It was summer and I was taking classes at Austin Peay. I had finished my last class of the day and was looking forward to decompressing at home. Packing a semester’s worth into a few weeks resulted in long classes and, while I did and still enjoy learning, I liked that I was done for the day. Little did I realize that I was about to be taught an important lesson by an unlikely teacher.
Austin Peay has a courtyard like created in the space between three buildings at the front of campus (in front of Browning and between Clement and McCord, fellow alumni). Sidewalks crisscross the entire area, most added after students wore a new path in to the ground. I had to walk through the area to get home.
That day a summer thunderstorm had passed through earlier, but the sun was already back out making the day quite muggy. I came up the steps that led to the open space and saw a non-traditional student heading my way. She pulled a rolling book bag and a small girl I assume was her daughter who couldn’t have been older than four or five. Their progress was slow because the little girl would stop, bend down to the sidewalk, then run out into the grass before bending down and returning again. As I got closer, I could see the exasperated look on her mom’s face each time she went through this.
My curiosity began to burn. What was the little girl doing? Why did she keep repeating it?
Finally, I was close enough to see. She bent down, picked up an earthworm slowly dying on the drying concrete and took it out away from the sidewalk to gingerly place it on the cool shaded grass. I stopped walking for a moment, transfixed by the care she was taking with each one. Then I looked around and saw the sidewalks through the eyes of that one little girl. There were hundreds of earthworms. They were everywhere. Insignificant. Overlooked. Trampled On. Unable to cry out for help, but in need nonetheless.
I did the only thing I could. I se my backpack on a bench and started saving worms. Her mother regarded me with slight curiosity, but the little girl squealed with delight and redoubled her efforts. It wasn’t long before someone else walked by, unable to avoid the giggling little girl and the college student with a silly grin on his face.
“What are you guys doing?” he asked as I darted to a good patch of earth near a tree.
“We’re saving what we can!” I answered as I returned to the sidewalk. The expression on his face stopped me for a moment. It seemed perfectly natural to say, but I realized how it must sound and suddenly felt more than a little embarrassed. He looked back at me, looked at the little girl, and finally the sidewalk.
He put down his own backpack and got to work. The little girl’s mom is incredulous and keeps looking at the three of us as if we’ve lost our minds. It wasn’t long before long before another two students had joined in and she shrugged and started helping us. If it had remained just that little girl, or just the two of us it might have still looked strange, but six people, well, that was a group acting normally. Of course, it wasn’t long before we had doubled, then doubled again.
We covered the entire area, laughing and giving high-fives. Every one of us scrambling to get to the worms before they died and carefully setting them in the grass while avoiding the ones we already saved.
“I’ve got another on.”
“I just got two at once.” That guy was good!
Throughout it all we were fueled by a desire to save them all sparked by one little girl. We felt a comradeship with one another, a sense that we in this together. Captivated by the idea that something others would consider silly or useless was important to us.
Many hands truly make short work and soon all the worms that could be saved were. We all went to retrieve our belongings. We all still sported huge smiles, but the high-fives were fewer and we were obviously sad the moment was fading.
I crossed the street and started down the sidewalk to my apartment. There were more worms there. As I saved them, I couldn’t help but wonder just how many earthworms I had ignored baking on the sidewalk. How many had I passed by on campus that day before I came across that little girl? How many had I casually stepped on, not out of malice, but out of simply not noticing them?
I thought about them. Insignificant. Overlooked. Trampled on. Then I thought about the goth kids who always sat on the sidewalk by the University Center, most passing by without acknowledging them. About the older woman in my Physical Geography class that faded into the background. I thought of all those I never noticed on campus, never talked to, and just walked past. I thought about beyond campus. About the man I interviewed on camera about Homecoming and only realized he was probably homeless when reviewing the tape. About just how many people I never gave a second thought, or second glance. How many of them were struggling? How many of them were slowing dying unnoticed?
They are much more important than earthworms, but we often view them the same. Insignificant. Overlooked. Trampled on. They’re everywhere, and thanks to one little girl, I can never ignore them again.