Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

A Chance Encounter Brings Insight from a Stranger

Whenever I hear someone tell a story about meeting a stranger who touched his or her life, I take it as an exaggeration. I assume the storyteller inserted some profound meaning into the story as an afterthought in the hope that he or she would someday be able to use it for the next application essay. Slightly envious and quite cynical, I listen, smile, and walk away thinking, “This never happens to me.”

One morning, two weeks ago, I woke up in a haze. It was Friday, and I had two hours to finish writing a midterm paper before going to meet with the principal of a local middle school to talk about a mentoring program that would bring Georgetown seniors to a fifth and sixth grade class. After finishing the paper, I walked into the Leavey Center at midday to grab some much-needed caffeine and print out the paper. I found myself bombarded with students dressed in black, navy and gray suits, sleek and sweaty, carrying Georgetown-emblazoned portfolios and desperately juggling the corporate trinkets they had just received. Beyond the point at which caffeine would help my slowly encroaching headache and thoroughly put off at the idea of walking through the Career Fair, I left to turn in my paper and catch a cab to Garnett-Patterson iddle School.

I walked through Red Square and across Copley Lawn, leaves swirling on the ground ahead of me and the sun shining down from an almost perfectly clear blue sky. As I passed The Tombs, a taxi drove up Prospect, and I started running, waving my hands. The cab driver stopped, and I got in and gave him the address. When he looked a bit confused, I told him I was going to Garnett-Patterson iddle School.

Looking at my watch, I realized I would be late, but there was nothing I could do about it now. I sat back against the seat, rolled down the window, and drank my iced coffee. At least I could enjoy the ride.

As we crossed Wisconsin Avenue, the cab driver asked me if I was a teacher. He had a Caribbean accent that rolled out in a welcoming tone, and he glanced back as he spoke. I smiled to myself and told him I was a Georgetown student. He paused and asked why, then, was I going to Garnett-Patterson. I told him about the mentoring program and, as he continued to ask more questions and explained that we do activities with the students at school or take them on field trips to museums or bring them to Georgetown basketball games.

After a few seconds of silence, he asked, “Now, do they learn from you or do you learn from them?”

I told him, “Both.” He smiled, satisfied with my answer.

“You will learn Ebonics,” he told me. “It’s a real language.” He proceeded to tell me, quite matter-of-factly, that kids speak so differently from each other now and that these exchange programs are so great because they teach people to understand each other. I nodded in agreement.

Then he told me he has a daughter who is in sixth grade. He tells her she needs to learn to understand everyone in her class because that’s how society is. She does well in school, he told me, and he hopes she will win a scholarship so that she can go to a private school in the area. If she can’t, she’ll stay in public school in D.C.

We stopped talking for a few minutes, and I watched the posh Dupont neighborhood transform into one I did not recognize. The houses, still pastel-colored townhouses, looked shabbier and rundown, and the stores had signs in Spanish hanging above them. With only a few people walking down the streets, as opposed to the rush of M Street, it felt more like a neighborhood.

“What are you studying?” the cab driver asked me. I told him I am studying American history. “I hope you don’t want to be an historian,” he chuckled. “You’ll end up a cab driver like me.”

He asked me if I wanted to go to law school, and I told him I was thinking about going in a few years but that I wanted to work first. “That’s good,” he said. “You should get your feet wet in the real world first. There’s plenty of time. You need to see the world first.”

I nodded again in agreement.

As we neared the school, he pointed to where he lives, just down the street from Garnett-Patterson. He said the neighborhood used to be more rundown but that people were starting to buy buildings and improve the property. “See,” he said, pointing to the skeleton of a new building on a dirt lot. Down the street from the school, the U Street-Cardozo metro stop, just finished within the past few years, stands in front of the African-American Civil War emorial. Until then, I didn’t know the memorial existed.

When the cab driver dropped me off in front of the school, I thanked him several times – for the ride, of course, but also for so much more. I stood in front of the faded brick building, refreshed and excited, and walked into the school.

I do not want to say that the cab driver changed my life. I do not want to say that he taught me something I did not know. I do not want to say that he opened my eyes to new possibilities. Because he did not.

I will say, however, that this chance conversation came at just the right time. In the midst of midterms and meetings and activities and parties and work and reading and late nights at The Tombs, it was nice to see a different world only minutes away from Georgetown. I go about my daily activities, that job search lingering in the back of my mind, wanting to just have fun one last time and knowing I will eventually have to face reality.

I decided in September that I definitely want to work next year in order to figure out just what it is I want to go back to school for (or maybe to figure out that I don’t want to go back to school). I also decided that I definitely did not want to wear a suit several days a week during half of my senior year. So I am left to carve my own way through an unknown path, with the help of friends and mentors. And a stranger who told me just what I needed to hear: Get out into the real world first. Do what your gut tells you. You have the rest of your life to figure out what you want to do. I have been happy ever since.

Elizabeth Whitehorn is a Contributing Editor and member of the board of directors for The Hoya.

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