I was in my early twenties during my time at R.I.T. and my personality had the usual mix of maturity and immaturity that most young men possess during that age. As I've mentioned before, from time to time back then, and in his own inimitable way, Erik would help guide me into manhood -- this particular time by pointing out some of my ingrained behaviors that were counter-productive to navigating polite society.
I responded that when you spend your childhood getting bullied at school and abused at home, you develop some self-preservation habits -- such as checking the room before you enter so you don't get jumped by a schoolyard bully or reducing your body language and facial expressions to the absolute minimum so as not to attract attention to yourself and piss off an already angry parent.
But it wasn't until Erik pointed out these behaviors that I really put some serious thought into how people might be perceiving me.
It could have been that I had reached a level of emotional maturity that I could accept hearing that observation from someone without taking offense or getting defensive. Or perhaps it was how Erik said it... or maybe it was just because he was a third-party observer who had no malice towards me and was, in his own unique way, engaging in a simple act of kindness.
Regardless, I had been engaging in those defensive behaviors for so many years that they had become second nature to me.
Moving silently was one of those behaviors.
While at R.I.T., I worked at the now defunct R.I.T. Research Corporation. And unfortunately, one time I scared one of my supervisors so badly that he yelled out when he saw me standing there in his doorway. Course, Rich always had a great sense of humor about such things, so after composing himself, and I apologized for startling him, he quipped that I should wear a bell around my neck when we were working late in the office so everyone could hear me coming. He laughed, I laughed, and then I asked him my work-related question.
But afterwards, Erik's words would come back to me and I made it a point to take his observation to heart. No, I didn't start wearing a bell or anything silly like that, but I did make an effort to smile a little more, lurk a little less, and lighten up a little so those hard lessons from my past wouldn't control my future.
Twenty-some years later, I'm still somewhat guarded. I still look pretty intense when I'm walking around, lost in my own thoughts and not paying attention to how I look while I'm thinking. But instead of pausing at doorways and looking both ways before entering, I pause and look around in order to see if someone needs the door held open for them. And when they do, I'm always somewhat bemused when I observe how surprised people react to that simple act of kindness.
Photograph from Andrew Davidhazy's Retired Professors and past colleagues from the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences at RIT webpage.