I have always heard that the best writers of the past and present are night owls. I’m usually in bed every night by 10 or 11, but now at 12:45am I just can’t seem to fall asleep. I don’t know if my body is entering some sort of automatic “end of the semester setting,” or maybe I just have too much on my mind, or maybe I’m finally joining the ranks of all those famous “after midnight” authors we find in our literature books (Ha! Yeah, right!)
Whatever the cause may be, my mind has taken me back to a random encounter with an old man I had in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, about three weeks ago. My friend, Ryan, and I were attending the second course of Community Development Academy thorough the University of Missouri Extension Center.
The opportunity for this amazing week of community development training sort of fell in our laps at the end of last summer, while we were working for a local community service organization, Sowing Seeds of Hope.
Ryan and I were in the midst of our fourth day of this particular course on community development, and information dealing with diversity, recognizing and finding solutions to community issues, collaboration, and communication (not to mention very detail-oriented session on how to start a non-profit organization) had been filling our minds all day.
After class was over, we decided to take a walk to the local antique store/restaurant/coffee shop our instructor had taken the community development class to for lunch the day before. The plan was to poke around, stroll through the store, and maybe find some unique handmade souvenirs to bring back to Alabama.
Oddly enough, just after I’d made my purchases and was waiting on Ryan to make her selections and head to the cash register, a sweet old man in a wheel chair with a bit of a funny accent struck up a conversation with me.
I wasn’t too surprised, the town we were visiting, Excelsior Springs, is a relatively small place.
And as a girl from the grand cities of Thomasville and Marion, coffee shop small talk is something that I completely understand (in fact if Judson had a major for such an important area of life, my GPA would probably be a lot more impressive).
I was surprised, though, when the old man’s “small talk” led to some “big talk.”
He began asking me deeply personal questions about my family relationships, religious views, passion for teaching, disappointments, hopes, and fears, and even my “love life,” as he called it. But what startled me even more than his questions were my answers.
Being a deeply private and somewhat timid lady, I couldn’t believe that I was sitting in a coffee shop in a foreign place…literally sharing my heart with a complete stranger.
As our conversation continued, the first impressions and prejudices I’d developed concerning this man melted away. I was no longer wondering where his legs were or how he ended up in wheel chair, and I stopped trying to guess his IQ based on the slur of his speech.
I think it’s safe to say that his initial assumptions about me faded, as well. He even seemed to genuinely complement me when he noted how “charming” my southern accent is…the type of comment that is usually countered with a roll of the eyes and a quick “Excuse me while I go to the ladies room,” escape from a conversation.
While a meeting such as this one would seem odd and exciting during any time of my life, I thought it was especially strange that I had the privilege of meeting this man during community development training. Just after I’d been enduring lectures on accepting differences and appreciating diversity, I spent at least half an hour in deep conversation with an elderly handicapped man. And after participating in what I thought to be way too many communication and collaboration exercises, I was given the opportunity to sit down and communicate and collaborate with someone I’d initially believed to have nothing in common with.
I regret that I don’t remember this man’s name, but I’ll never forget the lessons he taught me.
I hope that someday, after many more sessions of community development training, college courses, random conversations, and wisdom-evoking life experiences, I will be able to sit down with at least one other human soul and create a meaningful connection. I hope that I learn to listen, to respond, and to ask the right questions...the questions that people are just burning to answer. And I hope that I do this with no particular agenda or community action plan in mind. No matter where this interest in community development, classroom community, and school community takes me…
I know that I will always be reminded of this coffee shop character any time that I use these newly-discovered skills of accepting differences, appreciating diversity, communication, and collaboration.