Our sixth grade teacher had already given us the news so I wasn’t surprised when I saw the obituary in our local paper. “Brick” Johnson, the much beloved custodian at our elementary school, was dead at age 95.
And yet I was completely surprised by the front page article announcing his death.
His role as the custodian at Brunson Elementary School was but a footnote. He and his wife were owners of Les Abres, a club that was a major gathering place for African-Americans during the days of segregation. Mixing jazz and soul and great food, the club was a gathering place for professionals, civil rights leaders and blue collar workers.
I never knew.
I don’t think my surprise was a case of prejudicial assumptions. At that age, I lumped Brick (who, incidentally, I liked a whole lot because he was always kind to me) in with the teachers and principals; that is, people who have no lives other than school. (A friend’s preschool age son saw his Sunday School teacher in the bookstore one day. “They let you out?” he exclaimed in surprise.) Brick running a club was just as unimaginable as the reality we later discovered: one of our fifth grade teachers was only ten years older than us. Back in those days, she was considered the ancient age universally shared by teachers.
But it did make me think about our human tendency to create judgments and assumptions about people based on the one small snapshot of their lives that we are able to see. A school custodian. A CEO. A welfare mom. A jock. A disabled person.
We see something that is indeed true about them. Too often we mistake it for the whole truth about them. The truth is we cannot know even a fraction of who they are until we have taken the time to listen to them, to listen to what their journey has been and what they hope it will be.
We see one photograph and mistake it for the whole movie.
Sometimes we even do it to ourselves. One moment of failure becomes the whole of our lives. One negative flaw in our makeup becomes the definitive statement of our character. What we do becomes who we are.
It’s not true for them. Neither is it true for us.
And by the way, upon reflection it’s not so surprising that Brick owned such a club. Any man who could shine such a light in the midst of snotty nosed, garishly dressed (it was the late sixties and early seventies) children must have had real music in his soul.