“Mom, I go to school with her.”
My family has known its own share of difficult times. I grew up in poverty, and over the years with my own family, we’ve faced situations where we were well below the poverty line as well. I appreciate and understand hardship at both an intellectual and visceral level.
At this particular time in our lives, my kids were receiving free breakfast/lunch at school, so we were definitely not in the upper echelon of society. We were also members of a faith community that volunteered one weekend a month at a local shelter, serving a meal to between fifty and two hundred individuals, and we participated as often as we could. That day, one of my kids’ classmates was in line with her family to receive a hot meal, and my kid whispered in my ear when they realized she was there.
It’s one thing to approach the world with a kind heart. It goes to a whole new level when you no longer can compartmentalize people into “different than me”, which is pretty common when it comes to social status, even (maybe especially?) when you’re on the “struggling” end of the spectrum. We’d talked as a family and as a faith community about why our participation in this project was important, but on that day, it all changed for my kids.
The instinctive shame on that little girl’s face as she realized she’d been recognized was heart-wrenching, but my kiddo managed it beautifully, chatting with her as if they were just on the playground or the school lunchroom, and it only took a minute or two before they were smiling and laughing together. I made eye contact with her parents, and their shame was plastered all over their faces, too. I recognized it. I’ve worn that look myself, far too often. I introduced myself, mentioned that our kids went to school together, asked them their names, and managed to navigate the conversation to normalize the interaction as much as possible.
Before they left, the mom came over to me and thanked me for making the situation “not weird”. I shared with her that I’ve spent my time in the line at the food pantry, and there’s no shame in feeding your family, and we both cried before she left, but they were the tears of feeling seen, not humiliation. There’s a difference, you know. (You know. I know you do.)
“Thanks for seeing me as a person.”
I had just finished giving what I hoped was a motivational speech to a cohort of prison inmates who were graduating from some job skills certification programs, and I was chatting with some of them casually about some of the thoughts I’d shared. One of the guys asked me a question, and I asked him his name before I answered his question, because I find it creates a better dialogue when we call each other by our names.
He paused, and his eyes got real shiny, and he had to clear his throat before he could respond. We continued our conversation, and then as I was turning to speak with somebody else, he said “Thanks for seeing me as a person”. He wasn’t the only person who said that to me that day, and it was that blatant awareness of just how DE-humanizing their regular experience was I took away with me like a gut-punch.
My kids’ dad spent a decade in prison, and when I heard that, I was slammed back to those days, with that sense of being dehumanized by the staff AND everyone else who knew about our situation. At the very least it made people uncomfortable and they needed to create that sense of “you’re not of our tribe” to make themselves feel safe. I also recognize that there isn’t a perfect mechanism for managing the situations where people aren’t necessarily safe in or capable of functioning in civilian life, but I cannot help but think we are creating more problems than we are solving by un-personing incarcerated people.
How often do you have the opportunity to see another person as a fellow commuter in this journey through the Human Condition, instead of extras on the set of our individual movie reels? How often are you seen, really seen, by those around you? Savour those moments, friends. A world that values people is a better place for us all.