Robert Fulghum’s popular book tells us that all we really need to know in life we learned in kindergarten. One of the first maxims I picked up early in life is to reserve judgment of a person until I’ve “walked a mile in their shoes.” I can say that I’ve honestly tried to imagine myself in the shoes of my neighbor, but to actually walk in their shoes is a different matter altogether.
Growing up as the only child in a very conservative, God-fearing household, I always walked a very tight line in regards to how I dressed and carried myself. My yearly school pictures always showed me to be a very properly dressed, clean-cut kid. I never made any waves or stirred up even a hint of trouble. In fact, I didn’t get my name on the board (the mildest warning) at school until I was in fifth grade, and that was only because the entire in the class had their names put on the board—even then I cried and the teacher had to reassure me that I hadn’t done anything wrong. My teachers loved me, and I in turn loved them and really tried hard to please them. You could say that it was a cycle.
Not every kid in school had the same good relationship with the teachers. Plenty of my classmates were in trouble everyday; some of them were even in detention on a weekly basis. Even in elementary school, I observed that the kids who were often in trouble were the best-dressed and most conceited. In high school, this difference became more apparent. The clothes got more attitude and the hairstyles got weirder! Some of my classmates chose to wear shirts that contained foul language and inappropriate innuendos. Their pants often were black and covered in metal studs or rings. Even their boots looked threatening!
I tried not to judge people by their appearance, but behavior and personality so often seemed to reinforce the stereotypes. Even though I tried to imagine “walking a mile” in their steel-toe boots, I could not possibly understand what they were going through and how their attitudes towards authority could be affected by their appearance—until the day I unwittingly became one of “them.”
It all started with a dare. At this year’s kick off rally, my small group was very busy celebrating the start of their last year of high school. My guys had been together since seventh grade; this was their sixth year together. Being together a third of their lives, these men were a tightly knit group. One thing they all had in common was their relatively long hair. So when one of guys said that they should do something really crazy to remember their last year together, the group decided that sporting mohawks would be the craziest thing to do. Needless to say, this challenge turned into a series of dares and before long the hair was flying! Of course, my hair was not exempt. I can safely say that a mohawk was a new look for me.
At first my new haircut felt very cool; both literally and figuratively. I was proud to send a text message to my friends announcing that the deed was done as soon as the clippers were turned off. The person in the mirror looked very different from the one I had grown accustomed to seeing. Admittedly, the attention from my church friends and family was not a bad thing, either. I really got a kick out of the looks of shock on their faces! However, I would soon learn that being a nonconformist has a dark side.
The looks of shock and amusement that I got from my friends turned into looks of shock and disgust in public. My new neighbor gave me a long apprehensive stare and tightly clutched her small child to her side the first time I drove by their part of the street. Could it be that a “good responsible driver” suddenly looked more reckless with his defiant spikes behind the wheel? Perhaps, but I didn’t think too much of it. Later I discovered that the attention I was so fond of getting from my friends was suddenly unwelcome when it came from other drivers at a stop light, or from a police officer who randomly decided to follow me around inside a Wal-Mart late one night.
My most embarrassing moment occurred when I took my friend out for his birthday. We went to a nearby restaurant that I have visited several times before. In fact, I had just taken a couple of students to this same restaurant only a week earlier. The people at this establishment had always been uniformly courteous and friendly to me and my guests. But on this day, they acted very differently towards me and my friend. We were asked about our smoking preference; I clearly replied, “No smoking.” The host made a funny face and then proceeded to seat us as far back in the corner of the dining room as possible—behind a door, hidden from view of the “normal” customers—in the smoking section. I felt for the first time in my life like a true outcast.
There was another feeling rising up in my gut that I had never felt before. It was something like anger and rebellion mingled with a disdain for the authority figures I felt were judging me. These urges to “fight the man” were completely foreign to me, and I concluded that they must have come about as a direct result of my new experience as a “rebel.” I was the same person on the inside that I had always been, but the tiny difference that a wild hairstyle makes was enough to change the way people perceived and acted towards me. It was at this moment that I realized what it was like to really walk in the shoes of the kids at my old high school who looked different, even if only for a few days.
Could it be possible that the “ruffians” I remembered from elementary and high school were really just kids no different than me, except for the type of cycle which defined them? Just as I was always treated kindly by authority figures (and in turn desired to please those authority figures), perhaps the kids who misbehaved frequently were aware of how those in authority viewed them and perceived even the most minute slight as a personal attack (leading to a hardening of the heart against authority and reinforcing the desire to rebel by giving off a counter-culture image). The possibility definitely shook my world view.
The second part of I Samuel 16:7 says, “The Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (NKJV). I wonder how God sees the people around me. I'm sure His view of them is very different from my view of them. I wonder what kind of vibes I'm giving to the people I see, especially those who dress and carry themselves differently than I would. Do I see tattoos and earrings or do I see a young man who needs to talk to a friend today? Do I see inappropriate clothing or do I see a young lady who is searching for a place where she is accepted?
One of the most important things we can teach our kids is to see the world as God sees it. Sometimes our stereotypes can tell us a lot, but they miss the most important part of the story–that each person is a child of a God who loves them, and that each person has a story behind whatever type of mask they may choose to wear. As for me, I shaved my mohawk off the day after I ate at the restaurant. Those shoes were awfully heavy for me, and there is no way I could have walked the whole mile.