Commentary

Saunders: A pleasant talk with a well-mannered young man

bsaunders@newsobserver.comApril 16, 2014 

I saw an invisible man Monday.

But Big Dude, you ask, how could you see him if he’s invisible?

Simple: He’s not invisible to me, silly – only to many of you. That’s merely because you refuse to see him.

At the Hudson Belk store at the Streets at Southpoint mall in Durham, I was returning a pair of shoes – a pair I just couldn’t possibly live without, until getting home and realizing I could – when I overheard the conversation between the sales clerk and the invisible man.

He was somewhere between 16 and 20, and the clerk was trying to help him pick which of a handful of bow ties would complement his shoes.

‘Yes, ma’am’

A bow tie? To complement his shoes?

I liked him just for that. When I heard their 5-minute conversation, I liked him even more. Every response to the clerk, who appeared to be in her 40s, was “Yes, ma’am” or “No, ma’am.”

“C’mon, man. Do you really know how to tie a bow tie?” I asked after sauntering over.

“Yes, sir,” he said. I told him how it’d taken me a decade to learn to tie one, and how, prior to that, I’d have to start dressing an hour early just to be on time if I were wearing one. We both laughed and I walked away, since a middle-age man starting up a conversation with a young stranger in the mall in the middle of the day could be viewed in some quarters as suspicious.

Sad, but true.

You know what was remarkable about the brief but pleasant encounter with the well-mannered young man?

Nothing. It happens every day. The problem is, though, that seldom are pleasant encounters with young men noted. Too often, if they’re not athletes or rappers or pop stars with talents inaudible to the naked ear, the only time that demographic group gets noticed is when one of its members shoots up or slashes up a school or commits some other ghastly crime against society.

That’s when they become visible. This is especially true for young black dudes, which the bow tie-buyer was. It breaks my heart to think that when that kid walks down a street or enters a store, he’ll automatically be viewed warily, with suspicion – with fear, even – for that reason alone.

ADHD and drugs

A recent article in Esquire magazine cited a Centers for Disease Control study that estimated that 20 percent of all American boys will be diagnosed with ADHD by the time they reach high school. Two-thirds of them will have been prescribed some powerful, mind-altering drug, many of which have deleterious side effects on brains that aren’t yet fully developed.

Several years ago, a distraught father called me because a teacher was recommending that his 5-year-old son be given Ritalin to calm him down. After noting that I’m no doctor, I suggested that he get a second opinion. And a third. And, if necessary a fourth.

The willingness to drug kids suggests that we like our young men either exceptional or drugged and nodding out in class, not bothering anybody.

Speaking of bothering somebody: Are too many of the suspects staring malevolently into the camera in mugshots in our newspaper young black guys? Darned right. So, too, though, are many of their victims – directly or indirectly.

That young man I talked to at the mall is one of their victims, because he’ll be regarded as a criminal for the rest of his life until he proves he’s not one. He shouldn’t have to bear that burden.

See, that’s the one advantage I’ll concede to any white guy: When one of y’all lights up a school with gunfire or slashes your way down a school hallway with knives, you’re viewed as either an aberration or a lone wolf, someone whose actions hold no greater meaning for you as a group. The condemnation in that case, if it comes at all, is individually applied.

Let Daquan or Jacquan or Quandarius do something cretinous, though, and – hoo boy – it’s dangerous for me to turn on my computer or even open my mail. “Look at what your ‘brothers’ did,” self-professed social critics will write. I sometimes even have to remind the writers or callers that “Say, homes. I haven’t killed anybody.”

Neither have most of us. Remember that.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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