Yesterday I got a knock on my office door. A young man from one of my classes stopped by for some help with a paper, so, as is my personality, I tried to break the ice by asking about his weekend.
“Oh, it was O.K.,” he said with a slight grin. “One part was a little hard, but the rest of it was good.”
I pursued the “hard” comment; I’m pushy that way. “What happened? What was hard about your weekend?”
“Well, ma’am,” (he always calls me ma’am), “I was out late one night walking with a friend of mine, and we got stopped by the police.”
“Really?” I asked. “Were you out past curfew? I know they really come down hard on that around here.”
“No, ma’am. It was around midnight, and we were just walking down Main Street. The policeman stopped us, but when we showed him our IDs he kept asking us questions. He even questioned my friend about the color of her eyes.”
“That’s weird,” I said.
“Yes,” he continued. “And they kept questioning me about my address because it didn’t match the one on my driver’s license.”
“Did you show them your school ID?” I asked. “Did you tell him you were a college student here?”
“Yes, ma’am. But he didn’t seem to care. He just kept asking us questions.”
And then it hit me. My student, a very tall, very dark, African American male, walking with a girl down the main street of our town, had been harassed by someone on our police force.
Frankly, I was stunned. I didn’t even know what to say to my student because I couldn’t believe that something like that would happen here.
I’m pushy, but I’m also naïve.
Finally, after listening to his story—one told with not a trace of bitterness or anger—I simply said, “I am so sorry that happened to you.”
“Oh, it’s O.K.” He shrugged his shoulders.
Was it resignation? Was he used to this? I didn’t know.
And then he smiled his huge, beautiful smile and laughed his joyful, belly laugh and said, “The rest of my weekend was good, though.”
Later, I recounted his experience to my husband.
“I get that the police stopped him. It was midnight. We’re close to the train. He was with a girl. I get all that. But once he showed the cops his school ID that should have been enough. End of story. But it wasn’t. They continued to question him like he was a criminal. It just makes me so mad.”
And then I started to cry because, for the first time, the plight of a young, black man hit home to me. It wasn’t fair that my student should suffer that kind of questioning, that kind of humiliation. It wasn’t fair that he should be singled out to be questioned when there might have been others out walking late at night. He wasn’t doing anything wrong, and yet he was stopped.
It wasn’t fair.
I cried for myself, who had never and who probably will never have to face that kind of situation. I don’t have to fear the police. It’s not fair that my student will have to think twice when he walks on our city streets late at night.
And I cried a tear or two of thankfulness for his quiet, forgiving attitude. “The rest of my weekend was good,” he told me. He had already moved on. He had already forgiven. He wasn’t going to let this situation drag him down.
I tell my kids that “life’s not fair,” and I mean that. But I think it’s unfair when I get too much ice in my drive-thru sweet tea or when I don’t get the best seat at a concert because everyone else pushes in ahead of me.
But this? This puts everything into perspective.
For some, life is more unfair than it is for others.
Last night I shed tears over injustice, maybe for the first time in my life, I’m ashamed to say.
Oh, I’ve prayed for those who suffer. I’ve “felt badly” for those who don’t have the same opportunities as me. But if I’m perfectly honest, injustice isn’t something I think about on a daily basis. It’s just not something I’ve had to deal with much, being a white woman from a wealthy suburb.
Yesterday, though, nearly broke my heart.
(originally published 9.30.14 at www.shellywildman.net)