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I have been told to never talk to strangers.
"It's asking for trouble," my mother would say.
There comes a time in a young person's life where they must choose which lessons to take with them and use and pass on in the future. I had not given any thought to one of my mother's oldest teachings of not talking to strangers until a brutally hot June
day in Washington DC.
In February, I received a letter congratulating me on my acceptance to go on the Washington Youth Tour: a scholarship trip for one hundred and two exceptionally bright Georgian students. Once we arrived in Washington DC, however, we joined over fifteen hundred students from around the nation. While we were there, we explored the historic city by visiting monuments and meeting Georgian representatives in Congress. However,
we also learned about our nation's history by visiting the Smithsonian Museums on the National Mall.
The tour buses sighed as we parked in front of the Smithsonian Air and Space
Museum. My new friends and I hopped out of the bus and headed toward the museums that interested us the most. After spending three hours looking at sparkling jewels, famous works of art, exotic plants, and space shuttles, it was time to wait for the buses to
pick us up again. The time appeared to fly as we took in as much information as possible, yet everyone was ready to go to dinner at Union Station.
As more anxious students gathered around the "meeting spot" for the buses, I accidentally made eye contact with a man. More importantly, he was a stranger.
He had gotten up on an old wooden bench on the other side of the street. As his worn tennis shoes flattened the brightly green grass beneath them, he attempted to capture my attention again. I did not allow this, but, before I knew it, he was right in front of me.
I could smell his sweat before I even looked at him. When I did look up, I saw beads of perspiration rolling down his dark skin. His weary eyes were white and red, as if he had not slept in years. When I stared into them, his dark pupils shivered as they adjusted to look at me.
I continued to stare in that short period of time: his shorts were a faded orange, but they were covered in different colored patches. He had a white shirt on with a smiley face in the middle, but it hardly looked white; a combination of dirt and sweat caused it to have a brown hue. His black hair was braided against his head, yet tiny
blades of grass and pieces of dirt could be easily seen amongst the braids.
If he would not have spoken, I would have stayed in my trance for longer.
"Would you girls be interested in a sticker?"
It was not really the question that I was anticipating. I thought that he would have asked for money or if we could tell him what our names were. That is what my mother has always implied when she tells me about strangers. Instead of turning away as I was taught, I listened along with my friends to what the stranger had to say.
"I got a job with a new website about the Vedas, and I'm passing out stickers to get people to visit," he said calmly.
I glanced at his face while he was talking. In two short spoken phrases, his before-rugged face transformed. He was a young black man simply looking to make money. Maybe he had made some poor choices to end up where he was, but, regardless, I had built a certain amount of respect for him just by looking at his position in life and
how he was dealing with it. It is often said that the dirtiest jobs take the most genuine and dedicated people. This stranger was genuine. His voice was soft and light, yet it still
held power and integrity. He approached people of all ages, races, and religions to make a living, and, while taking such a risk, he certainly did not dress up for his job. I admired that. I admired how this man had overcome the fear of strangers. At that moment, I realized that I wanted to be just like him.
Just when I thought that this day could not get better, he spoke again:
"For a dollar, you can get a handmade necklace."
As I gently passed a crisp dollar bill from my hands to his, he placed a necklace made of wooden beads into the palm of my right hand. The beads were shades of brown, green, red, and black: all colors that I have associated with power. This necklace proved to me that an individual can learn from his friends, yet he can learn unbelievable amounts of knowledge from strangers. Unfamiliar styles and cultures help us open our eyes to
bigger and better things, but we have to be willing to accept them.
I heard a loud squeak and a familiar sigh, and I knew that our buses had arrived.
Many of the students ran to them complaining about their hunger. Unlike the rest of them, I stood by the stranger. Although I had never met him before, I feel like I had
known the man for all of my life. As my friends called for me from the steps of my bus, I looked him in the eye and whispered a meek, “Thanks.”
He nodded and seemed to drift away; he needed to get back to work.
The buses pulled out from the museum “meeting place,” and I touched my new necklace that had already found its place around my neck. I was surrounded by girls and boys chatting about what they saw and what they learned in the Smithsonian Institutions. As for me, I learned something great, too: sometimes it is wonderful to talk to strangers.