Ever since I was knee high to a grasshopper I was taught that you can't judge a book by its cover.
Pertaining to people, I learned not to judge another person until I'd walked a mile in his or her shoes. Tom Hanks put a simpler slant to it in his 1994 film portrayal of an idiot savant, Forrest Gump, who repeated his mama's sage observation that "stupid is... as stupid does."
All of that is well and good, but the world in which we live has changed a whole lot over the last 50 years or so. The Georgia of my youth had a total population of just over three million. To be sure, you can still find bucolic small towns and dirt roads, but life in our neck of the woods has gradually quickened to its generally frenetic pace over the last few decades.
There are now roughly five million people living in the 16 counties which comprise today's greater Atlanta metropolitan statistical area. That many folks interacting in the same space that held just over 300,000 merely a half century ago no longer affords one the luxury of walking a mile in anybody else's shoes. And, with road rage on our highways being what it is, when you see stupid you pretty much have to judge that book by its cover, quickly, just to survive.
Never before have I been so struck by the fact that we, as a people, live in increasingly different worlds. How our society continues to function at all sometimes just plain mystifies me. We have among us folks like my mother, born in 1915, who rode trolley cars in the big cities and literally remembers the appearance of the first automobiles, World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II.
We have folks like me, Georgia natives in their 50's, for whom segregation and integration, the invasion of the Beatles, the Vietnam War, Woodstock, and Watergate bring memories which stir emotions too powerful and deep for expression. We have youngsters in their 40's who still today may not realize that middle schools are not normal; a man named John Lounsbury from Milledgeville - for whom the school of education at Georgia College and State University is named - brought them into creation in our neck of the woods in the early 1970's.
Let's not forget that Milledgeville is also home to our state's mental health hospital, if you catch my drift.
But alas, I digress.
Georgia, today, contains ethnic groups from around the world. They came here with the Olympics in 1996, and never left. Why would they? Good old Georgia Bulldog Billy Payne, chairing the Olympic Committee, showed off our perfect geography, climate, natural resources, cost of living and life style. Billy built it, and by golly the world came to see Georgia.
But when the Olympics ended, the people stayed. Of course, they had to buy homes and property, and it just happened that Billy Payne was in the real estate business. What a strange coincidence, eh?
Alas, again I digress.
With the influx of so many people from so many disparate backgrounds, bringing with them so many different beliefs about what constitutes normalcy, it is no wonder that our society has experienced growing pains. It's not amazing that we have experienced a corresponding growth in the crime rate.
More people bring with them more of everything, crime included. More water taps, more housing construction, more need for infrastructure development and implementation, more headaches, and more problems in virtually every category of life.
And so it is that we, as individuals, tend to spin into the world that suits us best, and we gravitate toward associating with people whom we identify as being of like mind and custom.
To my way of thinking, that's perfectly normal and understandable. Another old truism from my youth teaches that "birds of a feather flock together." And that's just an inviolate truth, methinks. I have never seen a cardinal smooching up to a blue jay, or a hawk sharing sky with a dove.
Just doesn't happen.
In my work both as a school teacher and as an airline employee at the world's busiest airport, I've come into contact with folks from all around the world. I've worked alongside Chinese, Ethiopians, Nigerians, Canadians, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Englishmen, the French, a German or two, Koreans, Russians and even one bloke from Australia.
It's been my privilege to travel abroad a little, and I've managed to drive automobiles in England on two occasions - separated by some 23 years - without incident.
So although I possess not a top-flight education, and have not traveled nearly as extensively as have my children - two of whom have visited all four hemispheres - and admit candidly to at times not being able to see the forest for the trees, nonetheless I feel qualified to speak on the closely related matters of despair and hope.
Just last week a young co-worker was involved in an unspeakably tragic event. His grandfather, recently released from mental treatment, shot the entire family and killed himself in front of my co-worker, whom he had attempted to kill first. The family emigrated here years ago from Ethiopia to find a better life on planet Earth. Now this young man has to bear the inescapable memory of this horrific event forever.
On the street my co-worker looks like an ordinary African-American. My generation would categorize him on sight as a regular guy. They'd never know, judging a book by its cover, that he has served admirably as a baggage handler for a regional airline and now for a major carrier, and that whenever I hear this young man's voice on the other end of the radio, I know - in my role as company tower coordinator - that I have no worries about that zone all night. The young man challenges other zones to equal his in on time departures, in fewest delays, in the ability to turn a flight from arrival to departure in the shortest time.
He lives now in a different world than do you and I. How can you judge that book by its cover?
There's a neighbor down the street whose wife is battling a serious disease. She's been in our prayers, and in those of countless others, for a long time. Their family lives in a world of doctors, medications, and late-night rushes to the emergency room. Those of us who have been spared those experiences exist in ignorance of how to walk in those shoes.
And yet, in the midst of television's reality shows - filmed on stages with props - there is reason for us all to find hope.
We're all familiar with television's "American Idol" competition. Less familiar are we with the equivalent search for singing talent abroad. The winner of this year's "Britain's Got Talent" was a mobile telephone salesman from Wales by the name of Paul Potts. Potts has been on American TV talk shows since his achievement, and will sing before his Queen this December.
I was introduced to this humble man via the wonders of the internet. A friend forwarded the www.youtube.com video of Potts' audition, singing Puccini's tenor aria "Nessum Dorma." Pott's appeared in a mismatched suit, improbably announcing that he was there to sing opera. His hair was greasy and looked as if it had never been combed.
I've always said that math is God's language, and music is God's voice. The humble, insecure telephone salesman provided the proof of that in his audition, and subsequently in the grand finale competition. Paul Potts, singing music surely issued from God Almighty, has gone on to produce a CD, but true to form has not yet resigned his job as a salesman.
I've spent the better part of the last week sharing with friends via e-mail not only Paul Potts' rendition of Puccini's "Nessum Dorma," but also similar clips by Pavarotti and others. I've been so very uplifted by that one element which is so essential to all of us in contemporary American society: hope.
The continued and burgeoning influx of people into our society bringing with them disparate customs and beliefs for the immediate time frame constitute a drain on our resources, and provide for us reason to despair.
Crime, disease, pestilence, and change itself provide stress points which can add to angst among those of us who've been here for a long while.
Yet the triumph of Paul Potts, an ordinary man possessing an extraordinary gift and willingness to chance embarrassment on a grand scale in order to share his gift with the world, brings with it hope. As, along with the rest of us, I have the choice of wallowing in despair or hoping for a better day, for now at least, I believe I'll choose hope.
And that'd be because hope, truly, is a wonderful thing.
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.