Email this pageEmail This Page

Holding the Door: A High School Boy Learns the Hard Way

Date: June 20th, 2013
By: Polly Bath

Sophomore Greg Gunnars walked into the high school foyer, hurrying out of the sleet and freezing rain. He let the door swing shut behind him, as he always did, and kept walking in his unlaced high top sneakers.

Blam, blam, blam! Mrs. McCabe’s textbooks crashed to the floor as the closing door caught her on the shoulder and she lost grip of her belongings. Car keys and tampons flew like airborne projectiles and landed across the foyer. Lipsticks, snug in their polished cylinders, rolled out of reach. Student papers fled the shelter of their file folders and scattered everywhere.

Before I could step in to help, Principal Bailey collared Greg Gunnars who looked completely perplexed. Greg’s dirty blond, skater-style hair curled around his chin as he stared at the floor.
I’m an educational behavior consultant, not a mind reader, but this kid’s face said it all. The principal is a raving lunatic. I’m an innocent bystander, but he’s gonna take it out on me anyway.

Principal Bailey glowered. “You couldn’t wait one second and hold the door?” Mr. Bailey reprimanded Greg for not holding the door for the next person who happened to be Mrs. McCabe. But this wasn’t getting through to Greg. It was as if he’d never heard of holding a door open. Greg’s fists were clenched, but he took the abuse as if it were a physical blow he was used to. It actually hurt to watch it.

“In my office,” Mr. Bailey pointed to Greg.

My personality and my experience with children would not let me ignore the situation. I knew Greg wouldn’t learn from a punishment. My job was to find out what he did need to learn. When Greg exited the principal’s office with a detention slip, I offered to walk him to class.

“So I guess holding the door for people isn’t something you do?” I asked.

“She has arms,” Greg said. “She can’t open the door herself?”

I remembered the look on his face back in the foyer. Maybe something else was going on with this young man. Maybe he really didn’t have some basic social skills – ones we assume kids have long before high school.

“Of course she has arms,” I said. “But, look. You know how people hold the door when other people are following behind them? It’s just what you do.”

The look on Greg’s face confirmed he had no clue what I was talking about. I reminded myself that sometimes kids don’t know how to do what we expect of them. And sometimes they get into trouble because we adults think the kids aren’t doing the right thing on purpose – or that they’re being rude intentionally. The fact is they don’t even know they’re being rude because they don’t know the basics of common courtesy!

As we walked, I talked to Greg about the idea of holding a door open, or offering your seat on a crowded bus to an older person.

“Look, I have no clue what you’re talking about,” Greg said. “If someone wants a ride on a crowded bus, they need to get in line sooner or tough luck!”

I came to the conclusion that this kid wasn’t heartless. He was clueless! I convinced him to come to my classroom to talk more during first period, which was my free planning period.

Greg sat in the special Adirondack chair next to my desk, which I use for these kinds of one-on-one conversations. It quickly became clear that Greg really didn’t know about doors – closed or open.

“Let me get this straight,” Greg said. “I don’t even know these people, but I’m expected to hold the door?” 

“It’s just something people do,” I said. “It’s considerate. We all have to live on this planet together so why not help each other out. I’m not suggesting you invite them to Thanksgiving Dinner! Just hold the door.”

I finally got a laugh out of Greg.

“So how long do you wait? Are they a certain distance away? What if they’re out in the parking lot? What’s the rule?”

I laughed. “There is no rule. It’s a judgment call,” I said. “There are times I hold the door, then let it go when the person behind me stops to answer their cell phone or slows their course. It’s funny, but at least I offered.”

“This is just stupid enough that I’m willing to give it a try,” Greg said.

“Go for it,” I said. “You never know when you’ll make someone’s day with just a little gesture. Let me know how it works out for you!”

As Greg proceeded to his class, I wondered how the principal might have handled the situation differently. What if he’d said, “Oh, Mrs. McCabe, are you all right? Greg, could you give me a hand? We have to get Mrs. McCabe collected! Could you grab those books and I’ll get these papers.”  Then he could take Greg aside after that so he wouldn’t embarrass him in front of others. “Greg, has anyone ever taught you about holding a door for other people? No? Well, let me give you a few ground rules. I think you might find them helpful.” What a difference that might have made.

Never assume kids have the information we think they should…according to our expectations. Sometimes, if you stop to think, you can “open a door” for a student and help them learn a social skill that can open doors for them for the rest of their lives.


Polly Bath’s articles are about real people and real situations. Changes are made sufficient to protect everyone’s privacy. A veteran educator, she is a behavior consultant, trainer, author, and keynote speaker in the United States. Read more information on Polly Bath’s in-school workshops, consultations, summer institutes, and keynotes. And contact us to make arrangements for her to come to your school.