As the Martin Luther King Jr. Tribute VIP reception wound down, I found myself wandering around the Smith student union Browsing Lounge looking for a misplaced coat. Most of the guests were upstairs in the ballroom for the main event. I was tired and my navy blue blazer was a little too warm. As I poked around under chairs and tables, employees from Aramark, our campus catering service, were busy clearing plates, napkins and wine glasses. A young man pushed a cart towering with dirty dishes and napkins past me. “You guys are awesome!” I blurted suddenly. He looked up and smiled. “Always cleaning up after everyone so they can enjoy themselves,” I continued.
“Well, this is just my second time doing this,” he replied. “I worked in the restaurant business before this…this is just a temporary thing. The restaurant I was working for closed down just before Christmas. I’m used to being more in the public eye and not so much behind the scenes. But it’s kind of nice, actually.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “I’ve had a quite a few jobs where I was more of a ‘behind the scenes’ person. It’s really different from what I’m doing now as a Student Ambassador.”
We chatted for another couple of minutes. The missing coat was located and I headed upstairs. I thought about the conversation I’d had and why I had felt moved to say something in the first place. I remembered when I’d had less glamorous jobs. I’ve been a gas station attendant on the graveyard shift, worked on the receiving dock of a major department store in the wee hours of the morning, and been a theater usher, among others. I recall how I was often treated, which was rudely and with a certain amount of distain. This made me angry. I wanted to yell, “You don’t know anything about me! I’m an educated person! This isn’t what I wanted to be as a child! I have bills to pay just like you!” Of course, I never said those things. I just smiled sweetly and continued doing my grunt work.
Just because I now wear a blazer to work and have a fancy title doesn’t make me any better or more important than the people who clean up after me. I’ve made a promise to myself to always remember that.