It was a very hot August day when the sky began to darken and lightning cracked nearby. I was a passenger riding in the comfort of my truck when a I saw him, an elderly man with skin darkened to the color and texture of leather from working outside all day. He was on a riding lawn mower, desperately attempting to finish his job before the rains came. He wore a straw cowboy hat and a bandana was tied around his neck to prevent the sun from burning his skin. His work clothes included a pair of khaki pants and a long sleeved shirt, a uniform well suited for the kind of labor he performed. I thought of how noble he looked as he continued to cut the grass and the weeds even as the threat of a storm became more and more imminent. I found myself wondering who this stranger was, where he and his family lived, how he had come to be so dependable and hard working. I wanted to know his story, for he reminded me of my grandfather who had once labored in a meat packing plant cleaning carcasses and dirty floors. He too had worked proudly and reliably to feed and clothe and house his wife and children.
All too often people like this man go unseen, invisible figures in the routine of our lives. We do not think to notice the challenges that such people face or to wonder how the world is treating them. Does he get stereotyped merely because of his complexion or the dirt and sweat on his clothes and skin? Do people turn up their noses at him simply because he does a task that few of us would ever want to do? Is he viewed as an outsider, an outcast, someone that we would not care to have near us even though he is doing an honest day’s work? How often is he misjudged?
I found myself thinking of this man long after our brief encounter. The rains started within minutes after I drove past him, no doubt either drenching him or interrupting the cadence of his work. I thought of how there are so many individuals who labor long and hard day after day only to earn barely enough to stay afloat, and yet they show up to perform their duties again and again because they are unwilling to simply exist through the charity of others.
I recalled a conversation that I once had with one of my students who revealed that he and his mother cleaned office buildings until the early hours of the morning. It was how they paid their rent and kept food in their pantry. He would return home each evening to sleep on the couch rather than in a bed because his siblings had already filled the bedrooms. He snoozed for a few hours and then awoke to go to school to wrangle with his teachers before heading to his night time job. He was a bright boy, but his grades were dismal because he had little time to complete homework assignments. He had to choose between studying and helping his family, and, of course there was no contest as to which to do in his mind. He was perennially exhausted, so he considered dropping out and maybe getting a second job and a bit more sleep. So many people thought that he was lazy, having little idea of how truly wonderful he actually was. Eventually his fate was determined by the economic demands that he faced. He left school, knowing of the dreary prospect of living from hand to mouth for the rest of his life unless some miracle allowed him to return to his studies.
We only think we know and understand those who struggle with poverty or live differently from the ways that we do. We pontificate about the importance of education and working hard and adhering to a budget as though the people who are facing unimaginable challenges are always responsible for their own fates. We choose not to see through their eyes, instead passing unfair judgements that are not backed up with evidence.
Another of my students once cried in my office as he spoke of his mother. This was a big and tough young man who seemed to have no fears. In truth he worried about the woman who loved him so much that she worked double shifts even though her health was rapidly failing. He described how she often came home from her job so tired that she fell asleep in the car, unable to make those last steps into the comfort of her home. When she did manage to stumble inside he would see that her ankles were swollen twice their normal size and the veins in her legs were bulging. She would be out of breath, almost unable to even speak. It was a sight that worried him, but he felt as though there was little more that he might do than earn a high school diploma, become certified for a trade, and then support her so that she might finally rest. He hid is concerns behind a kind of bravado peppered with jokes and attitude. He too was often estimated wrongly by well meaning adults who truly believed that he would never amount to anything. Their expectations for him were nonexistent, so he created his own goals and dreams.
I’m happy to say that both of these young men eventually did well through sheer will and a great deal of hard work. They have survived in ways that few of us would be able to manage and created bright futures for themselves in spite of their circumstances and little encouragement or support. They make me quite proud because I know what it has taken for them to make the changes in their lives and those of their family members. They are glorious in my mind just as that man on the tractor and my grandfather are.
It is sadly true that far too often those who do not match our own standards are thought to be somehow inferior. If we were to take just a moment to walk in their shoes we might learn that they are instead quite remarkable. Such wonderful souls deserve a salute for they are truly the salt of the earth. Think about that next time you see someone toiling away.