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Empathy in America

Three events significantly altered the direction of my life.  The third incident (by date not by impact) was when three White supremacists dragged James Byrd, a Black man, behind their truck and to his death in my hometown of Jasper, Texas.

James’ mom, Stella, was a family friend and his brutal murder had a profound impact on me — mainly because, for years, I had been far too busy with my career and fabulous life to waste my time fighting for unpleasant things like racial equality and social justice.  Hearing of James’ death by the hands of ignorant, despicable racists was the ultimate wake-up call.  It also immediately brought to mind the first incident that changed my life forever.


In college, as required by my Criminal Justice degree, I spent 40 hours volunteering at the Gardner-Betts Juvenile Justice Center in Austin.  My first day, I met a thirteen-year-old Black inmate named Michael who had been charged with attempted murder.  After a few days of my tutoring Michael, he started cautiously confiding in me.  Over the next few weeks, the life story he revealed was like something out of a horror movie.

Michael’s earliest memory is hysterically crying while crawling over his mother who was unconscious and bleeding profusely from her head.  Although he never knew how she was hurt that particular time, he later assumed she had been beaten by one of her live-in boyfriends or her pimp, a pattern that would repeat itself until Michael was arrested.


He knew his mom was a prostitute, and men would come and go all day and night.  A couple of them had been nice to him, but those didn’t seem to last very long.  The others would beat him, mock him, have sex with his mother in front of him, burn him with cigarettes and, in the case of the man who was possibly his birth father, force him to try marijuana at the age of seven. 


Michael had two older brothers, but one was in prison from the time he was born and the other was killed in a drive-by shooting when Michael was three.  Once in a while, his mom would ask him to deliver little packages around their decrepit apartment complex, instructing him to bring back the money he was given in return.  His best buddy lived next door and they would leave really early on summer mornings and roam around the neighborhood until well after dark.   


After wheezing most of his life, the school nurse determined Michael had acute asthma, but he never got the proper medication to ease it.  He started stealing at eight, hardcore drug use at ten and, because he and his mom were being increasingly terrorized, joined a gang at twelve for protection.  The attempted murder charge was a result of his initiation into the gang, which required Michael to kill a random stranger for his jacket. The night before Michael shot the guy, he decided not to go through with it, but the gang members said they would kill his mom if he backed out. 


For as long as I live, I will never forget this child’s face as he calmly and candidly described his reality.  The flashes of shame, bitterness, acceptance, anger, heartbreak, innocence, resentment, sorrow, rage and regret that intermittently crossed his face and flickered in his eyes are forever scorched in my mind.  I wish I could adequately describe the memory to you, but I have rewritten it over ten times and can’t find the words to do it justice.


Meeting Michael was a radically life-changing experience for me.  It took a thirteen-year-old to act as a mirror into my soul, forcing me to accept the dark shadow inside of myself.  Every word Michael spoke was an indictment of my past prejudices, judgments and intolerances. 


My past behaviors haunted me, and every moment I mistreated and misjudged someone “beneath me” came flooding back — every time I automatically conjured hateful classist and racist thoughts when passing people on the street; every inappropriate joke at another’s expense; each and every time I took for granted how blessed my life has been.  


Michael taught me more than any degree ever could.  He taught me about empathy, compassion and what it means to truly forgive those who trespass against you in egregious ways.  He gave me unconditional trust and friendship.  He showed me that although nature loads the gun, nurture pulls the trigger.


A year after I met Michael, the second life-altering lesson occurred when I received The Phone Call from my dad.  My mom was a volunteer at a food pantry in the Dallas inner-city and, even after my enlightening experience with Michael, I could only hope it was a phase that would pass without disrupting my life in any way.  I mean, surely I couldn’t possibly be expected to go down there and serve at Thanksgiving or anything — I mean, please.

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