I was asked to contribute a little talk to a school assembly on the theme of being an outsider, so this is what I said:
One late-summer Saturday when I was about twenty-two years old, I found myself standing at the checkout counter of a grocery store in rural Missouri, feeling very suddenly and unexpectedly embarrassed, and working hard to fight back tears. It was one of the moments in my life that I’ve most felt like an outsider, and it didn’t have anything to do with geography.
At age twenty-two, I wasn’t at all sure what I wanted to do for a living, but I thought that I at least wanted to start my adult life by doing something meaningful. So I joined AmeriCorps (then VISTA), which sent me to Kirksville, Missouri, way up in the northeast part of the state. It was quite a bit different from the suburban Long Island where I’d grown up.
I don’t know if it’s different now, but back then AmeriCorps paid its volunteers a very small stipend to live on and prohibited you from having any other sources of income during your term of service. AmeriCorps wasn’t interested in noblesse-oblige; you were expected to live in the community where you worked and make your way on low wages just like everyone else. The stipend paid the rent, but if you wanted to eat for the whole month (which I very much did) you had to apply for public assistance in the form of food stamps.
So back to the grocery store: I’d put my groceries on the conveyer belt and was chatting pleasantly with the cashier as she rang up my stuff and I bagged it. Midwesterners are notoriously friendly—super friendly, and I’d forced myself to try to get better at small talk, so we were having a perfectly nice time.
Then I opened my wallet and pulled out food stamps.
These days public food assistance is provided by means of a swipe card, so it’s relatively possible to not call too much attention to how you’re paying for your food. Back then, though, food stamps looked like monopoly money—it was the same size and shape as real money, but all kids of different bright colors, and you had to show a special identification card along with the “money,” which was a bit of a production. It was really obvious to anyone within a hundred-yard radius how you were paying for your food.
So I pulled out the food stamps and the cashier went dead silent. A very obvious look of disgust came over her face, and for the rest of the transaction she didn’t say anything to me and she didn’t look at me. This probably went on for a minute or two, but it seemed like it lasted for ten years.
It felt to me as though my membership in society had somehow been downgraded. For being visibly poor and on public relief, I had forfeited my right to simple friendliness.
Now, I was well aware that my middle class upbringing, my college education and my family and social support networks meant that I didn’t have to be on food stamps; it was a choice for me, and it was temporary. I was acting, playing the role of “poor person” for twelve months. I knew that.
But the cashier didn’t know that, and so she gave me the gift of allowing me for a moment to step inside a tiny bit of the experience of someone other than myself.
And that made me realize that real empathy, really understanding the experiences of people who are not like me, takes effort; a lot more effort than I’d realized. You may remember from sophomore history that that kind of awareness is what our friend Professor Carr called “imaginative understanding”– that striving to put yourself inside the mindset of someone who does not experience the world the way you do. It’s the only way to be an honest historian, and I think it’s also the beginning of real and meaningful compassion. So all these years later, I’m still very thankful to that cashier for giving me that awful moment of feeling like an outsider.