I meet with local author Foday Samateh every Wednesday from 7:15 a.m. until 8:30 a.m. On my way into New Rochelle, I pick him up from the North Avenue Mobil Station where he works as a cashier. When we are done, I drop him off at the bus terminal. His life does not seem easy.
Before we were formerly introduced by my boss, I thought rather ethnocentrically that he was just another immigrant who worked a menial job at the gas station. I never once thought about the wedding ring on his finger or the books he was always reading on his Kindle or where exactly his accent was from. No, I didn’t think about him at all. Frankly, I don’t even think I considered him a human. He was just another drone who worked at a ubiquitous gas station I bought my cigarettes from. Our interactions were as mechanical as “Thanks” and “Take care.”
Then, I met him through my boss, a 70-something renaissance man who I never would’ve expected to be friends with an anonymous counter clerk. They were talking Shakespeare, in particular Macbeth, when I strolled in one morning to grab a pack of smokes. Apparently, they’ve known each other for sometime. Foday was an author like I was. With my boss, though, as good as a guy as he is, there’s always a catch: he’s coming in tomorrow to talk to you about his manuscript; here it is. He places down an almost 400 page print-out. F…
So, as I mentioned in “The Value of Authentic Feedback,” I spent some quality time in my second office speed-reading through his draft because I didn’t want to waste his time. I was busy enough as it was and wanted to get the reading of his draft over with and never see him again. No slight to him since I’m sure he was a great person, but I just didn’t have the time for it with my personal writing, my job and, how could I forget, the planning of a wedding.
However, as I started reading A Good Country, his historical fiction manuscript about a military coupe in West Africa, I was taken by his narrative, in particular his protagonist Nyancho (which is a double entendre). The guy is so emotionally-driven, yet shortsighted – a typical tragic hero who is on a path towards his own destruction that he cannot avoid but will fight against fate in an attempt to avoid the inevitable.
Besides the character, I was taken by this hulking man who sat before me weary from the overnight shift he had just worked. Wearing wire-rimmed glasses that jutted from his gaunt face, Foday stands at around 6’3. He’s spindly, though, and in no way intimidating. He has a genial nature to him. And he is smart – not American, superficial smart; canonical text, worldly smart. He knows his stuff.
How I could be such a snobbish, stereotypical, ethnocentric American in judging him. I was ashamed in my prejudice. I have an undergraduate degree in English and a masters in adolescent English education; I’m certified to teach 7-12 English in Connecticut and New York, yet I still judged someone like I was a kindergartner on the playground.
Never again, I promised myself. Every person, regardless of his/her job, is a human who has pride; looking at someone’s face won’t tell you how much knowledge they possess or what their background is. Talking to them will. Don’t be afraid to have a conversation with someone who’s different than you. No matter the culture or the socioeconomic position, people can relate because they’re humans with similar feelings. Everyone, regardless of where they come from or how much they make, feels. And that is the common thread that binds us.
So, since last spring, Foday and I have been getting together, now more regularly than ever before since he has begun to critique my fiction novel and I continue to offer him insight about A Good Country. It’s a mutually-beneficial partnership to say the least. We’re making each other better – he, a refugee from the Gambia and I, a former snob from Long Island.
So, when one of my colleagues recently came and asked me if I “tutor that man,” I could have been empathetic since I myself had stereotyped him (although not to the extent she was); however, I wasn’t because he deserves his dignity too. I remember snapping at her that “he’s smarter than most of the people who walk through this teacher’s lounge.”
He is. Especially the ones who give the kids busy work or play on their phones or watch movies and call it teaching.
Foday, my friend, embodies a work ethic too few people can comprehend. However, people first need to drop their stereotypical lenses and see the human before they see the color or the position. I did, and it’s changed my life, for he is humanity personified.