Some days, lessons come from the most unexpected sources. And usually, these kinds of “eye-opening” experiences are the most transformative.
Such was the experience one day – some 25 years ago.
The day appeared to be just like any other. I’d put on my freshly laundered white shirt, my yellow tie, and my blue pinstriped, double-breasted suit – complete with wide lapels. (Are you getting that late 80s vibe?)
Back in those days, I was a young entrepreneur – focused on building a growing, successful business in the world of information technology. I’d scheduled a meeting with “Gretchen” (not her real name), the technology manager for Goodwill Industries here in the Denver, CO area (that is the real client).
I don’t remember what time of day it was when I got there, but I arrived my usual ten minutes early (ask my kids – to me 10 minutes early is “on time”). Walking into the reception area, and after telling the receptionist that I was there to see Gretchen, I was struck by a number of things.
First – the reception area had the feel of everything in it having been donated at some point. Mismatched furniture that clearly had seen better days, faded artwork that screamed “garage sale” everywhere, and carpeting that had been manufactured, well, let’s say, “decades earlier” was accompanied by the tell-tale smell of “donation.” But then, there were the display cases.
Looking like they’d been taken from the hallways of a 1950s high school, the aluminum and glass cases hid treasure. Real treasure. One had a doll collection that would cause Smithsonian collectors to perk up. Another held rare books. Still a third was filled with jewelry, coins, and other things obviously made from rare metals. I was transfixed. The juxtaposition was jarring.
Just then, I heard my name, “Bob?”
Gretchen was smiling and had extended her hand. I took it, gave my best “rapport building 101” smile and handshake, and said, “Gretchen? It’s nice to meet you.”
My sales trainer would have been pleased.
Gretchen continued, “Oh – I see you’ve discovered the cases. It’s amazing what people have donated.” I nodded agreement. She went on, “Would you like a tour?”
A tour. Of the largest Goodwill sorting facility between Chicago and Los Angeles – hmmm… I thought about it for a second, my sales trainer’s voice re-entered my head, and I almost blurted, “That sounds great!”
Off we went. We first entered the professional basketball-arena sized warehouse on the ground floor. I could see a mountain range, literally, of shirts, pants, socks, and other kinds of clothes on the floor. Dozens of people were sorting (Keep It? Toss It?) everything, and then putting the items on conveyors to be sent to the dump or to dry cleaning or the laundry. Other corners of the building housed small appliances by the 100s, books by the 1,000s, and various nick nacks, artworks, trinkets and sporting goods deemed no longer wanted by their former owners.
And – then there was the smell. It permeated my nose, my eyes, my mouth, my hair, my clothes – oh my, I knew I’d need to take my clothes to the laundry the next day. They couldn’t even sit in my closet for fear of propagating the nasty aroma.
Imagine mothballs meeting dirty gym socks, and you’re pretty close.
I was starting to feel queasy just as Gretchen began navigating a stairway in front of me – beckoning me. Again, my “rapport building 101” class instructor’s voice urged me onward.
At the top of the stairs, Gretchen stopped. We were in a room about 20’ by 30’ that was filled with dozens of “people…” She was telling me that “Goodwill Industries is the largest employer of disabled persons in the world.” Blah, blah, blah – but I quit listening.
My heart was racing, my underarms dampening, and my eyes squinting – and I found myself literally moving toward the wall – away from “them.”
They were all challenged in some way – and profoundly so. Blindness, various birth defects, mental illness, severe issues of all types and sorts, and I felt assaulted by the shear number of them and their various ailments.
My awareness came back to Gretchen for a moment – just long enough to hear her say, “All of these folks are new here today – we’re just seeing what they might be able to help with around here…”
I felt like I was the one that needed help.
I was repulsed.
Maybe Gretchen sensed my discomfort, or maybe I was hurrying myself toward the exit, but we quickly retreated from the room – and went on with the tour. And over the next 10 minutes or so as I regained my composure (and became more accustomed to the smell), I learned more about which clothes stay, which clothes go, how things are sorted and priced, etc., etc.
It was interesting in a “rapport building 101” sort of way. But then, as we ended the tour, Gretchen asked me if I wanted coffee. I said, “sure!” and we headed to the break room.
In we went.
And – there was indeed a coffee pot in the room. But, the coffee was just brewing – it was minutes away from being done. And – there was only one door in and one door out of the break room. And – in the break room were ALL of those “people” I’d seen earlier. They were on their break.
I was trapped. Gretchen began talking with some coworkers, meeting some of the new inductees, and generally was lost in the normality of the situation as the coffee SLOWLY poured into the pot.
I had to stay, I had to. And, as I was putting myself into my “mental safety deposit box,” it happened.
As I was standing there – teetering between feelings of fight and flight, one of “them” came up to me. It was hard to peg his age, but I’d guess late 30s, maybe 40.
Now, I’m 6’6” in my bare feet – and he might have been 5’ tall. Oh – and he was also blind. And he had severe Down Syndrome.
Somehow he recognized that I was much larger than he was – and he reached for my hand. He took it amid my shaking, near panicked attempt to pull away. Then, it’s not so much that he “held” my hand – it was more like he “plugged into me…”
He stayed connected to me – and all at once, I began feeling something “crackling” in the air – an anticipation of something big. An epiphany was near, I could feel it.
Seconds passed. He waited. I felt my head shift backwards, my feet starting to inch toward the door.
Then he said, “I’m Frank.” Pause. A smile.
He continued, “Are you new here?”
The question hung in the air between us… I thought, “New here??? I don’t want to be here!!”
But instead of saying that, my mother’s voice told me to remember my manners, and I stuttered something about just being on a tour today…
As he tilted his face toward mine – as if he was trying to make eye contact –Frank continued, “They found something that I’m good at!” He smiled – showed me ALL of his teeth. He waited. He grew quiet and his face grew slack.
Then he said, lips quivering, eyes moistening, words cracking, “I’ll make enough money so I can have my own place.” Another pause.
Then, almost imperceptibly he whispered, “I’ve never lived on my own before…”
More seconds passed, and then as he slowly let go of my hand, his shoulders slumped, and he started weeping. Shoulders heaving.
I stood there – stunned, speechless, laid bare by a blind man named Frank.
In the span of only about 30 seconds, he’d torn down my uppity, haughty, self-serving façade, and taught me to see.
He was the one that had it all figured out and I was the one that had it all wrong. He was beautiful, perfect, giving, and grateful. I was selfish and unseeing.
He taught me to understand that everyone, all of us, are wonderful and amazing, and deserving of love, respect, and honor. Each in our own small way wants to belong, to feel appreciated and loved.
He’s shown me that.
My own eyes filling with tears, my throat tightening, my head hanging, I put my hands on his shoulders and whispered to him, “That’s amazing.”
And I have no idea how the rest of the day and my meeting with Gretchen turned out – I’ve long ago forgotten it.
But, I’ll take Frank’s face, his voice, his tears, and his joy with me to my grave.
Thank you Frank.
You are the blind man that taught me to see.
© 2012, Robert S. Tipton, All Rights Reserved