Everyone makes mistakes; don't punish them

For me, the best thing about the good old days at private school in Abu Dhabi is that those days are over.

For me, the best thing about the good old days at private school in Abu Dhabi is that those days are over. The outset is etched tenderly and permanently into my memory: the swelling in my throat each morning as I watched my mother's silhouette retreat into the car park, the five gold birthday stars Miss Lyons pressed on to my hand and the dusty smell of the chalkboard against my nose when I misbehaved. Sensitive and tense, I fought tears throughout and often lost.

But what haunts me most was the pervasive sense of guilt by association that hushed the playground every few days when a classmate had an accident at school. The school's protocol for this was pretty standard: dispatch offenders to the school nurse's office, where they were given a change of clothes. Consistent with the administration's policy of perfectionism, the alternative ensemble was typically yellow in colour, a conspicuous deviation from our grey and white uniforms. This marked the young culprits, ineffectively coercing them into continence. The marigold in our midst would be ostracised at once.

Even at five, this struck me as a bizarre and unkind ritual. Today, at 31, I can scan my memory (and my Facebook friends list) and identify who sat alone at lunch 26 years ago, decked out in the yellow duds of shame. Association - and consequently, guilt by association - is a powerful thing.

At the end of 2005's West Bank Story, the Oscar-winning romantic short film about the duelling falafel stands Hummus Hut (Palestinian-owned) and Kosher King (Israeli-owned), the star-crossed lovers Fatima and David decide to go where they'll be free to love each other with impunity: Beverly Hills.

I was just in Beverly Hills, where I experienced a different version of serenity, albeit inadvertent. Losing one's mobile phone does simplify things by default, as does, I suppose, a visit to the nurse's office for fresh trousers. Once you've finished exercising damage control, there's nowhere to run. A few days later, I left my wallet on one plane before dashing to make my connection. Settling into that flight, I glanced at the in-flight menu; the chef Marcus Samuelsson had created a US$10 (Dh37) smoked brisket, lettuce and tomato sandwich for American Airlines, and I wanted it. I reached into my bag for my wallet and realised what I'd done. And then I cried into a cocktail napkin.

When a mechanic recovered my wallet, I was so grateful that I cried again. She emailed me back: "Nothing to thank me for - just doing my job." Should common decency be considered standard rather than commendable behaviour?

Ancient teachings that encourage fasting speak of the challenges and rewards of transcending our primal instincts. In her essay, The Food of Kindness, the Canadian Buddhist nun Ayya Medhanandi writes: "Bearing hunger with faith led me beyond despair to a gratitude and joy for what I did receive - a feeling of fullness that was not borne of food."

This is easier said than done. People hurt each other all the time, even when their hearts are in the right place. Most of us want to be and do good, but kindness isn't always the path of least resistance. My friend Pat, who works in Dubai, discreetly schooled a tourist who was eating and smoking in public last week on the basics of Ramadan. Someone motivated by a different perception of benevolence might have simply phoned the police.

Recently, I've started to imagine people as persistent underperformers who err involuntarily, like a first grader in his yellow trousers. We all carry that kid around inside. Don't destroy his spirit over a change of clothes.

Published: August 2, 2012 04:00 AM


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