Today’s story is about a white boy and a black man, but, at its heart, today’s story is not just black and white.
It is much more.
Pinedale Elementary School’s halls were places where people walked in lines.
The white boy in today’s story didn’t excel at the task, because he’d never been able to walk straight from one point to another in his life and he moved slow.
The black man must have noticed.
He spent a lot of time in those halls.
He’d sweep them when some kid forgot to wipe his feet and tracked in some playground dirt.
He cleaned them every time somebody lost their lunch on the way to the nurse’s office.
He was the kind of man who took pride in his job, who worked with a greater purpose in mind than his job description or his paycheck.
His purpose was the kids who knew him as Mr. JJ, kids like the white boy who learned inside the school he worked to keep clean.
If you haven’t already guessed, I am the white boy in today’s story, which took place in a simpler time when lunchroom ladies scooped generous heaps of fried okra onto my plate while they helped me through the lunch line.
More importantly, today’s story took place in a time when it seemed like people were quicker with smiles.
Mr. JJ smiled at the drop of a hat.
I believe he smiled every time he saw me.
Mr. JJ seemed tall in my elementary eyes. I looked up at him.
It didn’t register then, but I know now I looked up to him, too.
Sometimes, when it was time for my class to go outside for P.E., Mr. JJ let me stand on his dolly (some of y’all may call it a hand truck) and gave me a ride.
We talked while he pushed and I rode.
A lot of our conversations were about cigarettes.
We were on opposite sides of the issue, since I was in the initial stages of Drug Abuse Resistance Education and he smoked like a chimney.
We were as different as black and white when it came to cigarettes.
I don’t remember the exact words I used to try to get him to break his habit, but I probably told him it’d kill him and he probably laughed.
We laughed a lot in my time at the school where he swept halls, and we’d bonded by the time I left for a new world in junior high.
I saw Mr. JJ a while back. We both have a little gray in our hair, but he’s the one who’s earned it.
When I congratulated him on his recent retirement, he thanked me and smiled.
People use descriptive words like “black” and “white” because they’re physical facts most people notice right away when they see one another.
It is true I am a white man, and it is true Mr. JJ is a black man.
I’m sure there are people who are content to make assumptions about Mr. JJ based on one fact, but they’ll hurt themselves because they’ll miss out on a lot.
They’ll miss out on a man who’s a hard worker, a man who cares about others and a man who went out to make a difference.
We may identify each other by visible characteristics because it’s easy, but it’s also important to look deeper.
If we don’t, we might miss out because — like today’s story — people are not just black and white.
They are much more.
This post is a response to Sue’s prompt, which is “sweep.”