When Character Counts

The Dock It Took All My Courage to Jump off ofWe all make assumptions.

Every day.

You assume that your waiter will take your order in a timely manner and treat you with decency.

You assume that you will flip a switch, and the light will come on.

And most of us assume that certain jobs can tell us certain things about the people who hold them. At least, I do–too often.

But assumptions extrapolate from appearance and past experience, not the reality in front of us.

And so, when character counts, assumptions always fail.

Yesterday I worked a sub shift at one of the many libraries in the Seattle area. And I found myself on a diverse staff. A black deaf woman, a woman from Pakistan, and an older man from Eastern Europe shelved books alongside me.

These staff earn, at most, $13 an hour. Their positions don’t offer health benefits. And, in the hierarchy of library staff, they’re at the bottom—and often treated as such.

It would be easy, using the standard American criteria of income and prestige, to assume these people are of low intelligence and have limited skills.

But look again.

The woman from Pakistan had once been a full-time teacher in her native country. She’s eager to get back into the education field here but doesn’t know where to start.

The Eastern European is of the generation that was middle-aged when the USSR fell. Who knows what life he had built in the Soviet republics before they crumbled? And who knows what he faced in the aftermath–the lack of electricity and running water, the rationed food, the wars, the unemployment?

And the deaf woman—you’d be fooled about her, too, if you only looked at her job description.

I’ve forgotten most of my ASL from college, so she accommodated me by reading lips, speaking, and occasionally writing things down. We signed little, because I’m so terrible at it.

So right there, the woman is fluent in at least two languages.

She also puts up with an enormous amount of weirdness and discomfort from library patrons and some staff. While we shelved in the same section, we chatted about New York City, where we both felt overwhelmed by the crowds, and she shared her fear of getting stuck in an elevator. Most of the patrons stared as we talked. And she wasn’t loud. Sometimes, she simply mouthed the words to me—complemented by signing.

The patrons were bold in their stares—certain something was wrong with her and willing to wait around to find out what. Once they drifted away, we nudged each other and laughed and rolled our eyes. “I thought he wanted to listen in,” she told me and laughed uproariously—but silently.

By the end of my shift, I was not only charmed. I deeply admired her.

Here she was, fluent in two languages–and able to make a mischievous joke out of people’s prejudices. Not only that, but she had traveled around the U.S. and made her way in a hearing world—which is ill-designed for the Deaf, and even outright hostile at times.

The same job held by a college student is just a means for extra cash. But for my Deaf co-worker, it’s a badge of courage and determination.

Who knows the prejudice she has faced—being double-marked by both race and Deafness?

Who knows what discrimination and obstacles she has overcome?

Who knows how hard she has fought to maintain that mischievous sense of humor, in the face of such overt disrespect from Hearing people?

I’m as white as anybody and was raised middle-class, suburban, and Christian. Even ten years in the immigrant community can’t undo all that. So it was a good reminder.

Assume nothing. Job titles and paychecks are pretty meaningless when it comes down to it. What really counts is how a person handles her challenges—and the dignity and grace that she forged from her struggles.

Admire that, and you’re admiring what really counts in a person.

Published by M.C. Easton

Novelist and teacher.

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