Teaching at a city school means students can leave the building during the day, and often we leave at the same time. If I suspect they’re headed where I am—the Starbucks across the street and down the block—is it rude to pass them well before we arrive?
The line to Starbucks isn’t physical. It’s a perception—an imaginary point where the civility of lining up takes effect. And it’s conceptual—a question of what a line IS anyway and why it matters where it is or whether it is.
And that line can also be philosophical. Are all lines human inventions? Is there a neo-platonic notion of linedness…or am I just being foolish?
In high school and college I worked in a movie theatre. Because ribbon mazes weren’t in widespread use then, I couldn’t rely on customers to wait for the next server. Every shift, a few people missed seeing a line or walked past it to stand expectantly at the counter. In that situation, I decided who was next, weighing the claims on my attention. “First-come First-served” usually worked, but, as my focus centered on the person right in front of me, I didn’t always notice the last person in line when a new person walked up. And, okay, part of me always wanted to penalize the line-breaker. Occasionally I left someone so long they departed with a huff.
To be fair, the lines weren’t always easy to identify but, once people witnessed the success of bellying up to the counter, any notion of “a line” disappeared entirely. I hated that.
I believe in lines and am sometimes miffed when a car swerves onto the shoulder to skirt patiently waiting vehicles. I politely alert other customers to lines and am suitably appalled when I’m ignored. I let ties to the line-up point go to the other person, believing myself the soul of courtesy.
Yet, I also join my family already in line and might let a friend in too, if one suddenly appeared. Sometimes, when the highway narrows, I zip down the disappearing lane telling myself all the other drivers are silly not to take advantage of it while it’s there. I think, someone will let me in.
I can always come up with a reason the law of taking turns doesn’t apply to moi.
On my Starbucks trips, the minute I emerge from the school with a student in front of me, the internal war begins. Do I slow down—and, really, do they have to be so pokey—or do I speed up—and, really, do I have to be so competitive, in such a big hurry?
Lines aren’t created by ribbons. They are created by the people in line, those who’ve made a tacit agreement that, though cuing up will slow them down, turns are still the best way. They are an exercise in temporarily putting others before ourselves.
But I also wonder. In the absence of those ribbons mazes, are all bets off? If lines are emblems of self-restraint, are they as suspect as other rosy visions of human nature?
I’ve taught absolutism and the Enlightenment, and, in the battle between Hobbes and Locke, Locke takes a beating. While some students find Locke’s social compact inspiring, others suspect he’s fooling himself when he says we’ll give up some individual liberty in trust to leaders who live to serve us. Hobbes, they say, sees people straight—humans only care about getting theirs. Students who are also taking biology tell me social biologists agree. It’s only in us to survive. We live to reproduce, and any more complicated motive ultimately comes back to that. Collective behavior lasts as long as it agrees with that all-consuming drive.
Well, if scientists say it, I’m a fool to disagree, but I’d rather Locke was right. In any case, in the absence of absolute, irrefutable proof, I’d rather live as if Locke were right. Though ignoring my own Hobbesian brutishness seems perilous, I can’t give up trying.
Some people are never in line. They explain shortcuts and “expediencies” by saying no one stopped them, and until you’re made to do something, you can do what you want. Maybe, but I don’t want to live in a world where not getting a turn is your own fault.
I accept my Hobbesian lapses, but I don’t want aggression to rule. I guess I’ll have to be in the line to Starbucks…always.