A new measure of character

Every now and then, there comes a time in an adult's life where a child opens our eyes so we can see the world's wonders far more clearly.

My moment arrived more than 15 years ago, as I was standing on a street corner in a West Dallas housing project waiting for the bus to arrive and take the children to their elegant elementary school in tony North Dallas. I, the well-educated reporter, was there to report on them, the poor, disadvantaged kids from the inner city who rode buses to affluent schools in an effort to achieve educational parity.

I wasn't there more than two minutes before our roles as adult and child switched. An obnoxious drunk began pestering me, and making lewd comments. I ignored him and cast my eyes away. A wary group of 6- to 8-year-olds watched the drama unfold. Finally, one of the boys walked up to me, tugged on my jacket and asked, "Lady, is that man bothering you?

I looked into the eyes of a 6-year-old. "Yes," I said.

The child wandered over to the man, quietly reasoned with him, and my tormentor stumbled away. The children looked at me kindly, the way a rich child might reach out to a child who has no food. I could read the message on their faces, "We hope this woman will be able to make it through the rest of our day."

That experience dramatically changed my life – because it made me reconsider the labels I so freely used to define "other" people, especially those who fell short of societal standards. No doubt there was a disadvantaged person on the street corner that day, but it was the woman with the bachelor's degree and not the children from the projects.

Never again as a journalist would I refer to these students as "poor" or "disadvantaged" because I truly saw the injustice in describing only what they lacked, but never what they had gained.

It took a child to teach a journalist that even those who live in poverty have resiliency, survival skills, wits, intelligence, and abilities that give them distinct advantages, at times, over their better-educated peers.

The terror swirling around the sniper shootings in the affluent communities in Washington, Maryland, and Virginia made me think about these children and their advantages a lot lately.

News shows raced to educate parents on helping sons and daughters cope with fear. Schools closed their doors or locked students inside. Recess and football games were cancelled. People stayed home from work, and the economy dipped as malls, restaurants, and movie theaters lost customers to a competitor with whom they could not compete: fear.

Meanwhile, in urban areas like Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, and Houston, where violence and fear are in permanent residence, children continued to play outdoors and, on occasion, even take a standagainst evil.

In Philadelphia in September, an 11-year-old walked into a police station to report a terrible crime. The boy said his father made him sell bags of marijuana on street corners, and when he cried that he didn't want to do it anymore, he had been beaten unmercifully. Fed up, he took it upon himself to turn his father in. Strangers called him a "hero."

Who among us wouldn't desire our children to be so brave, so self-reliant, and so principled? Or to have the heart of Carnell Dawson Sr. and his wife, Angela, of Baltimore who were killed along with five children in an arson fire that police said was set in retaliation for the family's efforts to rid their neighborhood of drugs? The Dawsons were freedom-fighters. If we measured people by character instead of assets, they'd be considered wealthy folk.

My point is that every person and every group is advantaged and disadvantaged in some way.

So, when we use labels, let's use them with care. We have to stop and consider whose yardstick we use to measure others. When we measure others using our yardstick, they tend to come up short. When they measure us with their yardstick, it is we who may end up looking feeble.

Every human being has strengths and weaknesses. That is a lesson we can learn from children if only we take a moment to see the world through eyes of innocence.

• Linda S. Wallace, a former journalist, is a Philadelphia-based cultural coaching consultant and author of the advice column 'The Cultural Coach.'

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