By Tim Middleton
There are many times when former pupils saunter up to their erstwhile teacher, greet them and ask, “Do you know who I am?” though it is usually phrased in terms of, “Do you remember me, ma’am?” Quite often it is 20 years later, when the teacher has had hundreds of other pupils enter her classroom and when the child has changed dramatically (and not surprisingly, especially if the teacher taught the child in Grade 3)! The teacher most likely will not know who the person is. However, in this context it is an innocent, genuine question.
There is a wonderful video clip on Youtube from New Zealand, which records the scene where students are handing in their papers and filing out of a hall at the end of an examination. One student is late in handing in his paper and the teacher tells him his script will not be marked, at which point the student asks the question, “Excuse me, do you know who I am?” The teacher replies disinterestedly that he has absolutely no idea so the student says, “Good”, puts his paper in the middle of the pile of papers and walks out casually and confidently, safe in the knowledge that his paper will, after all, be marked! One smart pupil! The question here was perhaps investigative.
However, we will all no doubt have been challenged at some stage by someone asking us, somewhat more threateningly, “Do you know who I am?” We know that person is implying that he is a Very Important Person, with the inference being that we should treat him differently than others, with exalted respect and due decorum. He is trying to tell us, without saying it, that he is better, more important, richer, more powerful and well-connected with friends in high places than we are — and we should be good to him! Only someone with an inflated view of himself would ever bother to ask such a question. He asks because he wants special treatment.
The question we in turn might ask is, “Do you know why he has to ask such a question?” What that person fails to see is that the fact that he must ask the question shows that the other person does not know who he is — and that will only anger him more! The fact that he must ask the question shows that in truth he is not better, more important, richer or more powerful than he considers himself to be (otherwise the other person would indeed normally have acted differently). The fact that he must ask the question shows he does not deserve the respect that he is demanding. The fact that he must ask shows that he himself does not know who he is — he has a highly inflated opinion!
We may not know the person’s name or their history or status but one thing is very clear — oh, yes, fear not, we do know exactly who he is! We know he is not who he thinks he is! He reveals himself to be nothing more than an egocentric, insecure, desperate bully who is looking to get his own way and who is looking to do so with no cost to himself. He is an ignorant, arrogant, petulant psychotic with no true understanding of reality — that is who he is!
By that person asking such a question, we are made all the more aware what sort of person he is. However, it should not change the way that we will treat him. It does not matter whether he is the gardener or the manager, whether she is the cleaner or the CEO, the security guard or the bank manager, the child or the parent, we should treat all with equal respect and dignity. In fact, it is not a difficult question to answer. We do know who that person is. That person is just like us, no better nor worse, a simple human being struggling to know his place in the world and society, seeking to find his own purpose, place and value in the world.
It is a simple question, sure — six small words comprising of a total of 15 letters. However, it is a very revealing question, more revealing than the speaker knows or indeed wants. We must stop asking that question as adults; we must also ensure our children do not ask such questions, ever. Furthermore, we must not end up teaching our children to treat certain people with more deference than others, purely based on their name, income, allegiance or ability. We must rather teach our children to take a genuine interest in people, all people, to learn more about them, without having to be asked. If we do not, we will remain like the teacher in the exam hall who thought he had great power and position, but is left powerless and humiliated. And we will remember them years later!
Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS. email: firstname.lastname@example.org