This summer, I had eight eyes.
Two were my own, and six belonged to three young men from Haiti, who were raised at an orphanage I operate there and were making their first trip ever to another country — America — to work as camp counselors.
Siem, the oldest, is stocky and always laughing. Moise, who just graduated high school, is a tall, thin jokester. Emmanuel, the youngest, is shy and gentle. I cannot explain the joy on their faces, or their sense of wonder at the smallest things. Every day with them was like seeing this nation anew.
The night they landed at Metro Airport, we drove up I-275, and they were dead quiet. Just staring out the windows.
The next day, when I asked what impressed them so far, all three responded, “The roads! They are so straight and smooth!”
I laughed. But when I thought about the snarled and tangled traffic of Port Au Prince, dirt streets, gaping pavement, no highways, just a free-for-all, I realized, by comparison, our roads are a work of art.
It was like that all summer. Their first shopping mall. Their first gym. Everything was astounding. I took them to the Emagine Palladium theater in Birmingham, with plush leather seats that recline with a button. They lifted back and forth like kids on a ride. We didn’t even need a movie.
Beach. Disneyland. California.
Wherever we went, people gushed over these humble young men, helped them out, did them favors. At a Tigers game, complete strangers brought them food from their luxury suite once they learned where they were from. At a concert, the same thing happened, strangers offering to share better seats. Doctors made time to see them. Salespeople engaged in long conversations.
These were mostly white people, and coming from Haiti, where whites or mixed race are a mere 5% of the population, the sudden demographic switch must have seemed strange.
I was quietly pleased at how well this part of their journey was going.
Until one day, it didn’t.
It happened, in, of all places, Disneyland. With their camp work finished, my wife and I wanted to show Siem, Moise and Emmanuel another part of our country before they went home. We took them to California, which, true to the pattern, left their mouths agape. They loved the beach. The food. And Disneyland was a complete mindblower.
At one point, I left them on their own for a couple of hours. When I returned, they were sitting at a table, noticeably quiet. I asked what was up, and finally, Moise, the tall one, said, “Well, Mr. Mitch, something not so good happened.”
Ugly side of humanity
What happened was this. The young men, trying to read a park map, got a little lost. Moise approached a stranger and asked directions to a ride.
“Why don’t you ask somebody who looks like you?” the man snapped.
Moise walked away, stunned.
When I heard this, I nearly cried. I have been operating the orphanage for seven years, and the kids there are as close to my own as I will ever have. My protective parent urge wanted to rip this jerk in half.
Instead, I did what I needed to do, and explained that things like this can happen anywhere, the man was a fool, not to let his words sting, not to judge others by his mistake, nor hate as he apparently hates.
“I know, Mr. Mitch,” Moise said, nodding. And he did. They all did. Because they are loving and forgiving. And have been raised that way.
Still, it felt like a smudge on a painting. Such a glorious summer shadowed by this encounter.
I thought about that incident in light of recent racism-related headlines and the angry vitriol that follows. Our three young men are not African-American. They have no history with police here, no experience with systemic prejudice, never heard the phrase “white privilege,” don’t know about the Confederate flag.
They simply have darker skin.
And that prompted an ignorant, nasty comment from a stranger in a country that, to that point, had seemed like the Land of Oz.
So what do their eyes tell them? What do they think? Is America the kind and glorious wonders? Or the ugly jerk?
The answer is we are both. One can’t destroy the other.
But if we try and see things through other sets of eyes, perhaps we can understand the ugly side of humanity in this country, and still focus on the good.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.