Have you ever noticed how sometimes you can catch another person’s whole world in just one phrase, where things snap into focus like you’ve never seen them before? I recently caught a glimpse of someone else’s world view … and it woke me up.
It happened like this. My son burst through the front door of our home one night during Christmas vacation after hanging out with some buddies. I asked him about his evening, and to my surprise he actually said something more than the usual – “fine.” His eyes were sparkling, “WOW – DUDE – MOM! We had so much fun tonight! We walked all around Clay Terrace, we hung out, we got something to eat, and then we went into that store … oh you know the one…. The bed store. You know!”
“The Select Comfort Sleep Number store?” I asked totally puzzled.
“Yeah, that’s the one. Anyway, we had soooo much fun! The guy talked to us and everything! He came out from behind the counter and he actually asked if he could help us. He showed us all the different kinds of beds and he even let us lay down on them! He showed us our pressure points and the curve of our spine on this cool color monitor. My sleep number is a 65 … Chris is a 40. He explained to us why sleeping on air is better for us than sleeping on a regular mattress. He was really cool! Wow, for once someone was actually nice to us at Clay Terrace! OK, I’m going to bed. G-night!
Of course I wanted to press it. “Wait a minute. Come back here. What do you mean? Aren’t people usually nice to you at the mall?”
“Are you kidding? No. Never. Ok, I’m going to bed now. See you in the morning.” And he cheerfully bounded up the stairs.
I sat there stunned.
Well I guess I should back up a little and explain. My 18-year-old son is African-American and dresses like a rapper. A stylish, well put-together rapper — but a rapper just the same. And so do the guys he happened to be hanging out with that evening.
It began to dawn on me that for these young men, this was truly an out of the ordinary interaction. The thing I take for granted as a middle aged white woman – respect from strangers based on nothing more than my appearance – took these guys by delightful surprise. It occurred to me that the thing they take for granted is that sales clerks and strangers usually ignore them and are sometimes even rude to them. The very thought of it hurt my heart.
My husband and I have raised our beautiful black sons, now 15 and 18, with all the privileges of white suburbia – good schools and a safe neighborhood, camps and cotillion, travel soccer and youth group. And yet, when I am away from them, it seems much of their world sees them as scary young black men.
And my sons can see it in their eyes. And pitifully, I never saw it before that night. I read about it. I see it on TV. I hear about it from black friends. My head knew it could be true, but my heart didn’t grasp it until that moment.
So today I want to say a thousand thanks to the friendly salesman at the Select Comfort store in Clay Terrace. He made my son’s day with a simple act of kindness and respect. And he made my day by opening my eyes to something that had been there all along. It made me wonder, however, just how many conclusions I unjustly draw every day. We all do, I suppose, without conscious thought.
One of my family’s favorite stories was told by my brother-in-law in the 1980’s. He worked in the service department at Morrie’s Imports, a fancy car dealership in a fancy suburb of Minneapolis. One day business was really slow and all the salesmen were sitting around drinking coffee and shooting the bull. The showroom door swung open and in walked a huge black man dressed in overalls and a wife-beater t-shirt with gold chains around his neck and multiple gold earrings in his ears.
The salesmen looked up and then back down at their coffee, mumbling to one another, “You go wait on him. No you go. No you!” Finally the new guy, his first day on the job, approached him and asked in his most professional manner, “Good morning, may I help you?”
“Yes, thank you. I think you may need to special order these. I am here to purchase two Mercedes Benz, top of the line and fully loaded. One in black and one in purple. How much will that be? I have a check right here along with my bank officer’s phone number so you can verify funds if you’d like.”
The young salesman’s jaw dropped, but the jaws of his buddies hit the floor!
It turns out that the huge and bejeweled black man was a body guard for The Artist Formerly Known As Prince … back when Prince was really Prince. It was 1984 and Purple Rain had just been released, and he wanted to look the part.
I just love that story.
The fact is that God made us all — and he made us all different on purpose. It was his idea and frankly I love it!
That night I resolved two things.
One is, that while I can’t protect my kids once they leave the house, I can strive to become less lazy myself with respect to “judging a book by its cover.”
The other is to thank God for kids that cheerfully bound up to bed at the end of the day no matter what life hands them.