WASHINGTON — We've got a problem." A neighborhood store manager was on the phone sounding grim. "Your kids just stole something from us."
I had just sent two teenagers in my youth group to the bike shop to buy a new wheel. Iby and LeAndrew are responsible and smart teenagers. And they're African American.
"I can't believe it," I said. "Did you see them steal it?"
"I'm 100 percent sure. I have it on video."
A heaviness seeped through me. I promised to find the boys and asked the manager to double check the tape. I went to our community park, then the basketball court to spread the word that I was looking for Iby and LeAndrew.
I tried to sort things through in my head. What if they did steal the handlebar grips? Should I take away their bikes? Ban them from the youth group? I decided that they would have to return what they stole and apologize. A totally humiliating experience that I had to go through as a kid when I pocketed a handful of Brach's pink and white candies. I never stole again.
Back home, waiting for the boys to appear, I called the store manager.
"I checked the tape," he blustered. "It's them and I'm going to prosecute."
"Can we please just talk to them before you call the cops?" I pled.
The front gate creaked. It was Iby and LeAndrew. "Look guys," I began, "you've been accused of stealing something from the bike shop."
They looked at each other, then said evenly, "We didn't take anything."
"They have it on video," I said and then launched into the kind of speech my mother used on me once, "It's best, if you did it, to admit it and come clean." There was a pause and then Iby and LeAndrew's words tumbled out together, "We want to see this video."
At the store, the manager fast-forwarded the security tape. We watched as a lone figure sauntered down the aisle and stuffed something into his baggy pants.
Iby pointed down. "See that guy has on sweat pants, we're both wearing jeans." The video showed the thief wore a sweat shirt and LeAndrew jumped in, "We've got on our raincoats."
We looked at Iby and LeAndrew then back at the video and began to see what they knew. The thief didn't look anything like these two boys. They kept on, as if they had to. "You see he's got on big boots, we're wearing our Jordans; he has on a scull cap, we don't." They could see all the subtle differences between themselves and the thief. The manager began to see the picture more clearly. Actually, he looked at it properly for the first time. Before, all he'd seen was a black kid, a shapeless black kid.
"I owe you guys an apology," the manager said, not looking them in the eye. It was awful and wonderful at the same time - wonderful how calmly and assuredly Iby and LeAndrew stood up for themselves, awful that they had to and have to, all the time.
I keep thinking about how people don't see each other. How we walk by, take a glance, and assume. This manager somehow missed really seeing Iby, who has striking light skin the color of latte foam, and LeAndrew who has a noticeable mole under his nose. The manager missed really knowing Iby and LeAndrew even though they have been buying inner tubes and patches at this bike shop since grade school.
Before I founded my youth group, I did the same thing. Groups of boys, Latino and black, triggered my fear drill: grip the purse strap, don't meet the eye, walk by fast. Now I try to slow down and I've gotten to know a 10th-grader who weighs 200 pounds with "PB" scrawled on his knuckles - it turns out he's nicknamed "Pooh Bear." And the guy sprinting up the sidewalk isn't running from anyone, it's just Smiley who's late to work. The 6th-grader throwing dice on the corner will proudly tell you, if you ask, that he got to play a pig in the production of "The Three Little Pigs."
I've gained this intimacy from catching these kids' eyes and speaking. It's worth practicing because if we don't see them, they'll never bother to see us. And when people can't see each other, they end up colliding.
* Katie Davis, a National Public Radio contributor, runs Urban Rangers, a youth group for ages 10 to 22.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society