There was a day, a moment, a lesson long ago in my childhood during an era long past in this country that I recall vividly. The teacher’s hands were leathery, fingernails dark from working daily with oil and gasoline which was part of his job as an automobile mechanic. The lesson that he delivered was not scripted, not planned, but delivered spontaneously during an ideal teaching moment for a young mind collecting early impressions.
I stood on the large front seat of the 49 Buick alongside of my father who sat at the wheel as I observed the world just beyond the grand old car while waiting for my mother to return from the butcher shop. Not many women at that time drove and the large super markets had not yet begun to appear. Televisions were available, but we did not have one yet. So, rides in that old Buick provided the best opportunities to glimpse elements of the world beyond my home.
We waited in the parked car as much of my limited world passed by in the form of cars, trucks and people walking along on the sidewalk. People would come and go, enter or exit the butcher-shop, birds and squirrels would fly or hop by. The day was sunny, as all memories of childhood days seem to be.
One man approached on the sidewalk near the old Buick that caught my eye. I raised my hand and pointed saying, “that man looks funny.” That large leathery hand with darkened fingernails gently pushed my little hand down and the teacher’s words came out, “it is not nice to point at people…you might hurt the man’s feelings.” The man was an African American which my father explained using the acceptable term of the day which was Negro.
Simple, but it said to that little boy that a black man is no different, he has feelings just like him. More importantly, “that man,” implied an equal, an equal part of the little boy’s world, another man like his father. Not a word or stereotype to diminish him, but a man.
Simple, but given the era, I later realized how fortunate I had been that day to learn that lesson. I believe many rewarding experiences followed over the years for me with people of many differing ethnic backgrounds as a result of that lesson.
How different it would have been if my father had used an ethnic slur or to provide a hateful stereotype. I believe that without that teacher, without his lesson, those many rewarding relationships would have been lost.
I believe that teacher, only educated through sixth grade delivered a lesson as powerful as any learned individual could have intended to do.