Topics & Perspectives

Being in the Right Place to Make a Difference

When I taught school, I always thought my challenge was to be the right person in the right place at the right time, even when bells governed that behavior. As I tried to be that person daily, however, I was also often challenged by what inevitably could get me off course — or at least make me smile. When a kid told me he didn’t have his homework because it was still in his pencil or that his mom forgot to do it, I would say to myself — “plot twist”— and plan my next move.

When I retired, however, my new mission was still to be the right person in the right place at the right time. I just had to figure out what that meant. For me, one answer became apparent when I served food regularly at a Downtown Columbus shelter that happened to be near my old stomping ground as a kid. After creating lessons for 125 kids throughout five classes a day for 36 years, I liked the hands-on nature of setting tables, preparing salads, and filling up water pitchers. I even liked wiping down the tables afterward before I swept the floors. 

The best part is serving the chicken to those who have come in from the cold to get a decent meal. I know I am in the right place when I can put a chicken leg on a kid’s plate and joke with him about his homework or when a man carrying his sleeping bag strikes up a conversation about his month of sobriety.  

But I questioned being the right person at the right time one night when a woman in a worn coat said to me, “I’ve wanted to thank ya for burying my son after he drowned in the Scioto. No one else did nothing to help. I didn’t know what to do. You even said some kind words about him even though you didn’t know ‘em.”

I had no clue as to her son’s death, so as kindly as I could, I told her I was sorry for her loss, but I think she had me mixed up with someone else. “Nope. You was the one. Don’t you remember? You read about it in the paper and came to my camp.”

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As I realized she probably confused me with a minister at the shelter, I tried to explain the mistaken identity, but she wouldn’t have any of it. “Nah. You showed me kindness. You buried my son.”

What was I supposed to do? I might have been in the right place at the right time that night, but I was the wrong person for her. She insisted that I had some meaning in her life, and it seemed important to her at that exact moment to give me credit for someone else’s kind deed. So, the best I could do was accept her thanks, hug her, and hope I would see her again.

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When I think about what retirement activities should mean, I think about this thankful mother in an oversized coat. I didn’t do anything for her in her darkest moment. I didn’t ease her pain, and I didn’t have any control over our encounter that night. I felt like a fraud because I didn’t feel like the right person at the right time or place.  

However, I have since thought twice. I could comfort that woman in that particular moment of her need. Being more than just the person who swept floors that night was challenging. The right place is to be meaningful at the moment when your feet already have you there. The right time is determined more by our perception than the circumstance, and we are never really the wrong person if we choose to be the right person. Isn’t that what our path really should be about?


Beverly J. Graves

Beverly Graves is a retired high school teacher who now writes curriculum and articles for the Ohio State Bar Foundation. She also presents that curriculum to students throughout Ohio.

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