I Did Not Think This Story Was About Race
Over the summer, I had a random, kind of unbelievable interaction with a stranger. Something about it stuck with me, making me unable to forget it but unsure whether it was worth sharing. Recent events have changed my mind.
My husband had been traveling for a while, so I took my kids to the movies to cool off and not have to make lunch (soft pretzels + cherry Icees = no cooking for me). The three of us arrived to a pretty empty theater, and I paid the young guy at the register as my kids checked out those giant cardboard displays of upcoming movies set up to take photos with. As I watched them, laughing at their easy silliness, reminding them to be respectful, the young man called out to me, “Excuse me — can I ask you something?”
I automatically said, “Sure.”
He was watching my kids, his lips holding back a tangle of words for a moment, as if he were trying to figure out where to start. As I waited for him, I really looked at him for the first time. I of course had been polite when he was checking me in, but I also had been searching in my wallet and keeping an eye on my kids and checking out the free movie character pins on the counter my kids were sorting through as they asked him if they were, in fact free, and then putting my bag away and being asked to open the pin no hold the pin no watch me can I go over there to look at the posters, Mom?
So I gave him all of my attention, wondering what this maybe twenty-year-old guy could possibly want from me.
“Do you…do you think it’s possible for a man to be a good father if he’s not around much because of work?”
I don’t know what I expected, but it definitely wasn’t that. I’m not one who regularly gets called out in public by strangers to give them life advice. I answered easily, “Yes. My husband works a lot, and he’s a great dad.”
“I mean, I want to go to medical school — I always wanted to be a doctor — but I also want to have kids some day. Medical school will be,” he shook his head and smiled at his hands, “a lot.”
I laughed, his words pulling me closer, and said, “So will being a doctor.”
He looked up and smiled at me for the first time, but his eyes looked worried. “I just don’t know. I don’t know if you can want to go to medical school, be a doctor, have a job that takes you away from your family, and also be a good dad. Raise your kids right.”
By now I stood directly in front of him, my hands on the counter he was leaning on, looking him in his eyes, which had a depth to them behind his questions. I did not hesitate to be honest with him. “I think it depends on the man. My husband works a lot, he has to travel, or some weeks gets home after our kids are in bed every night. I also work — though I do get to work from home — but we make sure the kids are a priority. It was something we talked about before ever having them: how we’d manage parenting, work, time, money. I mean, look at them. They seem to be doing okay.” I gestured to my kids behind me.
He nodded, taking what I had said in, as he watched my kids being curious and goofy but not disrespectful.
“I think that if you don’t even have kids yet and are wondering about this, asking a random mom for advice, then you are one of those people who will make a wonderful dad.”
With hopeful eyes, he quietly asked, “So you think it’s possible?”
I looked at him and had so many things I wanted to ask him, wanted to tell him. But the questions about where he came from, who put these doubts in his head, were not my business to ask. I was not blind to the fact that he was a young black man in a movie theater located not far from places of both privilege and poverty. The messages he received that compelled him to ask me — a total stranger — these questions could have come from his family, his community, the media, a combination thereof, or solely a place in the dark recesses of his mind. But how could I know just by looking at him that day?
To him, at first glance I likely appeared to be an upper middle class white woman who quite possibly had an easy life, considering the rings on my finger, the nice car we parked outside the doors, the fact that we were at a movie theater in the middle of weekday when most people were at work. I grew up being told I could not be smart, loved, beautiful, caring, worthy, or successful by my father. I grew up in a dangerous household. I grew up with so many obstacles between what I hoped for and where I was back then. But how could he know that by just looking at me that day?
I wanted to tell him.
I wanted to tell him that the individual drive to be better than what your doubts tell you you can be, your circumstances afford you to be, the people around you refuse to help you to be, society/media insists you can be, is more important than anything at all. I wanted to tell him that the tall, strong, loved, successful woman and mother of awesome kids who stood in front of him had refused to be broken, had refused to believe the hate and haters and lies, had climbed walls both metaphorical and literal, fueled solely by a raw determination that there was something inside of her that deserved to get everything she wanted. She earned or made her own smarts, she let the right people love her, she allowed herself to see her beauty, she exposed her vulnerability to be able to care, she dug her claws into the belief of being worthy, she busted her tail to be successful as a mother and in her work. Of course, long ago, she had intermittent doubts. But the voice inside her that believed was louder, amplified by the handful of voices along her path in life who quietly believed in her, too, and whispered their support.
It was the same voice of the young man asking her whether he could be everything he wanted to be.
I fought the gentle burn of proud tears of who I knew this stranger was that day and could be throughout his life, and made my voice clear as I answered him while the peals of my kids’ giggles filled the room around us. “I don’t just think it is possible, I know it is.”
He thanked me and I turned back to my kids, guiding them into the dark theater. As their faces glowed in the dancing light of the stories before us, I sent my hope, my faith, my belief to the young man whose heart I understood more than he’d ever know.
Today I wonder if that was enough.
Today I am worn and weary after yet another week of watching black men get killed. I gave that young man at the movie theater who was full of potential my words, my confidence that he could do it, he could become the man and the father he yearned to be. But then I walked away.
I do not know his name or where he lives, where he will go to school.
I cannot wrap my arms, my whiteness, around him to shield him from hate, from fear, from fists or bullets or posters or burning crosses thrown his way because of his skin color.
I cannot be with him if his taillight breaks and a confused, bad, scared, or scarred cop pulls him over, potentially making a terrible decision about how much that young man’s life matters based on the color of his skin.
I gave him my hope, faith, and belief, but there is no way I can shield him now that he is out there, away from me. My words might be something that help tether him to his dreams, but they are not enough to keep him from unnecessary harm.
And the unfairness of that overwhelms me.
It makes me sad and angry and worried that I am not doing enough. I listen and witness and learn, I help when I can, I speak up when its needed, I pay attention to my voting both locally and nationally, I raise my kids to see the world for what it is and was and be awake to even its most subtle unfairness and insist they do their part in making it better, and I recognize that there are likely things I’m doing or have done that don’t help and try to remain humble so as to get better about that. But the hard worker in me, the fixer in me, the saver in me wants to clone myself to shield those who are in danger right now, physically get between people who are in danger and those who cause it either deliberately or ignorantly.
I worry what I do is not enough.
I worry about that young man in the movie theater, who took a chance on asking a mother twice his age whether he could get what he wanted out of life, not knowing that she, too, had much in the way of getting what she wanted out of life.
I worry that while I was right to tell him he could (for I was able to), that someone else will take away that opportunity for no good reason at all.