By Dr. Matt King, Head of School
While attending the North American Jewish Day School Conference in Atlanta over MLK weekend I had a powerful experience that I want to share with you. When I think of MLK my first thought is his urging us to judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. While I would like to think that I have learned to do just that, what happened last Monday evening gave me a lesson I will not forget.
While returning to our hotel after a late dinner with my wife and our son Dan who lives in Atlanta, Dan drove over several unusually large raised reflectors on the side of a highway. As soon as I felt the impact I sensed we had a problem and sure enough we very soon heard that stomach-churning sound of a tire going flat. After several nerve-racking minutes on a very dark road in the middle of nowhere the sight of a gas station brought some relief. Limping into the station, which was deserted and seemed closed, I saw an “open” sign which raised my spirits. I entered and saw a young black man in a secured, caged office area that broadcast “this is not a safe neighborhood.”
“We have a flat. Can you help us?” I asked. The young man hesitated for a moment, but then said in what was clearly an African accent, that yes he could but he needed a minute. I watched him carefully leave the secure office, lock the door, and come outside. After seeing what needed to be done he said, “Wait a minute,” and went inside to get a jack.
The young man quickly got the tire changed, pointed out that Dan’s spare was flat, and sent us to get air. Dan and I then returned to the office to express our appreciation. This is where it got interesting. When Dan offered him twenty dollars for helping us he reflexively said, “No, I do not want your money.” His response puzzled us and I then said, “But we really appreciate your helping us and we want to give you something.” He then said very firmly while pointing to me, “When I saw you, I saw my father and I was thinking that I would hope if he were in a jam like this someone would help him. I cannot take your money.” Dan and I thanked him and quietly got in the car and left.
Dan and I were both stunned by this young man’s response to us, by his generosity, by his capacity to empathize, by his moral code. Thinking back to the moment our eyes first met his, we acknowledged that being at that station late at night and feeling vulnerable stirred up thoughts and fears that we did not want to have. We assumed that if we could get any help–which seemed doubtful when we saw the young man in the locked, caged area–we would pay a premium. How wrong we were!