Saturday, September 11, 2010

"He broke a rule, and I can't praise him enough for it."

CC image on Flickr by selva
Nine years ago my friend made a decision that saved his life.  He went against everything he'd been told for years, used his own judgment, and is alive today because of it.

Mike worked on one of the top floors of Tower 2 of the World Trade Center.  After the first tower was hit, he received word from upper management that there was no reason to panic and workers should return to their desks.  Mike's gut told him otherwise.  And so, at the risk of behaving as an insubordinate worker, Mike headed for the stairwell.  It had been drilled into his head, as it has been for many of us, that in case of emergency, you should take the stairs, not the elevator.  And so he began his descent.

The stairwell Mike entered was soon a crowded one in which the pace of movement was excruciatingly slow.  In more time than his instincts were comfortable with, he had only descended 20 stories.  More than 80 remained.  Remembering that there was an express elevator to the ground floor in one of the nearby lobbies, Mike stood immobile, with a decision before him.  He could do as he was told and remain in the stairwell, or gamble on the express exit.  Assessing the situation and using his judgment, he chose the latter.

Squeezing his way into the nearby lobby, Mike stood as close to an elevator door as he could get.  As people continued to pour in behind him, he soon found himself once again immobile and for a moment wondered if he had made the right decision.  And then he heard a ping.

The elevator doors in front of him opened, and Mike stepped forward.  As many as could entered, and down they went.  Mike made it out.

He's spoken little of what he saw, heard, and felt as he stepped outside.  I'm not surprised.  I can't imagine the challenge of working through those kinds of sensory memories.  And I can only hope that time has helped him heal.

I also can't imagine the panic his parents experienced as they watched the media coverage that day and went without word from their son for hours.  My father, an ordained minister, drove over to support and comfort Mike's family during this ordeal.  Mike's dad left his office and drove home as quickly as he could to join his wife.  Arriving there after my father had, I imagine the image of a priest sitting in his living room at least momentarily made Mike's dad fear the worst.

Eventually Mike reached a working phone and made the call to his family that so many waiting loved ones were praying for that day.  What emotions must have run through that home.

Weeks later Mike's mom spoke to the community, thanking them for their outpouring of love and made a point of commenting on her son's judgment that day.  "He didn't do what he'd been told," she said, both smiling and tearing up.  "He broke a rule, and I can't praise him enough for it."  Those words have stayed with me for years.

I can't begin to relate to what Mike and his family went through that day.  What I can take away, aside from the gratitude I feel for his survival, is the lesson offered in the value of judgment superseding policy and protocol.  If you haven't yet watched Barry Schwarz's TED Talk on "our loss of wisdom," you must.  He eloquently explains how "rules often fail us" and emphasizes the urgent need for all of us, especially educators, to apply "practical wisdom" in our everyday lives.  He argues that a wise person:
  • knows when and how to make "the exception to every rule"
  • knows when and how to improvise
  • knows how to use moral skills in pursuit of the right aims
  • is made and not born
Our world would be a better place with more wise people.  And we educators have the power to affect how much wisdom pervades our world.  I find that both daunting and overwhelmingly inspirational.

As I face this nascent academic year with my students, my hope is to help them develop their sense of judgment.  I hope I can help them discover both the value of rules and the occasions when our wisdom may justifiably compel us to break them.

Mike's story teaches us not that stairwells are less safe or that emergency procedures have no merit.  Instead, it illustrates how critical thinking, analysis, judgment, and courage can be our most powerful survival skills in life.  His story also teaches us how good fortune, whatever you believe its source to be, is something that we ought to actively appreciate daily.

And so, I am grateful that my friend is alive, that his family has peace, and that his story offers some profound life lessons.  And I'm grateful to be in a position where I can connect learners to those lessons.  It just so happens I was supposed to use a different lesson plan on Monday -- one without Mike's story, but I've decided... I think I'll break the rules.


  1. Than you for sharing your story and for the link to the TED talk. 30 minutes of my time well spent.

  2. Beautiful! I really appreciated this story. You are a fine teacher, and I am now your student. Thank You, I will bring this into my Senior Executive meeting on Monday, and the graduate course I will be teaching in June 2011 at Yale.

  3. Moving, motivational, educational and real. Kudos!

  4. Thank you for sharing this story. Yes, we all need to learn to use all that we have been taught and weigh the pros and cons of each decision we must make. Sometimes going against the rules makes us very uneasy, but it is truly the right thing to do.