Archives For different

Perhaps you saw the recent story about Eli Pierre being denied a job at Starbucks because he has one arm.

Obviously, the situation caught my attention.

As I’ve written before, I’m pretty lenient when it comes to peoples’ reactions to me; including their stares.  But, I think it’s safe to say that I would have handled this situation, uh, considerably more undignified than Eli did.  Things would have been thrown.  Names would have been called.

I hesitate, though, to be angry with Starbucks as a whole.  It sounds like the onus here is smack dab on the hiring manager.  It amazes me that this thought process actually exists.  And I use the word “process” loosely.

I also have a deeper connection to the story because 11 years ago I was a barista at Starbucks.  This was before everything was automated, too.  I ground the beans and loaded the hoppers and tamped and pulled shots and pumped syrup…I did it all, baby.  And I was good at it.  My manager, the guy who hired me, was a big, bald, hilarious gay guy with a sun tattoo on his calf.  He did not discriminate against me, nor did Starbucks against him.  I enjoyed my co-workers and recall my time there fondly.

This is not me.

Remembering my stint at Starbucks got me thinking about the other jobs I’ve had over the years.  I had to laugh at the irony of some of them.  My first job was at ACE Hardware.  I carried bags of softener salt, cut keys and glass, bagged nuts and bolts and countless other manual tasks.  I also worked at Eddie Bauer in the Mall of America for a while where I had to fold clothes every shift.  Then there was the job I had processing donations for a non-profit.  I opened envelopes, sorted papers and entered data into a computer every day.  There was also the time I worked at a shoe store, carrying and stacking boxes and tying shoes for customers.  Oh, and I went to school for radio and then worked at a station for a while where I spliced tape, ran the board for various programs and performed on-air while producing.

As you can see, there was a lot of room in each of those jobs for me to feel like I couldn’t do things with only one hand.  And a lot of opportunity for other people to think I couldn’t.  Very rarely, though, was my arm ever brought-up.  In fact, the only times I can remember were when I worked at the hardware store and my concerned boss just wanted to make sure I was ok.  Other than that, it was smooth sailing.

That’s why Eli’s story boggles my mind.  As I’m sure it boggled his while it was happening.  The closest I came to something like this was when I was being helped by the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation and my counselor suggested I get a prosthetic arm, “just for aesthetic reasons. You know, to help in interviews and that sort of thing.”  I was furious.  I told him that if someone didn’t want to hire me because of my arm, besides being illegal, it was their loss.  And I wouldn’t want to work for them anyway.  He seemed satisfied with that answer.  Not like he had a choice.

And as bad as that was, it’s a far cry from what Eli experienced.

So, what do we learn from this?  We learn that ignorance, bigotry, and insensitivity are alive and well.  If you’re black, asian, short, tall, blind, deaf, wheelchair bound, limb-different, speak with a lisp…basically, if you’re different in any noticeable way, you are already familiar with this fact.

I do believe, though, that this is the exception and not the rule.  I believe whole-heartedly that most people desire to treat others with respect and dignity.  Even when they are unsure of how to react to someone who is different, I believe the majority are trying their best to do the right thing.  To look those who are different in the eye, to not stare, to ask questions respectfully, to accept.

And when those of us who are different encounter the person who hasn’t come around yet, like Eli did, we have a choice.  We can let it beat us and bruise us.  We can let it send us into a tailspin.  We can let it harden our heart.  We can allow it to shape our thinking about everyone.

Or, we can bring it to the light.  We can use it to educate and illuminate.  We can become stronger by pushing through it.  We can stand-up for those who are different and invite those who aren’t to do the same.

We can overcome.

I originally posted this piece on in June 2011. 

The other day some kids stared at me.  My son’s class was meeting at the park to perform their year-end songs and I decided to surprise Sam by coming.  Earlier I told him I had to work, so when his friends saw me walking toward the park they started shouting, “Sam!  Your dad’s here!  I thought you said he was for sure not coming?!”  Sam ran to me, smiling sheepishly, and wrapped his arms around my neck.  Then his friends came over.  There they stood.  All lined-up, their little 7-year old fingers pointed at me like an adorable firing squad.  “What happened to his arm?” some of them quietly asked.  “Hey, boys,” I said.  I mean, I’m used to this.

I was born missing my left arm just below the elbow.  People have been staring at me my whole life.  Heck, I stare at me when I walk by a store front or when I see myself in a video.  I’m different; it’s a fact of life.  So, those situations at the park are not altogether uncommon.  Kids are curious.  They also have no sense of decorum.  And that’s totally cool, but honestly, it’s still hard sometimes.  It’s hard to be stared at, even when it’s been happening to you for 33 years.

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So, how do I deal with it?  It helps me to remember a few things.

Kids don’t know any better. I’m not saying kids aren’t smart or anything, I’m just saying they’ve (probably) never seen somebody like me and their brains are still in that stage where they’re like, “HOLY CRAP. THAT DUDE IS MISSING HIS ARM. I MUST KNOW WHY. I WILL ASK HIM IMMEDIATELY.”  I think my favorite reaction is when I tell them that I was born without it and they say, “No you weren’t.  Where is it really?”  They’re convinced I’m somehow hiding it.  It’s awesome.  So, yes, it can still be somewhat awkward when kids stare, but I can’t fault them.  They’re curious; and for good reason.

Parents usually don’t know any better, either. Honestly, parents are harder to deal with.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not mad at them.  I kind of pity them, actually.  Most of the time they have no idea how to react when their child gets vocal about my arm.  And I can’t blame ‘em.  I mean, that’s not one of those things you practice with your child.  ”Ok, so if we happen to see someone with one arm today, let’s make sure we politely say hello and walk by them without staring.  If you must ask them what happened, please do so with dignity and tact.”  Right.  Usually the kid blurts out, “HE’S GOT A BROKE ARM!” and the mom’s face contorts in terror while she tries not to stare at me and then yells at her kid to be quiet.  Awkward.  So, for all you parents, take the opportunity to teach your kid that it’s ok to be curious and then help them ask the questions they’re wondering about.  Everybody wins when that happens.

We are all infatuated with differences. Did you ever have that little, thick Guinness Book of World Records when you were a kid?  The one with those humongous twins on tiny motorcycles?  And that super tall guy?  And the dude with the fingernails that curled and curled because they were so long?  Only now do I recognize the irony in my obsession with the abnormal.  The fact is, differences catch our attention.  And that’s not bad, it just…is.  I notice people stealing glances at my arm during conversations and it doesn’t bother me a bit.  I know they can’t help it.  They’re not trying to be rude.  It’s like looking at a white sheet of paper and trying not to stare at the bright yellow blotch in the corner.  Impossible.  I understand that.

And while these ideas help me to some extent, the reality is that sometimes it still hurts to be stared at.  Maybe you feel the same way.  Maybe you’re tall.  Or short.  Or overweight.  Or you have red hair.  Or no hair.  Or you limp.  Or you use a wheelchair.  Or you’re blind.  Or you’re a different color than all your friends.  It could be anything.  I want to tell you that it’s ok to not enjoy being stared at.  I also want to tell you to accept that it is a fact of life.  Most people don’t mean to be rude.  Most people don’t even want to stare, they just can’t help it.

I challenge you to believe that you were made just right. I had an atheist college professor named Dr. Goodpaster (delicious, right?) who once asked me, “Since you believe in God, shouldn’t you be mad at him for making you that way?”  Despite being horribly offensive, his question does make sense.  Well, if you believe the only people worth anything are perfectly shaped.  I told him that, no, I don’t believe I should be mad at God.  He made me this way for a reason.  And I believe He made Dr. Goodpaster the way He did for a reason.

And I believe He made you the way He did for a reason.

I believe each of us are “wonderfully made.”

And when we believe that, it’s makes surviving the stares a little bit easier.

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