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You Don’t Need an Audience to Do The Right Thing

awesome

I like stories.

So I’m going to tell you two. These are true stories that happened at different points in my life. The first happened when I was 18. The second when I was 28.

I may have told these stories here before, so please forgive me if you’ve already heard them.

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It was Thursday morning and I was working my usual shift at the local library. In between shelving books and answering questions, my job was to check in the returns. Every morning I did this. I’d pick up a book, open to the back cover, scan the barcode, and stack the book on the trolley. This morning was no different to any other.

Until I opened a Large Print edition of a Ruth Rendell mystery and was faced with a mystery of my own.

I flipped open the cover, barcode scanner at the ready.

I flipped the cover closed. Had I just seen… Was the really…

I put down the scanner and carefully opened the book again. Then snapped it closed.

There was money in there. Lots of money.

I was 18 years old, working two jobs, trying to study, and living on ramen noodles slathered in cheap tomato sauce. Money was something that happened to other people. But there I was holding a book that appeared to be full of the stuff.

Gently, carefully, as though the cash would disappear in a puff of dream-stuff if I moved too quickly, I opened the book again. This time I kept it open. I flicked through the $50 notes inside. There were twelve of them. I had six hundred bucks right in front of me.

What I could do with six hundred dollars….

I carefully closed the book again, took a deep breath, and pressed a few keys on the keyboard.

“Excuse me,” I said to the little old lady perusing the Large Print section of the library.

“Yes?”

“Are you Mrs Newman?”

“Yes.” She fingers tightened on the strap of her handbag and she leaned away from me.

I held up the book. “Did you just return this book?”

“Yes,” she said. Her smile was gone. “Is something wrong?”

“No.” I proffered the book. “But I think you left something inside the back cover.”

She cautiously took the book from me and opened it. The colour drained from her face, and she all but collapsed into a nearby chair. “Oh, my. I…”

“Are you alright?” I was eighteen. I thought I’d killed her.

“I’m… Oh. Thank you. I’m always nervous about keeping money in my purse, so when I take my rent money out of the bank I hide it in the back of a book. For safe keeping. I must have forgotten it was in there. I’m so… thank you. So much.”

I smiled, waited for her to take her money, and then took the book back to the counter. She left shortly thereafter, and returned with a box of chocolates and a bouquet of flowers for me. I walked on air for the rest of the day.

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It was Friday evening. My husband and I were walking through the mall on the way home, past restaurant after restaurant full of happy, smiling people intent on a good night out. We were heading home to have cheese sandwiches for dinner. We didn’t have enough money for restaurants or take-away food. (But on the plus side, we could afford sandwiches!)

“How about we get some Coke on the way home?” my husband asked.

“Sure,” I said. Because sometimes you just have to splash out.

So we dropped into a 7-11 and while my husband was grabbing the soft drink, I went to the ATM. May as well try my luck and see if I can get $20 out, I thought. (Although I was pretty sure I only had five dollars and some change in my account.) I put in my card, typed in my PIN and looked down.

Sitting in the tray where the money is dispensed was a fifty dollar note.

I picked it up. Fifty bucks. There was no-one around. No sign of who it belonged to. I ran it between my fingers. With fifty bucks, we could buy a piece of steak and some vegies on the way home. Or a bottle of wine. Hey, we could probably even go out to dinner.

Or we could do the responsible thing and use it to pay one of our massively overdue bills.

I flicked the note back and forth between my fingers while I pushed buttons on the ATM.

— TRANSACTION DECLINED. INSUFFICIENT FUNDS. —

We should still have enough in our bank account to just use EFTPOS to pay for the drink. And there was always the fifty dollars…

“Excuse me,” I said to the guy behind the register. “I just went to use the ATM and someone forgot to take their money.”

“Yeah…” the guy said, like he didn’t know why that would have anything to do with him.

“Can I leave it with you in case they come back for it?”

He looked at me like I was an idiot. Then he took the money, wrote a note about it, and put it in a drawer under the counter. My husband came back with the Coke. We paid for it (holding our breaths while we waited to see if the transaction would be approved) and then left.

And as I ate my cheese sandwich and drank my Coke, I was happy.

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I’ve told people those two stories a few times over the years. Not to blow my own trumpet, but to illustrate the importance of not hiding money in library books, and to remind people to check they’ve got their money before they leave the ATM. And without fail, I get the same reactions from people.

When I tell the first story, I get people saying things like: That’s so sweet! You’re so honest! Not everyone would have returned that money! It’s a good job it was you who found the money and not someone else!

When I tell the second story, I get people saying thinks like: Why would you do that? You know the guy just kept the money, right? You should have just kept it. Anyone else would have.

Maybe people are right. I mean, who knows what happened to that fifty dollar note? Maybe the guy at the 7-11 waited until I’d left the store and then pocketed it and spent the night telling people about the stupid woman who handed it over.

Or maybe it was a couple’s last $50 and they came racing back into the 7-11 five minutes after we left, frantic that they wouldn’t be able to buy any food for their children, and were overwhelmed with relief when the cashier handed them the money.

There’s no way to know.

And here’s the thng: It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter what happened to that fifty dollars. It wasn’t mine to keep any more than the $600 I found at the library was mine to keep. Just because I couldn’t personally hand it back to the person who lost it doesn’t mean I had a right to keep it.

It’s not my responsibility if someone else chooses to do the wrong thing.

It’s my responsibility to make sure I do the right thing.

Even if no one is watching.

When have you been called an idiot for doing the right thing?

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