“There’s nothing wrong with enjoying looking at the surface of the ocean itself, except that when you finally see what goes on underwater, you realize that you’ve been missing the whole point of the ocean. Staying on the surface all the time is like going to the circus and staring at the outside of the tent.” –Dave Berry
I was a sophomore in high school when I had a revelation about stereotypes. It was before 7:45am in first period, Honors English 2. I had my bag on top of my desk with my face planted down. The bell rang and sounds of slush making their way off boots and mumbling filled the room. My classmate, I’ll call him Derek, hit my back with rolled paper practically shouting, “Lentz!” My body jolted with the girliest squeal from being startled. “Mary, hey. I read your essay and it was legit. Seriously, so good. I’d love to meet in the library to exchange notes if you’d be cool with that. Here,” he handed me my essay. “I took the liberty to write notes and dude, let’s talk.” In our class we were required to print and give all classmates a copy of our essays, but we weren’t required to read and give notes. He had voluntarily read my essay and jotted his thoughts down.
To paint a picture, Derek sported the same skinny black jeans every day with the same black beanie. His long brown hair curled along the edges of the beanie and he alternated amongst 2-3 zip-up hoodies. He snuck out for lunch as a freshman, had poor attendance and was a known drug-dealer at the school. Up until that point, we hadn’t exchanged words to each other, with the exception of classroom discussions. I unrolled my essay in second period that day and uncovered papers clothed in lines of intentional, purposeful notes.
My essay commended a hero of mine, Corrie ten Boom. She was a Christian who helped Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust during World War II, and was imprisoned for it. I was shocked Derek took an interest. I trundled through my stack of classmates’ papers, found his, and was bewildered: he was, without a doubt, the strongest writer in our class. I metaphorically felt the claw of a hammer pry nails out of boxes I had built; boxes containing people who I had labeled, stereotyped and sealed away. I was disappointed with myself for not thinking of Derek anything more than a druggie. My first clue should have been that he enrolled in an honors class, but that is how boxed in he was to me. For the duration of the course Derek and I discussed pending essays. We didn’t have practically anything in common, we respected each other and our senses of humor meshed well. I enjoyed talking to him and the morning he approached me will always be a strong memory of mine.
During our library conversations I saw strong potential in Derek. He was naturally a strong academic, exuding joy. He respected all his classmates and teachers, which is rare for a 16 year old.
My heart shifted during Honors English 2. I believe God used Derek to reveal how His love is not grounded on choices and how I should not base whom I love off their choices. Derek dealt drugs, swore like a sailor, regularly skipped class. Beyond that he was loving, joyful, smart, quite the comedian. Honors English 2 was our last class together. He was a “school friend.” We’d walk to classes together if we caught each other in the hall, or walk to our cars together after school.
At the Senior Night Graduation party, two years after our class together, I was one of 20 to be chosen to get hypnotized. Derek ran up to me afterwards, practically tumbling me over. He said, “Lentz! Hilarious show up there. You the bomb, I’m going to go smoke…catch you at graduation?” I appreciated how, although he knew I didn’t smoke, he was open about his lifestyle. I’ve had friends who medicate, drink and whatnot hide information from me. Derek never did, showing he was confident in his decisions. Most importantly, it meant a lot to me because that showed his security in knowing I wasn’t judging him and cared for him despite his vices.
Today he is a college graduate, a Navy Seal, and happily married.
Derek’s choice to approach me one snowy morning was prodigious for my heart. I can see God that morning thinking, “I am so excited Mary’s heart will be provoked today.”
Several have described me as non-judgmental and I am complimented regularly on how I seek to know people for who they are, not what they are known for or their looks. I am strongly agitated when people make false accusations or have quick assumptions towards others–but this comes from years of learning and the tangible reason roots from Derek, a classmate who made questionable decisions academically and financially, but spent his love tank admirably, with such intentional love for others.
A second note that may seem unrelated, but I feel important for this post is this….
When I’m treated poorly by someone I barely know, it’s easy to judge. The cashier at the grocery store might be sassy, the barista may roll eyes when I return a drink, or the AT&T employee gives attitude despite putting me hold for an hour. I could easily think, “I’m giving you business…I am entitled to great customer service!”
By the kindness (and humor) of God I was that clerk on the other side of the counter for seven years. I ran the concession stand at the Little League Field, served chocolate in a mall, sorted dirty clothes at a dry cleaners and made coffee for needy, eager customers. I worked shifts on days that were personally terrible. I worked the day I learned my Gramma had cancer, the day our family pet died, the day my torn ACL knee gave out, the day after I was in a car accident and had a concussion, the day a guy I liked said he only saw me as a friend and how I was, “the Queen of platonic relationships”…and the day I didn’t get into a school I applied to.
So many employees we see have had hard days, yet they leave it at the door, put a smile on and attempt to make our experience great. That barista who isn’t smiling when you tip $0.25 may have learned her mom has a tumor, her brother has to stay in Iraq another six months or she simply may have a fever and feels nauseas but she is trying her very best to get through the shift so she can escape to rest.
I’ve seen all of the above.
If I hadn’t worked in customer service, the perspective I wrote above would not be cultivated in my heart. I try and take that perspective with me everywhere and when treated poorly, attempt to put myself in the shoes of those who “wronged” me and believe the best in them.
In retrospect, my job as an employee was to give customers the benefit of the doubt with kindness.
I’m not solely communicating we need to be nice to rude servers. I am bringing this full circle and suggesting those in customer service need to be nice to ill-mannered customers, and customers need to be nice to rude servers. Essentially strive to be kind to everyone, being mindful that they may have had the worst day. Many times when I paused to ask how a customer was doing their answer far out-weighed my current problems. I’ll never forget asking a regular customer what she up to that day. This girl, in her late teens, came in every morning for a tea latte. On one particular day she came in around 1pm, looking sour and unpleasant. She didn’t come in that morning so I figured she had an early release from school. I asked what she was up to that day and was stunned. She was meeting her dad’s friend because she found out her dad had brain cancer earlier that morning. He had a month, at the most, to live.
I remember taking a moment in the back room to cry. She received news I only fear to hear. What is more sad (and real) is countless, if not all people, walk the streets facing turbulence of their own.
“It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge and my job to love.” -Billy Graham
If we sat in a room with 20 people and shared our burdens, our scars, I believe most, if not all, would choose to walk away with what they walked in with. I don’t think we would choose to carry another person’s hardships.
The conviction stemmed from Derek was nearly 10 years ago. Looking back today, I see how my heart change then prepared me for the several “Dereks.” Countless people walked in my life after Honors English dealing with vices I once would not have not necessarily judged them for doing, but I’d assume they were just like all other people who acted the same. Working in Entertainment in the heart of Hollywood it’s rare, at times seems impossible, to meet someone who doesn’t resort to some vice as a way of survival.
If I hadn’t looked past Derek’s exterior I don’t know how my heart would have carved out. If I hadn’t worked in customer service for nearly a decade I wouldn’t have the empathy I have for those today in customer service. By having my heart provoked, by living difficult days and facing tough situations, I am more understanding, more loving, more wise.
I’d like to end with one of my favorite simple, profound quotes.
“Hardship often prepares an ordinary person for an extraordinary destiny.” –C.S. Lewis