Westmont Magazine Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes
Connecting the Visible and Invisible Worlds of Santa Barbara
by Michelle Acker ’05
When I graduated from Westmont five years ago, I was fairly confident that I could change the world with a diploma in hand and determination in my pocket. Little did I know that the world would actually change me first.
I skipped into my first year of teaching in the Santa Barbara School District with lofty goals, big ideals and little practical experience. I put in endless hours preparing lessons, grading papers and figuring out how to make double-sided copies. I desperately wanted to be a good teacher. However, in that first year I don’t think I became good teacher, but I did become an excellent learner. I learned that many of my students live in one-bedroom apartments with eight to 10 other people and don’t have their own bed, let alone a desk. I learned that for many of my students their only mode of transportation was the city bus and when students couldn’t get their permission slips signed, it wasn’t because they were lazy or forgetful, but because their parents worked every night. I quickly learned that the Santa Barbara I had experienced as a college student was very different from the Santa Barbara where many of my students lived.
During this first year of teaching, a 17-year-old student strolled into my English class late each day with his black Minnesota Twins baseball cap purposely placed backwards on his head and a T-shirt three sizes too big draping from his arms. His name was Milan, but everyone called him Milo. He struggled in school and seemed to care more about the passing periods during the day than his schoolwork. Part of my job required that I meet annually with each of my students and their parents. I had called home multiple times to schedule a meeting for Milo, but neither of his parents could make it to school at the designated time. His dad worked two jobs, and his mom didn’t have any means of transportation, so I volunteered to go to their home to meet with them.
I was unaware at that time that this small, rather naïve decision would have a profound impact on who I am and what I do.
On a Wednesday afternoon in April, I sat in their modest but very clean one-bedroom apartment and silently waited for Milo’s dad to get home. His mom spoke limited English, and I attempted in my broken Spanish to make small talk, but felt too inadequate to venture beyond the standard greeting, “Hola, señora ¿Cómo estás?” The living room doubled as part family room, part bedroom. The yellow stained walls held a mismatch of family photos and a golden Virgin Mary relic in the corner. The smell of fresh laundry detergent mixed with fried oil floated in from the kitchen and lingered above my already uncomfortable stomach.
The door opened and in walked Milo and his father. Before I even looked up to introduce myself and give the schpeel I had prepared, this kind-hearted, fatherly voice interrupted my thoughts, “Michelle, Michelle! How have you been?”
I tried to place the friendly voice and familiar face, but I couldn’t. I stared longer than the appropriate amount time usually allowed to recall the name of someone you know you’ve met before, but for the life of you can’t remember where.
Graciously, he reminded me before I had to attempt an awkward introduction. “Aw, you don’t remember me? I work at Westmont.” I nodded my head automatically, but I still couldn’t place him. “At the post office. Remember? I helped you out quite a bit.” And with this simple introduction he stuck out his hand cheerfully and said, “I’m Victor.”
I sat frozen. And then it slowly started to come back. I vaguely remembered this man who patiently and consistently made stacks of copies at reprographics and sold me stamps from the post office. Occasionally he even helped me open my mailbox when it got stuck. He sorted, copied and served in the Westmont Post Office; a tireless job with little recognition and praise but necessary to keep any amount of sanity and order for communication on a college campus.
Victor served me for an entire four years, but I rarely acknowledged him or thanked him. And now it was coming full circle. I was teaching and serving his son. My two worlds were colliding in a beautiful, humbling and unexpected way. I felt raw as my mind moved in slow motion, trying to piece together the connection. As I sat in Victor’s living room, I realized it was one of those surreal moments that lasts a few seconds in reality but makes a timeless and lasting impact.
Something connected for me that afternoon in their living room. It seems odd that an event seemingly so small and ordinary brought such clarity to my life. But maybe that’s how it often works. The small things in life have the biggest impact.
My Worlds Colliding
The world of Westmont shaped, challenged and nurtured me for four years, and it was now overlapping into the world of public education in Santa Barbara, which encompasses the low-income and densely populated neighborhoods of the city’s east side and west side that so often get overlooked. Society likes to organize and categorize us into neatly defined boxes based on the color of our skin, how much money we make or our level of education. I believe those factors hold some weight in shaping our lives and perspective, but too often they only separate us from each other. This seems to hold true in Santa Barbara, where the lives of the haves and the have-nots are distanced and disconnected, marked by invisible lines around certain neighborhoods and street corners.
That afternoon in Victor’s living room challenged me to think differently. Maybe our lives were more intertwined than I realized. Maybe we are too busy or too distracted or simply choose not to notice our connections to others. What if making the invisible visible reveals the threads that tie us together?
What if you realized that the young man who bussed your table at the local restaurant goes to the same university as your niece? What if you understood that the kind woman who took your blood pressure at the doctor’s office actually lives in an apartment complex less than a mile from your house? What would happen if you recognized that the food, nicely arranged in the grocery store aisles, was picked by someone’s father, uncle or brother? What if you figured out that the man behind the counter at the post office has a son in your classroom? Suddenly those defining boxes start to fade. Instead of separating and dividing, the boxes extend into lines tying you to the world around you. When we are able to make such a personal connection, we move beyond titles and numbers. Instead we focus on people who were previously invisible to us.
Connected To Whom?
In our digital age of social networking, it’s ironic that sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn claim to help us stay connected. The question is: Connected to whom? Six hundred of our closest friends? Recent books and studies indicate that my generation is more unsatisfied, lonely and disconnected from each other despite these attempts to tie us together. Perhaps we are designed for a different kind of connection.
The verb “to connect” actually comes from the Latin words con, which means “together,” and nectere, which means “bind.” It was rarely used before the 18th century, often in the context of being physically united or bound together.
Today so many of our electronic connections with people seem to be meager substitutes for real, physical bonds. There is something convenient and wonderful about texting my sister in Boston or e-mailing my parents or using Skype to talk with a friend out of the country. I do feel more connected to them for a moment.
But sometimes I wonder if our lives would feel more integrated and whole if we were connected to people whom we work with and walk by and live near. Day to day, most people go to work, run errands and interact with basically the same circle of people. What would happen if we were to forgo our evening plans in order to stay and chat a little longer with the old friend we bumped into at the grocery store? What if we went out of our way not only to know the name of the janitor who cleans our building but also to ask about his family? What if rather than walking quickly past the old woman at the bus stop, we actually made eye contact and paused for a conversation? Would we feel more connected? I believe each person has a story to tell, but sometimes we are too busy and comfortable
in our concentric circles of relationships to step out and notice the people around us.
The Art of Awareness
Years ago I read a poem by Wilfred Peterson, “The Art of Awareness.” He simply, yet eloquently, describes this forgotten art far better than I can:
The art of awareness is striving to see life steadily and see it whole.
It is identifying yourself with the hopes, dreams, fears and longings of others,
that you may understand them and help them.
It is keeping mentally alert to all that goes on around you;
it is being curious, observant, imaginative
that you may build an ever increasing
fund of knowledge of the Maker of the universe.
The art of awareness is not just the mental art of paying attention, it’s the art of acknowledging someone else and empathizing with them. It’s the art of giving space both metaphorically and literally for someone else to be present in your day, no matter how busy or full. It’s the art of admitting that our daily lives and very existence are more connected and interdependent than we may realize. Beyond the titles that sometimes define us—gardener, banker, janitor, teacher, student, parent, owner, worker—we are ultimately people who live and breathe and truly long to be connected to each other.
There is a well-known Spanish proverb, “Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres.” Directly translated it means, “Tell me with whom you walk, and I will tell you who you are.” Not only does deep connectedness occur when we learn to walk with someone, but the bond begins to define who we are. Those very steps shape our perspective and who we choose to befriend. Because most of us are creatures of habit, we tend to walk with the same people for most of our days or weeks or even years. That isn’t necessarily bad, but sometimes we need to change our shoes and walk with someone new, maybe someone we often walk right past.
Michelle Acker '05 teaches at San Marcos High School and co-leads a weekly after-school program on Santa Barbara's west side
I believe Jesus teaches this throughout the Gospels. As Christ followers, we want to follow Jesus’ steps. In biblical times, following a rabbi meant being covered in the dust from his steps. In order to follow, we have to get close enough to get dirty sometimes or a tad uncomfortable. The reason we get close to others is to connect with them. When we learn how to do this, it becomes less about “us” and “them” and more about “we.” A deep connection takes root.
When I set foot into Victor’s apartment five years ago, something humbling and powerful connected for me. It changed who I am and gave me a new awareness. For the first time, I felt like I stood in someone else’s shoes and got a glimpse of life from their perspective. This experience filled me with a deep appreciation and a desire to better understand the lives of my students and their families. Perhaps even more important is the rare glimpse it offered me into the connectedness of our lives.
We walk around as independent and somewhat isolated people, but every day we have an opportunity take notice and ask ourselves a simple question: Who are we connected to today?