My Shoes

Don't judge a man until you walk a mile in his shoes. canstockphoto17275393

I was a bit too cocky at 14.  I often said things I shouldn’t have. I was told that being quick-witted was a blessing if I knew when to button my lip … and a curse of I didn’t. The guy that told me that was dead-on right.

One afternoon before class (in junior high school) one of my teachers was sitting around with a few of us guys and we were just talking like guys do. For those of you ladies that have not directly witnessed this spectacle there is usually a great deal of teasing that goes on in these “guy” sessions. Men insult each other in the same way that women complement each other; neither one of us means it . Guys will say things about each other’s mother, gut, sense of fashion, sense of humor, etc. I’d been a little kid batboy for my father’s men’s softball team for years and the older guys used to let me sit there and “shoot the bull” with them, too, so by 14, I was good at this. So the subject of pollution came up and the teacher said, “Yeah I picked up a bunch of newspapers blowing across my front yard this morning and said to myself, ‘there’s an awful lot of garbage out here today,’   Without thinking I immediately quipped, “Well that was established the second you went outside of the house.”

Suddenly, smiling and laughing faces went straight. The room got eerily quiet and my friends were looking at each other sideways. I’d crossed the line. I went too far. It was a great zinger but I was a kid and he was a teacher and I was completely out of line. I couldn’t take it back though.  The line had been crossed and my words hung out there like a day old de-feathered chicken in the window of some butcher shop … and the flies were already starting to get to it. The teacher rubbed his jaw and nodded silently. “You know Ciancutti, you need a little humbling,” he said. “You’ve just been elected class president by a wide margin. You got yourself a cute little girlfriend, good grades, everything is just going so well ... yeah--I think it’s time for me to take you down a peg or two.” And with that he proceeded to walk me into the hall, made me assume the position (palms against the wall) and he delivered two substantial swats with his math book that resonated down the halls and could be heard everywhere. I walked back into the classroom, my face a bright shade of crimson red. I was so embarrassed and ashamed.

I went to my desk and never looked up. When class ended, I walked to the door with my head down. “No hard feelings, Ciancutti,” the teacher said. I didn’t even acknowledge him.  “Hey,” he said, “I just wanted to be sure you knew everything doesn’t always work out in your favor.” I glared at him, “I have parents for that, thank you.” He nodded with a tight lip and said, “Yeah but you never walked a mile in my shoes, buddy. And it would make so much difference.” I went huskily out the door.

The year passed and we somewhat repaired our relationship. I didn’t sit and jaw with the gang anymore. I was afraid my “automatic-pilot-wit” would kick in and I’d say something else I shouldn’t have, so I rather avoided him.

And soon I was in high school and thoughts about that experience had long faded--or I thought they had--until I saw that teacher drive up to a restaurant one night and unload his family at the door. It appeared the wife had been in a serious car accident at some point because he ran around to her car door and helped her get her bearings with a walker he had produced from the trunk. Two kids got out of the back seats. One appeared to be helping the other but I couldn’t decipher the malady and then I realized that the little girl that was helping her brother was doing so because he was blind. I will admit right here my first thoughts weren’t generous. My immediate conclusion was, “Oh so because your life is harder than mine you had to whale on me to get your frustrations out.”

But as I sat on my bike, watching from the evening shadows I couldn’t fight the pang of regret for not knowing what he meant or bothering to learn what he meant when he originally said I should walk a mile in his shoes. What he was saying was that his daily challenges were substantial and that one day I might find myself, but for the grace of God, in a similar or worse place. In a way he was almost preparing me for the future. Saying to me in his way, “Hey kid, it ain’t all going to be rosy.”

So as I went forward in life I tried to really apply that lesson. More than just being considerate of other’s station in life, I would try to immerse myself in their position and I’ll tell you when you do it right, I mean really do it right the revelation can be amazing.

I was walking through the bar in a restaurant to get to back to my table where my wife was sitting and I ran into an old acquaintance. Someone I worked with at a part-time job during my summers home from college. He was older than me and tolerated me during those years but he never liked me. Now he’d swung his barstool around to deliberately bump into me and he was clearly drunk. “Mister College-boy,” he sloshed. I smiled and said hello with the intention that I just wanted to keep walking and avoid any confrontation. When I was a half dozen steps past him he yelled out, “S’matter you can’t waste a minute talking to us peons!” I froze in my step and walked back to him and asked how he had been. “That’s more like it,” he smiled. He then let forth a string of vulgarities that would make King Kong blush and did his best to tell everyone in the room what a better man he was than me. He was so inebriated I could have floored him with one punch but I just stood there looking at him and evaluating the looks of pity on the faces of the others watching this spectacle. “It was good seeing you again,” I said, nodded and turned around. Later as we left, I saw him throwing a fit with the manager because the bartender had taken his car keys; he had no right to be driving. In the parking lot, I noticed his car.  It was the same dilapidated one he had been driving all those years ago. It took a minute or two to stumble a mile in his nasty-looking shoes, but I did think it through. Drunk, broke, avoided by most, laughed at by all and still unable to see the problems and put it all together to lead a respectable life. Walking away had been the right thing for me to do. He was punishing himself with the life he already led--there was nothing for me to add that could have made it any more pitiful than it already was. The walk-a-mile theory made that clear.

It doesn’t just work for situations like this though. If you train yourself to immerse your mind in the moment that others are experiencing, you can begin to develop an intuition that is invaluable. Harnessing this awareness brings about a sort-of “truth detector.” I find that a lot of times when I apply the walk-a-mile philosophy, what becomes clear to me is when people are saying or doing something simply out of embarrassment. You can tell their words and excuses are out of character but they are trying to cover for some error in judgment. There’s something that is making them say what they are saying.

It is even worse when I see someone in a troublesome moment and I have already walked a mile in their shoes and I see them in unfamiliar waters because of a misinterpretation by someone who hasn’t walked that mile.

This one happens to children all the time. Dad gives them permission to do something and mom intercepts them before they do it and the kid gets the blame before he/she is able to explain they are only doing what dad told them they could do. It is then incumbent on the dad to step forward and clear the kid’s name by taking the heat and admitting his error ... but it is a lot wiser if the kid takes the hit because mom is so much easier on them. This act, though cowardly, can be compensated with cash to the child later (when mom leaves) ... or so I have heard.

Ron Ciancutti is the Director of Procurement for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at .