As I pull into a parking space, I remind myself to smile. Smile? Yes, smile. Smile as though you’re already having the best day of your life. Smile as though you’re happy to be working this job that’s already become stale and monotonous. Smile as though you’re not on the verge of screaming.
That’s what nice people do, right? They smile. They walk outside and smile. They drive to work and smile. They go through their days, and smile. And no matter how strenuous things become, they find it in themselves to smile.
So I remind myself to smile.
Smile as though the woman riding the elevator with you didn’t subtly grab her purse when she saw you step through the doors. Smile as though the guy at the front door didn’t call you Mohammed for the tenth time. Smile as though you didn’t overhear a coworker talking about a Black politician, and how he’s a credit to his race.
That’s what non-threatening people do, right? They smile. At least they’re told to myself, such that they will appear less threatening. So I smile.
My caramel skin stands out against the varying shades of my coworkers’ fair complexions. But, that doesn’t bother me. The only time I notice it is when I look at the holiday picture from our department, and I’m drawn to the contrast of my skin color and my coworkers’.
The other time I notice it is when the people I work with (outside of my department) or the students whom we serve speak about me.
The Black one.
Whenever someone describes me, I’m referred to as the Black one.
Not the young guy. Not the dude with swag or who dresses nicely. Not guy who’s always smiling, and starts every counseling session by asking students where would you like to be in five years?
I’m constantly reminded that, that’s not how people see me.
When someone can’t remember my name, they describe me. Inevitably, they just end up saying, You know, the Black one. What was that about not being judged by your color of their skin, but by the content of your character?
Every day, I’m reminded that I’m Black. That’s okay with me. I love who I am. I love being Black. But, it does sting that every day, I’m reminded that the only thing people see about me is that I’m Black, as though it’s important to establish that I’m Black in order to interact with me.
I should be used to this by now, I lie to myself. It has never gotten an easier.
Journal entry, from the panel I participated in, at Quinnipiac University a couple of weeks ago. Can you take a guess as to whom I wrote this letter?
I sat in that chair, not fully knowing what to expect. I had prepared for what I thought was to come, but still not knowing what, or how, it was all going to go down. It wasn’t so much anxiety, as it was nerves. That’s how I always get before speaking engagements. Nervous. Am I projecting good energy? Do I know how I’m going to answer the first (and most obvious) question? Are my thoughts flowing cohesively, such that my words will come out seamlessly, and I will come across articulate and engaging, as opposed to a stuttering, tongue-tied, mumbling dufus? You know how I can sometimes, when I’m excited, and bouncing off the walls, and my mind is moving so fast that my mouth can’t keep up!
I felt confident enough. I’d prepared a good amount, but not so much that my thoughts were filled with singular responses to complex, and complicated questions.
Students packed the small room, with its square shape and wooden wainscoting décor. The room felt smaller than I remembered it. No longer was it this grand space that I thought it had been; now, it felt large enough to accommodate a good sized-audience, but small enough to still feel intimate. True to the Quinnipiac way, I guess.
The first question was read, and I deferred to another panelist. Not surprising, I defer most things that I’m offered – whether it’s a ride or someone asking about my day. It’s not because of some underhanded plan, but rather, I’d prefer to give rather than take. Give a compliment, as opposed to take or receive one. Give someone a first attempt, and give them all the praise, instead of taking whatever limelight and spotlight for myself. This decision was made easier as one of the panelists was a current Quinnipiac student. In my mind, it made sense for him to be the star of the show. As he was speaking, I swear I was doing my damndest to pay attention. But my mind kept going back to my own response – I had to make sure that I nailed the first question. If you don’t start off well, it would have become an insurmountable task to get back on track, or right the ship, so to say. What’s the cliché – you can never make a second first impression? You know that I hate clichés, but this one fits.
So I sat in my chair, feeling the eyes on me. When it was my turn, I picked up the microphone and attempted to speak. It’s never my style to try and sound articulate or poetic. That shit just happens. Well, I shouldn’t call it shit. But you know what I mean. Speaking well just seems to come to me – a talent that I think I often take for granted (hence, referring to it as shit, the way I’d refer to something I’ve done a zillion times, like take out the trash), but one that I work on, incessantly. I don’t want to be good. I want to be great. And I don’t want to just be great, I want to be the best. But that’s not what’s running through my mind. All I’m trying to accomplish, is turning my thoughts into words, in a fashion that will sound clear and will resonate with the audience. The articulate, engaging, or even poetic stuff just happens on its own. That’s not something that I try to control.
I had you in mind when I answered the first question – the value of a college education. Value can be such a loaded word, can’t it? What’s valuable to one person, may not be valuable to another person. And that’s precisely what I tried to convey. My opening remarks were something to the effect of – the value of the college experience lies within each student. That a college education will have as much, or as little, value as each student allows it to have. On the surface, I know that can sound coy, or as if I’m not really answering the question. But, here’s what I mean. Take the girl (here’s when I thought of you), who knew she wanted to become an occupational therapist. She did some volunteer work at a nursing home, during high school, and discovered her passion for therapy and helping people get back to their daily lives. That student, who gets admitted to a school with a reputable OT program, goes on to graduate with honors. She lands a job, and goes from a nervous new-grad, to a proficient, senior-level professional. If that girl, now a woman, decides to get married, and have children, she can decide to put her OT career on hold. And when she’s ready, she can resume her OT career, just like that. For this individual, a college education will be invaluable – there would have been no other way she’d have been able to become an OT without going to college. Said simply, you can’t become an OT by going to trade school.
Now, this isn’t to say that every career requires a college education. But our focus was on value. And for students who do it right – focusing as much on their academic, as they do on their career and personal development – there will be no monetary or numeric vale that can be given to the college experience. It will be part of what makes them unique; part of their fabric. The college experience will be a very distinct part of how they see, and define themselves. Like – Jessica, wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, OT, college graduate. The experience is one that’ll always keep with them. (Or maybe it was just me, who had such a transformational college experience.)
Once I shared that story, everything seemed to ease. I saw heads nodding, faces smiling, people beginning to feel connected to what I was saying. That was the engaged part, I suppose. But that wasn’t what I set out to accomplish. I just wanted to convey an idea (a brilliant idea, mind you!, that I crafted through my mental preparation), and let everything happen. Told you…that other stuff, it just comes!