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Wiley Wandering

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Midday Train to Albany: Part Two

PART TWO: Later, while on the train, I was awaiting my turkey and cheese micro-waved sandwich when the attendee and conductor started talking. They both seemed cool, relatively laid back, at ease with themselves, you know, not caught up in illogical actions/thoughts like homophobia, racism, and/or flaunting their societal position (elitism). Their conversation exuded an unpretentiousness that completely took all tension within my shoulders right out. Somehow I must have gotten very comfortable because I surmised I could get away with giving the conductor my opinion of him. I said “man, you are a youthful looking conductor. Are you a legacy? Does this line of work run through your family?” They were both surprised at my unsolicited opinion and bold questioning, and the attendee asked “How did you know this type of work runs in his family?” I thought from the energy he exhibited collecting tickets I just imagined he may have been that little boy who watched his father, maybe even grandfather, in this line of work. He may have been the little boy who loved trains! But he just projected an energy and appreciation that shouted out his enthusiasm for being on a train and perhaps even, meeting with people. However, I said, “You look like you love the job that you watched your dad do!” The youthful looking conductor smiled, acknowledged that both his father and grandfather had been conductors, and then started to really open up with me. He, the attendee and I then all fully stepped into a conversation.

We talked about train life, and their spending an evening in Montreal, then New York, then Montreal, then New York, over and over again. Granted, at the salary of the younger employees of trains, unless they come from wealth, Montreal and New York City will bite the budget hard, or you won’t be doing much. But how many people get to live between two international cities on an alternating basis? If you get the right networks going that could be quite the learning/living experience.

I connected with these two younger cats so well, it was amazing. We only talked about five to seven minutes, but while it was rapid, it was real. At one point they asked me where I was headed and why. They appeared a bit impressed when I mentioned I was on my way to consult to a college for an on-line course on social justice and diversity. I then mentioned I was from Los Angeles originally, and then responded to the heartfelt question extended to me about whether I liked being in the North Country with a bit of detail. I mentioned being an educator, the Press Republican’s Wiley Wandering blog, and the bullying film, Dissed Respect. I did it quick so as not to brag (though who am I kidding, I am proud and it felt good to say it). I was smiling after just summarizing how much I am enjoying my career and the young brother summarized his perspective on what I said by saying “You brought your city hustle to that small town!” My city hustle? I pounded him (for the slang impaired, a pound is somewhat of a handshake, or really more a fist balled tap to a friend/associate to indicate agreement) for the compliment, chatted with them a bit more, then returned to my seat, fully expecting to chat with the two of them later.

Now, I started unpacking the statement, “My city hustle,” the moment it was said. I wasn’t going to overreact, but his statement, while delivered with very positive affection, still could have carried a pejorative connotation with it. I have some thoughts on this, but so might you! What are they?

The attendee, a young black man, was quite an understated intellect. His assertion that my hustle had served me well during my career in the North Country was astute, if not layered. But the most interesting thing about the exchange for me was that I had prejudged this brother. After he dropped that bit of insight upon me, it made me realize that I had inadvertently, subconsciously stereotyped him as not having a whole lot of anything significant to contribute to a conversation beyond some soft frill stuff about the train, maybe some observations about women, racism, sports, or entertainment. Damn, have I somehow become an academic, intellectual elite? Have I somehow transcended analysis of “the man” and become the man myself?

I have always said that one of the things I was concerned about was the fact that “as we climb the social ladder, what is our perspective on the rungs we left behind?” What is yours? When you go back into your old neighborhoods or see old friends, and your lifestyles or economic means are not on the same level as they were in high school, how does this affect you? When you encounter that middle school acquaintance or high school friend, and they appear to be in much different health than you, do you feel happy or sad for them? More so, do you think of the happenstance or social conditions that contributed to them being situated the way they are? After talking with the attendee a while longer about my professional reality in the North Country being more advantageous for me because of less racial competition and his revealing tremendous insight about the realities of under representation I was proud and sad simultaneously. I was proud to recognize that this much less educated black man had at least as much wisdom as I did, if not more. And I was sad because when you consider all the work I put in teaching and learning about social justice and diversity, I had succumbed to my socialization again and judged this book/man by his cover/hype! You don’t do that, do you? When was the last time? Why don’t you share it with the crew?


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Hell, except for a few exceptions, I try and maintain a friendship circle around the country that largely consists of what a society conditioned to stereotype would consider, "A damn band of hooligans. Losers. dangerous."
I have always battled an elitist attitude toward elitists, and am not proud I have to wage that war.
But it's difficult, and more often than not, when I briefly come across someone with an extraordinary amount of privilege, including financial comfort, I push them toward a category of people I find exhibits traits of selfishness, greed, manipulation, lacking in compassion, arrogance, ignorance, etc...

I should pont out that this pre-judging I do has been reinforced by the fact that the majority of people I have come across and gotten to know who possess layers of privilege have reinforced my own ignorance through their actions. There really is some truth to the belief that you can learn someone's character by paying attention to how he or she treats people who have no significance in their life; the so-called "little people," which I should point out has nothing at all to do with physical size.

I pride myself on the fact that I am always educating myself and pay attention and hopefully learn from experiences, so I'm mystified as to why I can act this way. It's not like I've always been poor and envious of wealthy people in power. In fact, my father pulled in a hefty six-figure salary while I was growing up. I have also experienced what it is like to be poor, such as when my dad was in college until I was four or five and my mother sometimes had to go to the church for food and in my own life struggling to, hopefully, keep the bills paid.
Anyway, that's the diagnosis, which leaves me wondering what is the prognosis? Will I overcome my own ignorance? Do I even want to?

*** Stephen, quite the analysis, even owning your own ignorance which is something many of us don't seriously undertake. However, perhaps your introspection is not as introspective as you would like it to be. I know mine often fails me!

While I have no doubt about your frustration and impatience with elitism, have you taken the time to consider your own elitism, reflected through your intelligence? Those traits you articulated, "lacking in compassion, arrogance, ignorance" are basic to most humans and that, unfortunately, would include both you and I. It is as real a phenomenon for you and I to reflect a lack of compassion, arrogance, and ignorance towards people that flaunt their privilege, as it would be for us to catch our breath and realize that most people lack compassion, display arrogance, and are ignorant not because they choose to be, but because they haven't been shown the logical inconsistency of their ways. This is what I felt myself doing in my encounter with the Black snack bar attendant, prejudging him as if somehow I was/am all that. So, my brother, my personal adage/mantra for situations like the one I was in and the ones in which you appear to get frustrated is this: Check yourself, before you wreck yourself!!! Hey, how did that quote not make the list? *** -- J.W.

My aunt has a saying..."the higher up the ladder you climb, the more people can see your ass." And there's a corollary - "treat people well on the way up because you may see them again on the way down."

Prejudgement, I'm afraid, is part of the human condition. Judging others, or sizing them up, if you will, is at least a reflex if not an instinct. Often I do it without even realizing it. It is only the most disciplined souls, I think, that can keep their minds open long enough to actually get to know someone. And I believe that pre-judgement instinct comes from fear - fear of the unknown.

Fear of the unknown is the worst, most intense of all. It's why most all of us are afraid of the dark when we're little and many of us probably don't ever completely lose that aprehension when we enter an unlit and unfamiliar room. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer 20 or so years ago, I remember that the day we realized she MIGHT have cancer was somehow worse than the day it was confirmed that she DID have cancer. So, this fear of the unknown makes keeping an open mind about the world and people around us virtually impossible. We're wired to immediately want to "know" something about the person with which we're about to engage, even for the simplest of interactions. And so we pre-judge them, catagorize them, and in nanoseconds, relegate them to some file in our heads into which we think they might comfortably fit. The accuracy of the judgement is irrelevent. Our comfort level is the driving force.

I've experienced exactly what you're describing here, J.W. There is a short conversation I had when I was in college that haunts me to this day. A woman who mopped the floors in one of the buildings on campus noticed I was looking particularly downtrodden one day as I was exiting the building. I'd just finished a shift on the campus radio station, and that day anyway, I stunk. I was polite when I passed by, said "excuse me" and probably made some innane comment about mucking up her freshly mopped floors. She stopped me to engage me in conversation and I immediately thought to myself "oh hell no, I'm going to be late for class and I really don't want to hear any jibberish from a janitor right now." Instead of jibberish, she spoke to me in the most thoughtful, eloquent tones you can imagine - almost Old English. She asked me what was troubling me, I explained how it was just one day and tomorrow would be better, and anyway - no one yet expected me to be the person I was to become. After all, that's why I was here (in college) right? To learn how to be that person. "You are not yet he," she explained. "But he is inside you and you are here to learn how to bring him out. Have a wonderful day" and she smiled.

I am haunted for two reasons. First, I'd seen this woman a hundred times before and never in a million years would I have expected she'd have anything to say that I'd care about. And second, I doubt I've lived up to the potential she tried to coax from me. "I am not yet he....."

*** Seriously CB, you may be more "he" than you realize! So often in my career I have been blown away by students recanting some thrown away statement of mine that I didn't give a moment's afterthought, that the students have embraced as a personal mantra. I bet you bring "him" out a lot more than you realize. I know you provide many glimpses of him in your postings!!! This is not just my observation, but feedback from the gallery of CB fans that abound as people share with me their thoughts about Wiley Wandering. So, take a chill pill, Phil!

To the point of "judging a book prematurely without having not only read it, but also not even having opened it" a local teacher gave me a book last summer called "Entertaining an Elephant" that has a similar theme to the one you and I are discussing. The major difference from your story is that in the book the one who is being enlightened by a custodian is a teacher. Setting ego aside and opening up to the potential teacher in everyone is powerful stuff. It saddens me greatly how much so many of us miss by devaluing the potential contributions others can have to our education simply on the basis of misguided hype.

Oh, and one last aside, when you think of all the things that people have said to you in your life that you may have forgotten, all the structured lessons that have left your mind, yet you remember vividly the words of the sagacious custodian! What does that tell you about the power of embracing a teachable moment! *** -- J.W.

I'll admit to it--I am guilty of judging books by the cover all the time.

I don't think it's wrong, so long as I don't permit my first impression to outweigh subsequent impressions.

For example, if a person is wearing sweatpants with the word "juicy" or "pink" written on their behind, I am going to think certain things about them, I will allow my impression to change, if they show me reason to change.

People dress a certain way, talk a certain way, walk a certain way--all this is a reflection of their inner character.

Good thing that you were taken back and were willing to revise your opinion of the fellow. That's the right thing, in my book.

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