On Saturday, on my way to the grocery store, I spied something from the corner of my eye--something fluttery and wavy along the curb. As I slowed down to drive past I saw a mama duck, leading a little trail of baby ducklings, who were bobbing up and down in unison as they followed her. Just as I drove past I saw the mama duck turn to head across the busy road. I was past her at that point, so I pulled up further along the road to look behind. Would the other cars stop? How would they see the ducklings? Would I witness a duck and duckling massacre? What could I do?
But then one of those heart-warming, humanity-reassuring things happened: the cars stopped and the mama duck led her little ducklings safely across the road. All the picture needed to be complete was policeman Michael waving them on. I smiled from ear to ear as I drove off, and I imagined some space in the clouds had opened up over everyone on that road that day, shining over all that kindness, and goodwill, and the brave and stalwart little mama duck, leading her babies to safety.
I pulled up my e-mail this past weekend, and found this story on the homepage--about a homeless man who lay dying on the sidewalk, while pedestrians walked past. This past semester, I assigned this essay to my students, as a segue into our unit on this book that I wrote about last week. So when I saw the news story about how so many pedestrians walked past the man on the sidewalk, as he lay dying, my heart did a hollow lurch.
I brought the article into my students on Monday morning.
We had a hard time with the Kitty Genovese piece, and this whole issue of the bystander effect. Whenever I teach the essay I can't help but assume so many of my students will think the same as I do: of course someone should have called for help! How could they not? Yet the students always make it all more complicated than this. For them it's never clear-cut. There are some, of course, who are appalled and immediately say so. But then there are many who back away. I wondered if this current news story would hit closer to home. What would they think?
But again, the answer wasn't clear. One student threw his hands up in a warding-off gesture.
"No way, man!" he said. "I wouldn't get involved!"
Other students pounced on this. They pointed out that someone only needed to have called; to pull out their cell phone and summon help for the dying man.
But others were silent, shaking their heads. "It's better not to get involved," some said.
I tried to pull out the reasons why, the reasons for this stubborn commitment to uninvolvement. We talked about our responsibilities to others, and about the idea of "paying it forward." Many students agreed that help should have called, but I am always curious about the handful who shake their heads.
Then I told them about the ducks.
They oohed over the cute ending, the thought of the family of ducks crossing the road. Of course people had to stop for the ducks!
"So tell me," I asked them. "Why is it so much easier to stop your car for a family of ducks, than it is to make a phone call to save someone's life?"
"Oh Professor M.," my students said. "What kind of a person drives over baby ducks?"