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A Matter of Respect

Editorial Notebook

By Elizabeth S. Zuckerman

In the summer following my sophomore year, I worked part-time at the C'est Bon on Mass. Ave. The store's customers included throngs of tourists, a magician who turned $1 bills into twenties and proceeded to pay me with them, a 70-ish year-old man in a green beret and combat boots who liked to bring me stuffed animals and, most significantly, some of the thousand or so students attending Harvard Summer School. High-schoolers freed of parental restrictions for the summer, carrying light academic loads relative to the average undergraduate, they were an image of the carefree college experience we might had if we'd all gone somewhere else. And some of them were also completely obnoxious.

They were certainly not alone in their rudeness. However, it had an edge to it which the demeanor of most other customers lacked. Something about being among those selected to attend the summer school had apparently infused some of them with an inflated sense of their own intelligence. And I, standing behind the counter in my employee T-shirt, was, in their interpretation, clearly no match for them. I described this problem to a friend who suggested, half-seriously, that I ward them off by pinning my Harvard ID to my shirt.

It might have solved the problem, but that's not the point. There is absolutely no reason to walk into any store and assume that the person behind the counter is an idiot. Chances are you're wrong and all that you do in presuming otherwise is reveal your own arrogance.

The testimony from Harvard employees currently on display in the Science Center reminded me of this simple lesson from that summer. I was appalled by the treatment by students that one of the interviewees describes. One also provided evidence that the arrogance only grows with time, citing the frequency with which returning grads ask, "Do you know who I am?"

The Living Wage Campaign is fighting for a reasonable hourly rate of pay, as defined by the City of Cambridge, but implicit in its message is a call to treat those who cook our meals, clean our floors and wash our dishes with respect. This respect can take many forms and is all too often absent. It's in things as simple as politely greeting the employee who swipes our cards at meals as well as in refraining from adorning the Quincy House elevator with frozen yogurt, as someone felt the need to do last week.

Harvard students, especially those of us about to graduate and enter the so-called real world, need to remember that we are where we are mostly by chance--even beyond the luck of the admissions process draw. Born to different parents in a different place, I highly doubt I would be here and I don't believe I am unique. We should be proud of ourselves for our hard work, and humble enough to realize that most of the privileges we enjoy are an accident of birth.

The person wiping down the salad bar or buffing the floor could just as easily be you and if it were, you too would deserve the benefit of the doubt.

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