Meeting Others Where They Are

When I was a young boy growing up in San Antonio, Texas, my father took me with him to Austin where he worked as a state attorney. I had the honor of meeting the late Barbara Jordan, the first African American elected to the Texas Senate who invited me to be an honorary page. I had no idea what a page did; I was just excited to have a day away from school and hang out with my dad in the state’s capital.

We are making our way to the capital building on State Street in Austin. My dad and I are standing on a street corner waiting for the light to change. My dad is a big man. He’s tall and dark. People say he’s handsome. He’s also a person who easily can be scary looking at first sight. You notice him when he walks into a room. The kind of person who gets attention without saying a word. He strikes up a conversation with another man also waiting to cross the street. For those who are unaware, back then it was illegal to cross the street when the walk light blazed red, “Don’t Walk.”

As my dad stands with the posture of former military, he and another man begin to talk. I don’t pay much attention to what they are saying. I am feeling the warm sun as my eyes dart up and down the street, watching cars go by, and people all dressed up. So glad I get to miss a day of school. Suddenly I heard my dad’s voice. “This is my son Byron”, I hear my dad’s base baritone voice rumble from above my head. It is as though heaven opens and God speaks my name to get my attention. I am 7- or 8-years-old. A chubby, soon-to-be a Weblow Scout. We shop in the husky department at Sears for all my pants. That‘s the only place that has pants I can wear. I’m not all that comfortable in my own skin. Not like my dad.

“Shake the man’s hand,” Dad’s voice thunders. I slowly stretch out my hand as I look down to the ground. “Look the man in the eye when you shake his hand,” I hear my dad’s voice again. I slowly lift my head, looking up at a man. I don’t know him. Trying to remember how I know him. I feel a little scared inside. He’s a stranger. I don’t speak to strangers. I can hardly wait to leave the corner. Just my dad and me.

After a few moments, the light turns green. The man walks one way. Dad and I go another. “Who is that man Daddy? I ask lots of questions, as usual, wondering what the answer will be. I don’t know, he replies. I am surprised that my dad does the very thing my mother and he warn me not to do; speak to strangers. Confusing! This is my earliest memory of building relationships. You just talk to a man on the street you don’t know?”

What I learned from that experience is that there are exceptions to rules. First, you learn what the rules are. So that by the time you choose to break them, you’ve built the confidence in your resilience to face the consequences.

Today, just as my father demonstrated, I’ll talk to just about anyone on just about any topic without hesitation. It was a long road to travel to get comfortable enough to speak to people. Let alone strangers. Today, no one is a stranger to me once I introduce myself and engage them.

How did I overcome the fear of speaking to people? Years as a musical theater actor exposed me to all types of characters, playing all types of roles and having a director tell me, “Think of everyone in the first row sitting there in their underwear. How can you be nervous when you are on stage fully dressed!” Or my mother’s encouragement, “They put on their pants just like you do; one leg at a time. No need to be afraid of people.”