A Lesson Learned

I learned many lessons when I worked at the launderette in college, but one stayed with me more vividly than the rest. It was the one I learned on graduation day.

It wasn’t my graduation day. It was for the class ahead of me. And even though all of College Town was overrun with parents and guests and cars, some things continued as usual. The launderette was open. Laundry must be done.

Someone’s father came to the counter to make a purchase—a magazine or a candy bar, we sold all sorts of sundries like that. He handed me a ten-dollar bill. I gave him change.

“I gave you a twenty,” he said.

I frowned or squinted or raised an eyebrow to indicate that he was mistaken. There was an uncomfortable silence. The man stood firm.

“You didn’t put the bill across the top of the till when you made the change,” the man said. “How do you know I didn’t give you a twenty?” (He was well prepared, this father of a freshly minted college graduate.)

At that moment I realized that he wasn’t mistaken, he was lying. I simply couldn’t understand why. In college we did all sorts of naughty things, maybe even felonious things, but we didn’t lie to each other…much. And parents? Parents didn’t lie at all, did they? (I was young then; I know better now.)

I had no argument except for what I knew to be the truth: He’d given me a ten and I’d given him the correct change. Yet I was scarcely nineteen years old and this man was someone’s father; I couldn’t contradict him. I reached into the cash register and gave him another ten-dollar bill.

I had my proof later, when I cashed out at the end of my shift and my drawer was ten dollars short. I had to make up the difference.

Knowing I was right didn’t give me any comfort. If I’d been wrong, I could have accepted the fact and even felt grateful that the man had pointed out my error. (I know this much about myself: I would have felt terribly guilty if my drawer came out ten dollars over.) Instead I knew for certain that the man—someone’s father visiting town for his child’s college graduation—had taken the time to con ten dollars out of an inexperienced cashier. I felt awful.

Knowing that he had an extra ten dollars in his wallet probably didn’t give that father much comfort either. At least I hope it didn’t.

I learned my lesson from that fellow student’s father. I wonder what lessons that student learned.


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