Over the holidays, a time when we're all supposed to think about being generous and helping others, I couldn't help being discouraged by the selfishness that's rampant in our society and politics.
We have Wall Street titans pocketing billions in bonuses while their ruined companies rely on federal bailouts. Silk-suited lobbyists spend hundreds of millions trying to buy their way in Congress. Tea Party rowdies hate taxes so much, they don't want government to do anything new, even if it means turning a blind eye to the robber barons who looted the economy. Trying to extend health care to all, without disrupting the coverage of those fortunate enough to have it, is seen as a socialist plot to destroy the country. I've got mine, Jack, and if you don't have yours, you're just a loser and the heck with you.
Amid this bleak landscape, it was a pleasure for me to spend time with two different seat mates on a cross-country airline trip.
First was a 20-something woman heading back to Denver. While her college classmates went into investment banking and finance, she went into teaching. After a couple of years she discovered she "didn't love it" and went back to school for a master's degree. Now she has found her passion -- she has an internship helping refugees from Africa find safety and a new life here in America.
Burdened by student loans, and working full time to finance her education, she could not comprehend when a high-flying former classmate complained about a year-end bonus that would be "only" $240,000. A second-generation American, child of white-collar immigrants -- her dad came from Spain and her mom from Cuba -- she understood America meant more than just the chance to grab as much as you can at someone else's expense.
On the flight back to Anchorage, I sat next to a chatty woman who teaches kindergarten at North Star Elementary. It took me only about 90 seconds to realize she had the perfect personality for kindergarten - loving but firm, kind-hearted and generous, setting limits while always seeing the good in her young charges.
Most school nights she works until 6 p.m. -- long past quitting time. Fridays, she stays until 8 p.m., getting ready for the week ahead. She spends upwards of $500 a year on supplies -- constantly looking for blockbuster sales so she can stock her shelves cheaply. At Christmas, she hands out presents for each kid and each parent. She even arranges for the neediest families to get a turkey.
I told her I appreciated all her hard work for relatively low pay. She said her reward comes when she sees the spark of learning light within a child. Her husband, sitting next to her, beamed with pride as she told me of her work, as well he should.
I headed home from the airport, feeling uplifted by my time with two people who are doing more good than any bonus-grubbing investment banker could ever claim to do.
Matt Zencey is editorial page editor of the Daily News.