One morning, as I drove down a narrow country lane in Charlottesville, I spotted an African-American boy, about eleven, perched on a bike. He sat in the middle of the road, precisely at the center of a blind curve.
I thought, If a driver speeds around that curve, the child will be killed. I need to tell him to get out of the way.
Racial tensions in our town have been high, which informed my second thought: Wait! He’s black. I’m white. Maybe he’ll think I’m harassing him.
But then, my third: Doesn’t matter. He’s in danger.
I pulled over to the right, off on my side of the road, and said, “Move! You’re going to get hit!”
The child smiled then dashed off onto a lawn on the left, away from my side of the road. Instantly, a car charged around that curve, then zoomed past us.
I drove off, thinking, “That was close. I probably saved a life today.”
The next day, as I headed past that same stretch, I re-played the incident, this time from the other driver’s vantage point. If I were coming around that curve fast and had a tree on my right, a child in the middle of the road, and a car facing me off to my left, I’d have swerved left to avoid the child. I’d have crashed head-on into the vehicle on the other side—the car with me sitting in it. In retrospect, the life I may have saved was my own.
The incident got me thinking. Straight out of college, I served as a Peace Corps/VISTA volunteer. My job was to “deinstitutionalize” teenage wards of the state. These kids were unadoptable and had spent their first seventeen years bouncing around: foster homes, mental health facilities, detention centers. When they turned eighteen, they would be placed on the curb by the state. My job was to equip them with the life skills they’d missed the previous seventeen years. Informed by ignorance and idealism, I attempted the task.
By the end of my stint, I realized my job was impossible. So, I sent around a proposal, asking for donations to fund a halfway house, run by me, a twenty-three-year old. No one gave me money. The kids wound up on the street.
They didn’t stand a chance. A couple died within a year or two. A few wound up in jail. I don’t remember what happened to the other kids. Nothing good.
Back then, the state I lived in did not invest much into their wards. Yes, a few people in power cared about the teens, but some did not, enacting policies that reflected that lack of regard. We failed them. Some came to great harm and some caused great harm. And, we in the community, one way or another, paid for our collective negligence.
We are all connected. What I do affects you. What you do affects me. That August morning, I chose to stop and warn a child. Most likely, my stopping shielded me from great harm.
Working to improve the lives of others will cost us in time, money and personal comfort. Yet those actions enrich our own lives and ultimately will create a better world for all of us to share.
Perhaps this year as we long for peace on earth, we can come closer to experiencing that peace by intentionally showing good will toward all people.