It’s good to appreciate our teachers, every day should be teacher appreciation day. We should go further and remember all of those who have taught us valuable lessons. The unsung teachers, the unknown, those people who may have taught us a little about life without ever addressing us directly, perhaps without every having exchanged a word with us.
I found myself recently recalling one such man. I was seventeen at the time, riding the subway to my college in Manhattan. My school was across the street from City Hall, on Park Row, next to the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge. I knew very little about the races at the time. I was at what might be called “level one of not being prejudiced,” which is to say that I was relatively color-blind when it came to sports figures and entertainers, but I had very little experience of actually talking to Blacks, or Puerto Ricans for that matter.
The racial situation in New York was very tense at the time (1965). Neighborhoods were segregated, but it was nothing official. We were all together on the public transportation, but in New York no one interacts on public transportation under any circumstances. There were virtually no Black police, and the White police played serious havoc in the Black community under the guise of maintaining order. They played havoc with us too, but it was much more gentle. My entire youth was spent in a milieu of constant violence, and I was very quick to put men, especially young men, into the “threat to kick my ass” category. I had no reason to leave the Black teenagers out of that category, since I had hardly ever actually spoken to one. The girls I thought were cute, in my innocent way, not only the Shirelles and the Crystals, but also the girls on the bus. (I had spoken to a few Black girls. I found them to be a bit direct, perhaps, but very nice and pretty.)
Honestly, I had never given the matter of race relations much serious thought at all.
So I was on the subway that day, an IND train I believe. Odd, because I usually took the IRT Lexington Avenue line to school. Across from me sat a middle-aged Black man, maybe fifty or so, when one is seventeen it’s hard to tell. He was wearing a sweater vest over a button-down Oxford shirt, blue I think, dressy but not too fancy pants, dark wool, and comfortable shoes. He was wearing horn-rimmed glasses that were almost nerdy. Sitting close to me on my side of the car were a mother and small child, a boy, three or four years old, White.
The man was smiling benignly at the boy and his mom, and the boy noticed and smiled back. There followed a good deal of wordless communication between the three of them, all very appropriate and friendly. Some peek-a-boo was played.
I thought about the man. He looked very smart, and he was certainly very nice. I thought, he must work for the city, and he did get off at my stop, Chambers Street, in the heart of the municipal office area. Probably he’s a native New Yorker, probably a graduate of the city’s university system. A Civil Servant of some kind. I tried to imagine his life. I knew that for him it would have been harder to get into the City University system, and harder to get into the good civil service office jobs. I wondered about his life, his apartment, his family. I had never considered such things before, never considered if such people even existed.
So on that morning, for me, Black Americans became three-dimensional. Black men had previously consisted of Jackie Robinson (et al), Bo Diddley (et al), some nondescript guys on the bus, and those vaguely threatening teenagers. That universe had expanded to include decent, hard-working, every-day human beings. Before too long I discovered that the decent, hard working people were the norm.
I have often wondered about that man over the years. He taught me a great lesson without trying and without even knowing that it was happening. It was a great gift, and I still appreciate it.