we fight so hard against Donald Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric, a reason we think 10,000 Syrian refugees is too few for the U.S. to accept. Yet, when we stand in front of that glass counter, how quickly we forget what it means to share in an enjoyment of our common humanity.
It’s easy to champion the humanity of strangers: less so to treat those we encounter every day as human. When we must look our privilege in the face, we shy away. How much easier to view our privilege through the long lens of an Internet petition!
What I’ve written here is not unequivocally true of every student on this campus. There is wonderful work being done by students face-to-face with refugees and people suffering from homelessness in Colorado Springs. There are also students who go out of their way to have genuine human interaction with every member of the Bon Appétit staff they encounter. But not one of us is perfect. We all have days when it fails to occur to us that the person making our coffee is a potential friend.
We can be better. Our differences in background ought to give us more to talk about, not less. There is so much we could learn from one another, if only we were less awkward. If only we could stomach our privilege, swallow our pride, and recognize that, for whatever else we lack in common, our common humanity is all that matters in the end.