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Walking in his shoes...
Everyone has a song that they like to play over and over again. For me, it was ‘What a wonderful world’. I liked the song because it was so beautiful to listen to. Each word of peace and love brought tears to my eyes. The lyrics intertwined a feeling of harmony with a delicate melody which wove beautiful notes in and out of your soul. What is ironic is that I never really listened to the song. I mean, really listen. I never read between the lines, ignoring the most important message of all. I only discovered the significance many years later, after I graduated from college, and settled into my new life, but by then it was too late.
I had just turned fifteen. It was a big deal for a girl; especially if you were Latina. You get one of those big parties, called a Quinceañera, similar to a sweet 16 party. Unfortunately, I’m not Latina. I'm a white girl from the suburbs. I can’t speak any other language to save my life, unlike my Jewish friends who speak Hebrew and my Spanish friends who speak Spanish. I’m not from an interesting country like Australia or Holland nor am I the only girl on the boy’s ice-hockey team or am I the president of the freshman class. You could say I’m smart, as I’m in mostly honours classes, but I don’t come top of the class. As always, I average in the middle; going unnoticed like one tiny snowflake in a blizzard of one million. Each snowflake is different, each with a different design, similar to humans. No one person is the same as another, but nobody took the time to notice that I had my own special traits, except for one person. Somebody I completely ignored. Somebody I mistreated, and should’ve helped while I had a chance.
I saw him everyday as I walked to school; the elderly man who sat on the bench just outside of the park. If it was the summer, he would be wearing thin cotton pants, and a white muddy t-shirt. His thin white hair, would stick up at different angles as it reflected the shining sun. He wore old sneakers, which even I could tell from across the street, had holes at the side and the front. Sometimes, if it was particularly hot, he would take them off, and place them carefully beside him on the bench, as if he thought they were going to be stolen the moment he put them down. In the winter however, his wrinkly skin shivered under a thin coarse blanket, with holes to let the snow fall on his shoulders and bare arms. His thin t-shirt and pants were wet sometimes from the rain or flurries of snow that we often got. His round, boyish face often turned blue from the bitter cold, or was soaked in sweat from the immense heat. You may be wondering why I didn’t do anything. Why I never said hello, or why I never gave him one of the many blankets that went unused at my house. I honestly don’t know. It was an unspoken rule that he was left alone, but I don’t really remember why. He seemed friendly enough, but he never spoke to anyone, never tipped his hat toward a passing stranger, and never actually looked anyone straight in the eye. He stared at the sky, night and day, winter and summer, hot and cold, with a blank, distant expression on his face. It was always like this; until I turned fifteen.
I was running late for school, as usual. I had just finished packing my backpack when I ran out the door. I kept on running until I reached the park, where I saw Lucy Cooper and her friends, the most conceited, beautiful, admired girl at my school. You might think I’m making this up, but I’m not. You don’t just read about these kinds of characters in story books where the main character thinks she is the most unfortunate girl in the universe, and in the end she ends up defeating the popular girl and ends up with her dream guy. It just doesn’t work like that in real life. These girls existed and Lucy Cooper was the exact definition of ‘Popular’. I crossed the street to avoid the queen of the world which meant I had to pass the old man. I didn’t even know his name. A burning sensation rose up into my cheeks and I could only describe the feeling as embarrassment. I looked down at the sidewalk, hoping that he wouldn’t notice me. In that split second however, everything changed.
“I see skies of blue,” he said. His splintered voice was almost impossible to hear, for it was so soft. I turned around to look at him. It was first time I had absorbed his features. His salmon coloured, broken lips parted once more, forming creases by his upper lip and dimpled chin. “Clouds of white,” he whispered.
“Excuse me?” I said. My voice, I realized was quiet aswell, as if I was scared.
“The bright blessed day…the dark sacred night,” he said again. The words he was saying sounded familiar; as if I had listened to them a thousand times over. I racked my brain for where I had heard them before. I must have looked puzzled because he said. “You sing that song almost every day. You have a beautiful voice,” he said.
“What a wonderful world,” I realized. He was quoting my favourite song. The song I sang as I walked to school when I was happy, and the song I sang when I shuffled home after a lengthy day of hard-work. His absent face cracked into a smile and he brought his gaze straight down from its usual angle to look at me straight in the eye. A wave of shame washed over me, and I looked down again. This time I looked at his shoes. Close up, I saw the patch of red blood that stained the shoe forever. I noticed the toe that poked out of the biggest hole on the right shoe.
“Why do you like that song?” he asked me. I looked up, realizing I didn’t have an answer for him. There are a thousand songs on the radio, and each one is different from the next. One second there may be a fast song playing, and the next a gloomy ballad may be wavering out of the speakers. But I realized I was one of the many who was guilty of a horrible crime, one of the many who don’t actually hear the song they love just listen to it passively. What I did next is something I wish I could take back. I walked away. I didn’t listen to my conscience, which was telling me to help the hungry old man. I simply walked away.
The next day, the man was gone. Nobody knows what happened to the man, but rumour had it, he died. Nobody felt as guilty as me. If I had done something, I could have stopped him from leaving his park bench. From leaving the only thing he had left; his life. The strange thing however, was that the park bench was not completely empty. There was one item placed carefully in the middle of the bench, as if they were meant to be there; a scruffy, soiled pair of shoes. As I approached the shoes I saw a small piece of paper placed on top of them. It read: “What a wonderful world.” I knew the shoes were meant for me. They were not meant for me to feel guilty, but they were meant for me to learn a lesson; a lesson of love and compassion, however cheesy it may sound. I took the shoes and gently put them into my school bag. Maybe he had changed my life, or maybe it was all me, but I knew that he had noticed me when I was just a snowflake. He had listened to me instead of ignoring me and he had noticed how much I really loved that Louis Armstrong song and I finally felt that I wasn’t invisible anymore.
Ten years later, just after my 25th birthday, I had moved to a nearby suburban town and I was living in my own picket-fenced house with red window-shutters and a green door with gold numbers nailed to the front. It looked like a picture from a post-card you would send your Aunt Jane and Uncle Bob. Everything about the house was perfect, from the perfectly placed furniture to the beautiful roses that filled every room. However, there was one thing out of place. On a small white shelf, beside the marble fireplace, in the immaculate living room of my perfect house, one tattered, grubby pair of shoes lay, perfectly placed. I had kept them all those years I was in high school and even college. They were just one pair of shoes, but that one pair of shoes can be all you have.
One day, as I was out walking past the local park, I saw an old man, and a rush of emotion came back to me; the shame of ignoring another human being, the humiliation that I didn’t stand up for what I believed in. Walking purposely up the crippled man, hunched over on a park bench, his coat barely coming past his wrists and his sandals exposing his blue toes to the bitter cold, I could see a glimmer of shame in his eyes, as he tried to regain his pride when he saw me.
“Excuse me sir, do you have a place to stay tonight?” I said smiling kindly as my dirty blonde hair flew around my face in the wind. His face was so innocent for such an old man, and his eyes creased as he smiled and said,
“No, no I don’t.”
“Then would you like to say with me?” I asked extending my hand out to him. He didn’t have to say a word as he placed his hand in mine and pulled himself up. “Mine name is Hillary Cook. You’re Simon Kelly aren’t you?”
“Miss, why are you doing this?” he said his voice shaky and his eyes filled with terror.
“I learnt a very important lesson a very long time ago. I learnt that love comes from very unusual places. It can come from a brother or a sister. It can come from a mother or a father. But the most important kind of love is from the strangers that you see all around you; the ones who love you because they want to, not because they have to. You might have never said one word to them, but they can know more about you, than yourself, but what is most important of all, is that you love them back.”