Let-It-Slide Rule Is Like No Rule at All

The line at our neighborhood bank is unusually long. Kathleen, my five-year-old, bored with swinging the vinyl ropes back and forth, back and forth, announces, "I spy with my little eye, something ..."

The silver-haired, 70-something woman behind us points to Kathleen and says, "I spy two very beautiful blue eyes."

With well-practiced charm, Kathleen bats her eyelashes at the woman, then continues scanning the lobby. "I spy something red, Mommy."

"She's just adorable," gushes the woman.

I thank her, and turning to Kathleen, I guess, "Is it the lady's red scarf?" "Noooo," she says, "Keep guessing ..."

I glance up and down the counter at the row of tellers, all busy with customers. The friendly woman behind us catches my eye again, then jerks her head toward Gloria, the teller whose station is closest to the front of the line.

Gloria, who has worked at the bank for years, and her customer, a young man in a utility-company uniform, are both African-American.

"Hope he's not going to rob the bank," whispers the woman in line, "So many of them have moved into my neighborhood, I'm afraid to go to my old bank. I hope they won't ruin things here, too."

What can I say, now, when someone's so wrong? How can irrational fear and prejudice wear such a kindly face? Should I point out to the woman that, a few generations ago, my Irish great-grandparents were the dreaded "them" ruining this once proudly German neighborhood?

Or, should I fall back on the rule I developed after many going-nowhere arguments with older people during my teen years in the late '60s and '70s? Thinking myself so clever, I called it my let-it-slide rule: "Don't waste your breath if they're too old to change." Following this rule, itself a stereotype - "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" - kept me out of a lot of generation-gap arguments then. But, if I'm honest with myself, it also helped a quiet (ok, insecure) teenager avoid a lot of conflict.

But that was long ago. There's another generation to consider - specifically, my daughters, ages 5 and 7. They're why I've added a corollary to my let-it-slide rule: "If the kids are around, you have to speak out."

"I think you have to judge people as individuals," I begin.

The woman blinks at me, and Kathleen says, "Give up, Mom? It's the lollipop - the lollipop is red. Can I have it?"

Gloria calls, "Can I help the next person?"

That's me. As I slip my deposit to Gloria, the young African-American customer turns, and steps back to the window. "Excuse me," he says, "but I almost walked off with the teller's pen." He hands it back to her.

How often does life make a point for you like this? I look toward the line, wanting to say, "See?" But the woman's already at another teller. It's too late for her to see.

"Ask for the red lollipop," Kathleen insists, tugging at my jacket. Will it be too late for her? I wonder.

Gloria smiles, handing a receipt to me and the red lollipop to Kathleen, who thanks her without any prompting from me. So my lectures on politeness have sunk in. As we walk out of the bank I realize there's some other teaching I must do. And it won't include the let-it-slide rule.

"Kathleen," I begin again, "What that lady in line said was wrong ..."

* Elizabeth McGinley , mother of two daughters, is a Philadelphia writer specializing in family issues.

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