No Offense to You

It’s Tuesday night around 9:30 as I settle into my seat on the PATCO train out of Philadelphia and into NJ. It is a historic night. Not because I have had a night out with friends, a rarity, but because on this night, for the first time, a woman will become the presidential candidate of a major party ticket. Don’t misunderstand . . . this is not an endorsement of either candidate, but the occasion makes me happy. I see it as a long overdue recognition of the hard work of my mother, who has yearned for equality during her professional career, and a heartening bellwether for the boundless future of my ten month-old daughter.

As the doors close on the train, I hear someone stumble in the aisle just over my shoulder. It is an older, African-American gentleman with a cane, likely in his mid-70’s. He apologizes to me for his slight stumble. I nod politely and ask if I can help. He waves off my offer and stands, leaning on the empty chair in front of me as he explains that recent surgeries on both shoulders and a hip have hindered his mobility. He continues to explain that he is scheduled to have his other hip replaced next month.

I feel sympathy for his difficulties, and he extends his hand while taking his seat.

“Hi, I am Tommy.”

I reply, “Hi Tommy. My name is Kevin.”

I am grateful for some polite conversation during this tedious train ride. I welcome what I anticipate to be a conventional, convivial conversation between two strangers. What occurs however, is far from ordinary.

Tommy and I begin to chat, and I soon learn that his injuries are from a long career in many fields but primarily in construction. The strenuous work has taken a toll on him, and his body is feeling the effects. He shares his story with me, from his childhood in South Carolina to his arrival in the northeast where, at eighteen, he began work as a mail carrier at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. We connect as I begin to share that my father spent most of his professional life working at the same very same shipyard. Following Tommy’s time at the shipyard (now closed) he worked in a few different settings before beginning his career in construction, a trade that he learned on the job. I am rightly impressed.

I can choose no better train companion than Tommy. Yet, on this night, the night on which our nation takes an extraordinary step forward in the equality of women, I am not able to dismiss troubling thoughts, and my mind wanders to the nightly news and images of unrest and misunderstanding.

Like so many others, the unsettling racial conflicts on the streets of our cities troubles me deeply. My mind drifts for a moment, lost in images from the nightly news. . .

And then.

The unthinkable happens. Tommy apologizes to me.

I refocus my attention to our conversation as he waits for me to accept or simply acknowledge the apology he offers. I nod— a gesture, a sign for him to continue.

Tommy begins to share with me why he left South Carolina. The KKK.

“No offense to you, but the power of the organization scared me and my family.”

Did you catch that? Rewind.

Now press play

“No offense to you, but the power of the organization scared me and my family.”

Tommy apologizes to me as if I may have taken offense to his critique of the KKK or of white men. In this moment, I am changed.

Like a tsunami, the realization that abiding in my incredibly small world is limiting, and in an instant, the walls have come down. More to the point, within the confines of my interaction with Tommy, I find much more than a casual, throw-away conversation on a train.

He is a teacher. And he is a teacher I need.

I stumble through an apology in return and then ask about his feelings regarding the current conflicts between the African-American community and the police. I inelegantly apologize again as I inquire further. I want to understand his world more. I may be saying too much. I may misspeak. I may offend him. And yet I take the risk and forge on.

We continue this penitent exchange with one another as we talk about his family’s encounters with the KKK and the nationwide troubling, ongoing conflicts between the police and black men. Each question and comment we exchange is preceded by an “I’m sorry. . . ” or an “I mean no offense but. . . ”

We are cautious and careful with our words. I listen. I learn from this unexpected, unprecedented, and unparalleled teacher. In this quiet moment on a train, we both recognize that history and conflict have brought us to this moment. Further, and more importantly, we realize that we are supposed to be here. Slowly, the apologies lessen and our talk reaches a comfort level that we have been waiting to find. The train stops. The doors open. We walk out together and talk a bit more. We both realize, somewhat regretfully, that we have reached the end of our time together. I thank him. He thanks me. We hug, smile, and walk away.

So many times, I sit at my office desk at school, listen to a conversation, wait to comment, and struggle to empathize with the student in front of me.

His father has died. — My parents are both living. Healthy.

He is battling a learning disability. — My battle was procrastination.

He is struggling with our school culture. — I felt that I fit in from week one.

Is true empathy an impossible goal? It may be. How can I fully understand the struggles of another person?

Franz Kafka asks, “When you stand in front of me and look at me, what do you know of the griefs that are in me and what do I know of yours? And if I were to cast myself down before you and weep and tell you, what more would you know about me than you know about Hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful?”

I have no answer to this, but I know with certainty that I was meant to be on that train. I was meant to meet Tommy and hear his story. I was meant to question my own capacity for empathy and feel a deep need to make it stronger.  After this transforming train ride, I know that our desire, our growing capacity to be empathetic can overcome our many differences.

It takes time and, yes, many, many apologies. But in the midst of apologies, we can cross difficult thresholds and share our experiences freely. This was my experience with my teacher, Tommy Thompson. I am profoundly grateful.

The train will stop for you as it did for me. We all say goodbye to a teacher – a teacher who changes us.

On that night, I said goodbye to Tommy. I moved out into the world a better, more empathetic person.

We move out in to the world, richer for our experiences.