By David Bowman
So we made way for the Bojangles on East 23rd Street, which, for those of you who haven’t had the privilege of visiting, is often populated by a unique combination of people: from preoccupied businessmen heading for the interstate, to hungry McCallie men, to individuals wandering aimlessly. Jamming out to Phil Collins’ "In the Air Tonight" en route, Wes and I had been singing, bobbing our heads collectedly, awaiting the famed drum solo that was fast approaching. As the drum solo arrived in expected, dramatic fashion, I began to flail my arms, air drumming with all my soul in the passenger seat of Wesley’s Captiva.
My right hand suddenly shot up for the final act. While it hovered in front of my face, from what felt like a quarter of a mile, a middle-aged man, whose thin frame hardly filled the tattered clothes he wore, locked eyes with me. He must have mistaken my impassioned air drumming for a wave because as we drove by, maintaining painfully drawn-out eye contact, he returned the gesture. I was thoroughly confused. We turned into the drive thru and saw that he had changed the course of his trajectory 180 degrees and was now headed straight for our car with a little spring in his step.
We’d been sniped.
While trying to order our food, we learned that this man, someone we would come to know by the name of Lester, was strong-willed. Standing in front of the drive-thru speaker, Lester began hollering unintelligible requests, effectively confusing the lady working the drive thru as well as panicking Wesley. We tried our very best to interpret his order, but he was missing more than a handful of teeth, and the distinction between chicken breasts and chicken biscuits took several long minutes to make. Then, in typical Lester-like fashion, he must have, much like he did my “wave.” misread yet another social cue after completing his order because without an exchange of names, any affirmation of trustworthiness, or the slightest background check, he opened the side door and joined us in the Captiva.
We drew a number of incorrect assumptions and, in what we saw as an effort to escape with all limbs properly attached, didn’t allow ourselves to fully embrace Lester’s humanity.
He was so relaxed, though, as if there were not a very serious issue with what we had just allowed to happen. I scooted to the edge of my seat, wide-eyed, unaware of what my potentially brief future might hold. I’ve really never had such an awkward interaction as I did with Lester – the silence that bounced around the car for a while was cringe-worthy. Needless to say, it was a long trip to the drive thru window, but eventually we did relax. And the moment we began to get comfortable in the Captiva as a nice, functional trio, Lester struck again.
After a thorough examination of his bag, he excitedly declared that they hadn’t managed to throw any napkins in with the chicken biscuits. And if Lester had it his way – which he did – we weren’t leaving without napkins. I volunteered to run inside and retrieve some. I returned to find Wesley with both hands latched to the steering wheel. His eyes scanned the mirrors nervously until they caught mine, at which point they flashed a telling S.O.S. All the while a cold sweat was accumulating on his forehead. He told me that for the eternity I’d spent inside getting napkins, he was convinced that Lester would reach around from the back seat and shank him.
Wes and I shared these feelings of uneasiness, and quite honestly, in retrospect, it is embarrassing.
From the moment that Lester approached us, we began passing decidedly shallow, unfair judgments. We drew a number of incorrect assumptions and, in what we saw as an effort to escape with all limbs properly attached, didn’t allow ourselves to fully embrace Lester’s humanity. That is, until we learned more. While driving to Lester’s uncle’s house just outside of McCallie’s gates, we caught a glimpse of his life. The story he told began to melt our defenses; it began to grind and polish the lens through which we viewed him. The many baseless, premature, presumptions we’d given Lester were successfully disproved and left, in their wake, a few more significant details of his life: sure, he had been born and raised in a community that put no emphasis on school. And yes, as a result he failed to graduate high school, is currently unemployed, and lives with his mom, whose house has just been repossessed. But despite the stark differences between our lives, Lester and I eventually clicked. His rumbling, contagious laughter. Click. The open expression of his faith. Click. The number of times he told us, “Thank you so much. God bless you both,” not because of some habit his mother had driven into him, but rather out of his raw, thankful spirit. Click. All the tics of human nature sat right behind me in that black Chevy.
The fact that you and I do not battle the crippling effects of an ever-expanding economic gap on a daily basis in a way that the impoverished do is, to an extent, not something we control.
And what I realized after listening to the struggle that has been his thirty-year lifespan is this: life is much like a lottery. The fact that I am not Lester, that I do not have to worry about how I’ll come by my next meal, and that I am not trapped in the social confines of a broken system is simply chance, whether you believe it to be divinely influenced or not. What distinguishes many of us from the Lester equivalent of our respective worlds is several hundred yards of pavement – pavement that stretches from the comfortable living conditions of Pressly Dorm to its antithesis in McCallie’s surrounding neighborhood. The fact that you and I do not battle the crippling effects of an ever-expanding economic gap on a daily basis in a way that the impoverished do is, to an extent, not something we control. Were the values of work ethic, morality, or resilience that this school and our families instilled in us a testament of anything we did? Personally, I’d say no. The fact that we soon-to-be graduates have the domestic support system, the backbone of family and friends like you all, is no merit of our own. We lucked out to say the least. We were born into many of the favorable circumstances that have guided our lives.
However, I want to make sure you know that I am not undermining the accomplishments of this fantastic class. I’m just saying that it could not have been done – and I genuinely mean it would be impossible – without the family, faculty, and friends gathered here. A McCallie diploma is a representation of many sleepless nights spent as Dean Sholl might put it, ‘developing our frontal lobes.’ It is symbolic of the flat-out unfeasible challenge to balance the stage, the classroom, the field, and sleep. I guess what I’m trying to say is that moving forward, I hope we as human beings heed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice, “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone... just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.”
We talk a lot about duty at this school, most often in conceptual, intangible terms. But I want to let you in on something. Given our current lot, understanding the blessing that is the McCallie experience that we members of the class of 2015 and the generations of McCallie alumni out there share, we have a duty, a burden even. And it isn’t to walk away from this ceremony with a fleeting sense of humility at the wonder of our good fortune.
No, we must venture farther.
We must refuse to squander the love this world offers. The lessons learned and the relationships forged within this community are the tread of our future. This education (and I say that holding fast to every sense of the word) is a platform for change. It’s worth understanding that Lester is part of a society that systematically diminishes his human dignity, and I do not want to be a part of that. So, it is not enough to acknowledge the reality and corruption of these vicious economic disparities. It is not enough to realize the randomness of our incredibly blessed lives. It is not enough to develop a sense of gratefulness for the sufferings that we have, by virtue of sheer chance, avoided. We must, intentionally I might add, wave the Lesters of this world down, invite them into our cars in a Bojangles drive thru, bless them, and be blessed by them.
Thank you McCallie. Thank you all.
David's speech was one of two offered by students during McCallie's Commencement ceremonies, held Sunday, May 17, 2015. You can view the entire Commencement ceremony on McCallie's YouTube channel.