Ann Patchett, author of five novels and many articles published in publications such as The Washington Post, Gourmet, and Vogue, is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College. She served as a commencement speaker for her alma mater and in 2008 published a book based on that address. It’s a wonderful little book entitled “What Now?”* in which she talks about heading to college being “terribly, terribly lonely.” This is an excerpt from her book.
“In the end I did the only thing I knew how to do, the thing they always taught us to do in Catholic school: I did unto others. If you want someone to be nice to you, you must be nice to someone else, and since I really only knew one person- my newly assigned advisor…, who had shown me great kindness in our first meeting – I decided I would bake him a batch of cookies. If that sounds hokey to you then you can rest assured that’s because I was one seriously hokey kid.”
She explains that she had to buy all the ingredients, and the bowls, cookie sheets and measuring cups making these “cookies… the most expensive in history.” She mixed the batter, turned on the oven in the residence hall kitchen, and it never heated up. “I sat there for a moment feeling hopeless, but then decided that I couldn’t (eat the cookie dough) since the cookies were meant to cure my hopelessness. I picked up the cookie sheets, fixed the bowl of extra dough beneath one arm, and went outside… across the street was a fine-looking house… I was a shy person, but at that moment I was on the edge. I needed a heating element. And so I marched ahead and, using one corner of a pan, knocked on the door.”
The fine-looking house turned out to be the home of the new president of Sarah Lawrence College. The president invited this unknown freshman into her home, led her to the kitchen and “told me to make myself at home.”
Patchett goes on to say, “Had I been the most cunning freshman in the history of higher education, I doubt I could have come up with a plan that would have gotten me the very thing I longed for, which was less an oven and more a family to take me in. I would never have had the words to ask for something as large as that. Sometimes the circumstances at hand force us to be braver than we actually are, and so we knock on doors and ask for assistance. Sometimes, not having any idea where we are going works out better than we can possibly imagine.”
I love this story for many things, but I’ll focus on three.
First, is the bravery it took and the desperation that drove it, for this lonely freshman to ask for help. We forget sometimes how very difficult that is for our students. It seems routine to us, but in many cases it’s not routine at all for the person on the phone or standing in front of us.
Second, is the openness of the president to the need of this student—this is the need, I can help, let’s do it. She didn’t stop to calculate how many students would knock on her door if she made this choice; she helped the student. We can’t always ‘just’ help the student, but many times we can if we will just open our ‘metaphorical’ doors.
Third, it’s a great reminder that we need to knock on doors, too. Asking for help is an important life and work skill.
What doors have you knocked on recently? What doors have you opened? Where have you been brave or have responded kindly to someone else’s bravery? We might each find out like Ann Patchett did that it “works out better than we can possibly imagine.”
* Patchett, Ann (2008). “What Now?” New York, NY: Harpercollins.