When I was a teenage student in the practical nursing program at a small town hospital, a deeply profound moment of truth careened out of a clear blue sky like a crazy comet and landed right on top of me.
As a child, it never entered my mind to utter derogatory words of disrespect. Besides, it would not have been tolerated at our house. To satisfy my curiosity, I had been told what was written on the signs posted over the two separate water fountains in the back of a famous dime store. Because it did not make sense to my little girl heart, that enormous inequity had to be filed away and dealt with later.
Meanwhile, in Sunday school, we continued to sing the colorblind song, “Be they yellow, black or white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”
I was still in that natural state of childhood acceptance when a lovely lady was hired to do our laundry. To me, she was beautiful and could iron better than anyone in the whole world. Cotton, being the fabric of our lives, demanded starch and serious board work. I loved to sit on the high stool and watch her turn a pile of my daddy’s wrinkled shirts into the spiffy uniforms he wore at the post office. I had permission to call her Miss Alice.
On “comet crash” day, I was assigned to a ward of five men. The man in the first bed looked a little shocked when I marched in determined to practice my new skills and shape up this small platoon of ailing humans and disheveled bedding. I greeted him in my best Cherry Ames voice.
“Good Morning, Mr. Johnson.”
This young, white girl standing there with a pan of warm water and a towel, preparing to help him wash up and shave, must have sent his mind reeling. There was a dual sigh of relief when he suggested he could handle that by himself.
He sat up in a chair, watching while I made his bed with fresh white sheets, impressing him with the precision execution of perfect corners. He relaxed a little and talked about his family. The quiet and satisfying tenor of this routine day was about to take a dramatic turn.
As I was carrying pitchers of fresh water back to the ship-shape ward, I looked up to see my instructor bearing down on me with an angry, withering scowl. There was no place to hide from her cold, puzzling demeanor.
“WHAT,” she roared, “ have you been calling the man in the bed by the door?”
Stammering from confusion, I replied, “Uh, Mr. Johnson.”
“Would you like to try that again?” she sneered.
Pulling out my patient care plan to be sure I had not mixed up the names, I read with exaggerated articulation, “Bed A, Mr. Samuel Johnson.”
Without lowering her voice one decibel, she stormed on, “I believe you mean ‘Sam’ don’t you?” I was stunned.
Holding my head high in denial of her uncivil stance, I responded in my most respectful, but just-this-second, newly tempered steel magnolia way.
“No maam! I was not raised to call my elders by their first names. That would be insulting to them!”
Abruptly, with no retort, she stalked away. In a daze, I returned to Mr. Johnson’s bedside. He gazed straight into the depths of my raging disbelief, forcing me to connect with his piercing, fatherly brown eyes, trying to signal me, as he probably did his own daughter, to take the high road.
I bit my lower lip to keep it from trembling, but the silent tears would not be stopped. We had been shot by a red-hot bolus of cruel, bigoted, unmerited hate. Pretense would only add insult to injury.
Finally, with renewed strength and motivation, I politely asked, “MR. JOHNSON, how would you like a glass of iced tea?”
With absolute class, he smiled. “Thank you, Miss, I would greatly appreciate that.”
An exploding ugliness had connected us for one dazzling moment. This wise man knew what Jesus would do. Now, so did a naïve trainee in the Army of God.
At the end of the shift, passing by the door of the “minority” men’s ward, I saw his wife lovingly holding his hand. I waved, he nodded, and I kept going. We did not need words anymore, Mr. Johnson and I.