Archive for February, 2012
Mark Twain said, “Travel is the greatest cure for prejudice.”
This past fall I did a three-month tour of our educational program Nametags, and screenings of our documentary One Revolution. My goal with Nametags, like Twain’s travel, is to tweak people’s perspective just a little bit so that they see things differently. My goal was to tweak the students’ perspective, but funny how quickly that was turned on me.
It was a warm October afternoon in Jackson, Mississippi, about two-thirds of the way through our tour. After about 50 Nametags presentations I felt I could handle anything, but this could be a little different. I’d been warned that Murrah High School was an almost all black school. I didn’t exactly know what to make of that knowledge. We didn’t go through the metal detector when we entered the school, but I noticed it.
Even in his suit the principal looked like a former athlete. The grey flannel didn’t hide the broad shoulders. His hand swallowed mine when we shook. He introduced me to the 900 students in the auditorium like he was giving them a gift. I could see that he saw his job to give them gifts—the gifts of education and possibility.
I asked the students if they were willing to help me with our motto. They were. One side chanted, “It’s not what happens to you.” The other answered, “It’s what you do with what happens to you.” Nice, I thought, they’re on my side. I flipped the third slide.
“What do these people have in common? I asked.
It’s a slide of some of the most influential people in our history: Edison, Einstein, Da Vinci, Mozart, Agatha Christie, Ann Bancroft, Churchill, Cher, Tom Cruise, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, and Beethoven.
“I’ll take three answers. We’ll do the handraising thing, please,” fully expecting the usual answers.
“They changed the way that we see the world.”
All of those answers are true, but the answers lead me to the twist. All of these famous, successful, world changing people had one learning disabilities—dyslexia, auspurgers syndrome. I waited for my opportunity, when the first girl surprised me.
“They’re all of Western European descent,” she said. I’d never heard this answer. She was about three-quarters of the way up the auditorium.
I repeated, “They’re all of Western European descent?” I asked making sure that I had it right, when a boy a couple of rows in front of her yelled out, “They’re all white.”
Oh no, I thought. I’ve just lost them. We’ve only begun and I’ve lost them. Who am I as some middle-aged white guy to tell them about perspective?
“Okay, right. You are totally right and I’ve never noticed that before. I’ve done this presentation hundreds of times and I’d never noticed. Hmm, this really is great. The intention of this slide is make you see these successful, famous people differently because they had all had one form of learning disability. Their struggles pushed them to see the world differently and to change for the better the way that we see the world,”
“But it’s also about perspective. How often do we take what we see around us as the world as a whole? It never even occurred to me that there were no black people on this slide, or as you pointed out that everyone was white.”
I worried that I might lose them, but they stuck with me.
Many years ago I was training or preparing to train in my racing chair in New York City. I pushed up 8th Avenue hoping not to get run over when the people on the street started to cheer for me. My first thought was how ridiculously condescending. I’m not doing anything worthy of cheering. Are they cheering that I got off the couch, out of my house? Then I realized that their cheers were well intended. I gave them the thumbs up of thanks and I realized that everyone cheering me was one form of minority or another. The white people on that street wouldn’t even look at me.
For twenty years I’d been a white male. Suddenly in a moment, one turn on the mountain that went horribly wrong, I’d broken my back and become a minority. I was on the outside looking in. My perspective changed that day in New York because I saw what it was like to be on the outside, to be disenfranchised. Maybe I’d sensed that my accident had pushed me to the periphery, but this was personal. I was on the outside and I hadn’t acknowledged it.
How could I be so blind? Because, in my world, I wasn’t on the outside. My accident hadn’t changed my interaction with my friends, but it did change my perspective. In strangers I often saw the best and most generous in some people and the worst and most condescending in others. The strangers don’t know me so they treat me like a stereotype. That’s why we travel, so that we might see the person instead of the stereotype. I’m happy to say that I kept the attention of those 900 kids for the full presentation. Maybe they too realized that as a result of my accident I had a perspective that I wouldn’t otherwise have had.