“What’s your hurry Bud?”, I think as the teenager moved around me on aisle two. I’m grocery shopping on a Tuesday at ten o’clock in the morning. An unusual thing for me because my retired husband shops during the school year, but now I get to browse in peace during my summer break from teaching elementary school. Adults everywhere. Heaven. It’s quiet. Even the Musak is not too loud. As I look at this kid, I realize that teaching has made me watch people in a different way. I scan the expression on faces for intent, body language for the possibility of trouble. It’s hard to stop doing that, especially in these troubled times of violence at schools. It takes time away from that twenty year commitment to control. It’s only been a week since school’s been out.
I’m assessing him now, mildly irritated, as he moves past me, going around my cart. He doesn’t look up, intent on his phone screen. Surprise. T-shirt and jeans with a baseball cap turned backwards. Short shaggy black hair. No basket for the young, he has a few items clutched loosely under his arm. Keys in the other hand. He’s in a hurry.
And coming the opposite direction up the aisle towards me is an old man. He looks in his late eighties, white-haired and composed in a starched short-sleeved shirt and khakis, with a notebook paper shopping list in one hand. He leans heavily on his grocery cart with the other hand, but his back is straight. He glances up from his list just as the teenager approaches him. ” Hey, don’t I know you?” he says to the teenager.
All my teacher sensors go off at this point. ” I can’t help it. I think, “Don’t you be rude to that sweet old man.” I’m clutching the handle of my cart, pretending to look at something beside me on the shelf, furiously hoping…for what? Courtesy? Acknowledgement from a teenager of the old? What am I going to do if…. “Breathe,” I think.
And then it happens. The teenager stops and smiles at the old man. “Why yes sir,” he says, “Don’t you go to Midwest Church? Aren’t you Mr. Preston? I’m Ben, I saw you last Sunday. How are you?” “Oh Ben, of course, I’m great, just great, say hi to your folks for me.” says the old man. ” Yes sir, you have a nice day now.” Ben says. He moves on.
I’m stopped in my tracks. It wasn’t what the teenager said, it was the way he said it. Such a simple thing. The easy respect. It was expected of him, I knew. I suddenly wanted to hug his parents, then the kid. I can see the headlines, “Former teacher arrested at grocery store for hugging complete stranger.”
As I walked on I mentally slapped my own hand. “You didn’t give him a chance, did you?” I thought. “You thought you had his number…sheeshz.”
And maybe life is as simple as that and as hard as that. People don’t always telegraph their intentions. Disrespect isn’t always tattooed on a forehead, posted on a Facebook page or exclusive to an age. And perhaps rather than paranoia and mistrust, the key is trust, family and respect. For what will we have if that is not enough? For today it is enough for me on aisle two.
I smiled at the old man as I passed him. He smiled back.