"A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines."
– Frank Lloyd Wright
Volume 74 | Issue 3
May 2006

Promises to Generations: Community Building at Its Best - There are no dumb questions

Gregory T. Wilkins

Editor’s Note: Last year ACUI began collecting humorous anecdotes and poignant reminders of our work as campus community builders for a future publication. We greatly appreciate those of you who submitted stories for “Promises to Generations: Community Building at Its Best.” In this and upcoming Bulletins we will showcase some of those submissions to prompt others to share their stories. Please send your submission of 800 words or less to stories@acui.org.

My first college union experience was working at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., in the dining hall. I was selected to be the morning manager, which required me to wake every day at 5 a.m. to make breakfast for 600 students. While many would prefer to sleep in, I was the early bird. Getting up early and being a first-year college student are not congruous. And with early morning activity, I was bound to get myself into mischief.

At the break of day, I was fortunate to receive new staff members on my team. And while hazing is strongly frowned upon, this was an opportunity to show them the ropes and have some fun at the same time. I instructed one of my team members to tell the new staff to break down the salad bar after breakfast. The new folks did not know what that meant, and they asked me for clarification. My mischievous devil took hold immediately.

“You don’t know what breaking down the salad bar means?” I said.

“No,” they replied in perfect unison.

Now, I could show them the correct way or give them a formal introduction into “breaking down the salad bar.”

Well, you can imagine which one I took—the latter. I instructed them to go into the back room and get the large, red tool box. They were to work in teams and disassemble the salad bar into pieces—stack the frame, compartmentalize the screws and bolts by size, and have it completed by lunch. Being good employees, they jumped right to it.

As I was leaving for class, I told them I would check-in with them at 9:30 a.m. to see if they had any questions. I returned back to the dining hall after class, and the entire salad bar had been taken apart. The entire front end of the dining hall had pieces of metal, plexiglass, screws, and bolts from one side of the floor to the next. They proudly stood by their assignment, and asked me: “How did we do?” I gave them a round of applause, while the remainder of my team laughed and cheered.

What was so funny? The new folks looked around and did not get the joke. I congratulated them on following directions and for a job well done. I then told them that they had an hour and a half to put the entire salad bar back together again before lunch.

They could not believe their ears! “What do you mean we have to put it back together?” they said. “We just broke down the salad bar like you requested.”

I questioned them: “Isn’t it a bit odd to break down the salad bar and put it back together every day and within a three-hour period?” They all resoundedly nodded their heads. “Didn’t it appear odd when I asked you to do it?” I asked again. They stood there with blank faces. Encouraging a response I probed them: “Why didn’t you ask any questions rather than blindly doing what you were told?” There was a hush in the dining room. No one responded. And I stated: “When in doubt, ask. There are no stupid questions.”

The entire team, along with the new staff, laughed in unison. The joke was on them but a valuable learning experience for all. I reorganized the team and pulled up my sleeves to help them reassemble the salad bar. We never got it together before lunch. In fact, we did not finish it until after dinner and late into the evening. Regardless, we were a better team the remainder of the year, and we asked lots of questions.