Not including private notes, my first season at Mesa Verde I received eight positive visitor comments on an official comment form available at the front desk of most of Mesa Verde’s public buildings. Last season, I got thirteen. These are very high numbers. Although I interact with literally hundreds of people a day, most visitors do not go out of their way to document their praise for a specific ranger. Most of the comment forms forwarded to my supervisors are complaints – bad news always travels fast and easy. So the fact that in my time at this park, over twenty people have gone out of their way to make my efforts known to the higher ups is a major compliment to me that I am both flattered and motivated by.
This week, for the first time in my short career, a lady walked up to the museum front desk and asked for a comment form so that she may file a complaint about a ‘lady ranger’ currently staffing Spruce Tree House. That lady ranger was me.
My coworkers have reassured me that this happens to everyone eventually. They say that this incident is nothing to lose sleep over. But I hold myself to very high standards, and so I’ve lost quite a bit of sleep over it. Here’s what happened:
I was staffing Spruce Tree House for a few hours on a busy, post-Memorial Day weekend day. There were lots of children around, and one little girl in particular continued to climb up on the walls where no-nonsense, obviously placed signs announced ‘KEEP OFF.’ Usually I make an effort to allow a little bit of time when it comes to dealing with children, who tend to move very fast, in order to give the adults they travel with a chance to discipline them themselves. People can be fiercely defensive of their kids, and I don’t want to play mommy anyway. But no adult in this little girl’s group seemed to mind her behavior, so during her second climb up the wall I gently told her ‘Sweetie, please don’t climb on those walls.’
She hopped right down, but only a few minutes later I encountered her again climbing up a wall that stands at a particularly crooked angle. “Oh come on now,” I told her with a smile (it’s early still in the season, so my mood was patient and laid back), “What did we just talk about?”
“Oh right,” she said in a sort of absent-minded way, “So why can’t I get on the walls anyway?”
“Well,” I responded, “What it really comes down to is that you don’t want to be the jerk that knocks one of these eight-hundred-year-old walls over.”
That is a line I took directly from my safety talks. I try hard to never present a rule without a reasoning, and I’ve found the simplest way to get the point across to guests about to enter a pre-historic site is with this joke. It has always elicited laughter from the crowd, while effectively motivating them to be aware of how they move through the sites. My supervisors have heard me say this line during many coaching sessions and have only ever praised me for its casual effectiveness. No one has ever considered it inappropriate.
The little girl didn’t seem upset. In fact, she smiled at me before skipping away down the trail. I didn’t think twice about it.
But when I got back to the museum, one of my coworkers pulled me aside.
“Hey, did you call a kid a jerk in Spruce Tree House just now?” He asked me.
“What?” I said, shocked, “Absolutely not.” At the time my interaction with the girl didn’t even come to mind. I say that line so often without event that it didn’t even occur to me that that could be the interaction in question. I did remember the use of the word ‘jerk’ in my safety talks, and wondered aloud if someone had meant to say this had happened at Cliff Palace rather than Spruce Tree House – as I had given a tour there that morning. But none of my guests had seemed disgruntled, and the lady in question could not remember my name – which was an unlikely situation if she had spent an hour with me in Cliff Palace.
“Well, I just wanted to give you a heads up,” this co-worker said, “because a woman just came up asking for a comment form saying that a lady ranger called her granddaughter a jerk in Spruce Tree House.”
I walked away feeling perplexed. But later that evening the interaction with the girl came back to me, and I had the thought that in this more casual, one-on-one context, perhaps my words had seemed harsher then I had meant them to be.
I’m still not sure how what I had considered a fairly friendly interaction with this girl got turned into me name-calling. Maybe the little girl was more upset then she led on, and told her grandmother a story different from reality. Or maybe the grandmother was nearby and only heard the word ‘jerk’ while witnessing a conversation between me and her beloved grandchild. Either way, the situation didn’t unfold like the lady claimed it did, and I felt completely wronged by the complaint.
I was still upset the next morning as I sat in the basement office that all forty interpretive rangers share. But then I saw a quote by Edward Abbey pinned to the wall I had never noticed before.
“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards”
As cranky as Ed Abbey can be, he has always been one of my favorite nature writers, and his tone was perfectly suited for my current disgruntlement. The quote made me realize how little that one complaint matters in the context of my entire career, my entire life. I realized that I shouldn’t let one grumpy lady bring me down. I felt relieved in this new enlightenment.
I felt much better as I walked down to Spruce Tree House later that morning for a short monitoring shift. I spent almost the entire hour working with a French couple who did not speak English very well. When it was time for us to part ways the man took my hand in his and smiled broadly.
“Thank you for your sunshine,” he told me.
I think that is the best compliment I have ever received. It made me feel like I was glowing inside. And now I’d like to pay that feeling back.
My job is not easy. I work hard but sometimes, I make mistakes. In retrospect I now see that I could have made better choices when it came to the words I used in that particular interaction. But really, my statistics are good – I’m 21 and 1! The one complaint no longer suffocates me. Instead, I think about those 21 positive comments. And the dozens more who wrote me private thank you notes and emails.
So to every park visitor who has ever gone out of their way to support me or any other hard working employee… thank you, so much, for your sunshine.