Service Week 2014 [Part One]: Leg Room and the Comfort Zone

I was pleasantly surprised to be sitting in the exit row of our flight.  Usually, I can barely squeeze my long legs into the seats of the plane, designed for Indonesians and other petite South-East Asians, so an exit row seat means that perhaps, just maybe, my legs won’t be going numb on the flight.

One of my students, sitting across the row (but still in the exit row) turns to me and says, “Miss Michelle, do all of the other seats have this much leg room?”
“Uh, no.  This is the exit row.”
“This is the exit row.  It means that if there is an emergency, you will have to help people get off the plane. And there is extra space so that people can walk through to the doors,” I explain, pointing to the emergency door next to him. “That’s why you can’t have stuff under your seat, because it will be in the way if there is an emergency.”
“Oh.”  He looks around him, peaks over the seats to look at the normal row in front of him.
“Haven’t you never sat in the exit row before?” I ask, curious to find out why he is so confused by the idea of an emergency seat.
“No, not yet.”  I can tell by his confusion that there is more to the story than that, so I ask,
“Do you usually fly business class?”
“Uh… well, first class.”
“Before this trip, did you ever fly economy?”
“Uh… no…”

The girl sitting next to me ‘fesses up, too– she’s only flown economy twice before (on other school trips), even though her family flies somewhere every school break.

* * * * * * * *

“Can the boy students clean the bathrooms?”  I ask the woman in charge at the orphanage in my still-developing Bahasa Indonesia.
“You don’t mind?” She asks, looking surprised.
“No!  We want to clean it!” I reply enthusiastically.  (My students were not so enthusiastic.)

I believe that we, as humans, all have the same intrinsic  value.
Maybe that’s because I am an American, and that is the foundation for our country:  all men created equal.
However, in Indonesia, many do not believe that people have the same intrinsic value.
I want to show my students that I, a fellow human who they see as someone with “high” value, do not see scrubbing the tiled squatty-potty toilet as something that is above me.
I believe in leading by example.

The orphanage doesn’t really have any supplies except for a heavy duty chemical for the toilet, a disinfectant for the floor, and a bunch of toilet bowl scrubbers.
I pour the chemical into the squatty potties, dump some disinfectant on the floors, and grab my very own toilet bowl scrubber.


“This is really out of my comfort zone,” one of the Korean boys tell me as I hand him a scrubber.  He looks queasily at the stall, not used to squatty potties or cleaning or chemicals.
“New experiences are difficult, but think about how you are helping someone else right now,” I say.
On the door is a list of the girls who use this particular bathroom, listed out in neat handwriting with a smiley face after their reminder to “please ask before using this bathroom.”
He nods an steps inside.


One of the Indonesian boys in the stall next to mine is half-girl-squealing, half-man-grunting as he scrubs down his bathroom, but it’s all in good fun– he’s kinda dramatic, and it makes the other guys laugh a bit, their own giggle-snorts echoing in their tiled rectangles.

In minutes, we are drenched, our legs and arms covered with a layer of moisture partially from it being 90 degrees, partially from spraying down the stalls, by mostly from sweating.

Two days later, we clean the bathrooms a second time, but this time, we bring along supplies they didn’t have: scrub brushes for the floors and gloves and squeegies to make bathrooms even cleaner.

The same boys clean again, and they even volunteer for the job.


One thought on “Service Week 2014 [Part One]: Leg Room and the Comfort Zone

  1. There is a crazy irony in India that the ‘unclean’ (‘untouchables’) are trusted to ‘clean’… which is why I appreciate that many boarding schools and ashrams expect everyone to do each kind of task – including scrubbing toilets. Gandhi was the leader of such ‘sewa’ (service) and sounds like you started an interesting experiment in this. 🙂

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