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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Howdy, Stranger

October 23, 2020

Pondering what it is these days that has people struggling to connect, our columnist concludes it's neither the pandemic nor the politics.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

I stepped out of the corner store, mask on face, chips in hand, when a masked man approached and asked if I could point him to one of Denver’s main streets, which was a block away. He looked worried.

“Not from around here?” I said.

No, he was from Ohio. Looked about my age — old. I asked what address he was looking for.

“Get in,” I said. “I’ll give you a ride.”

I’ve been working at home for Courthouse News since 2004, so in a sense I’ve been self-isolating for 16 years, and have worked up a sort of resistance to quarantine. Still, I wanted that human contact.

To get him talking, I told him I’m a reporter — “a natural snoop” — and like to hear people’s stories. Here’s what I found out.

He was my age, from outside Cincinnati. Retired, on Social Security, after a career as a special-ed teacher in public schools. Here with his wife to visit their daughter and baby grandchildren. Twins. His wife has cancer. This might be their last trip together. He couldn’t stand to hear the twins’ crying anymore, so he slipped out to take a walk and couldn’t find his way back.

I told him I’d taught on an Indian reservation for six years, and had many, many students who were misclassified as “special ed” because they arrived in kindergarten speaking their Native language, and no English. He told me they did the same thing in Ohio, misclassifying native Spanish-speakers as special ed.

“They do it because they need the money,” he said — the schools, not the kids or the parents. The states and federal government pinch schools’ pennies so hard that school districts need to hunt and scrape for extra funding — such as misclassifying children as needing special education.

That’s a lot of information to pick up, and share, in less than five minutes. It’s not a testament to my acumen as a reporter, but a sign of how eager we’ve become for human contact — even with a stranger, whose face we will never see, sitting just the other side of the gearshift. 

I stopped at Broadway and told him his daughter’s house would be one block to the left, south — on the other side of Broadway. He thanked me and said he thought he’d walk up Broadway for a while, got out and closed the door and headed north.

I’ll never see him again. Don’t know his name. But in less than five minutes I learned more about him than I’ll ever know about people I’d seen at work every day for years — in public schools and newsrooms.

There’s a great sadness in our land today, and it’s not all due to the coronavirus pandemic, or to the even more virulent political season. It’s the result of a long, lingering estrangement … from what? Or perhaps a long, lingering immersion … in what?

I’d say it’s the result of decades of immersion in a society that does not understand itself: what it has done, at home and around the world; what it continues to do, especially at home; a society that prefers to look away from a grisly auto crash, though the society is that auto crash; a society that preens itself on its failure to comprehend what it has done, and continues to do so — does not want to comprehend itself.

A society whose long immersion in an imaginary vision of itself has estranged it from the world, from its closest neighbors, from itself. A society in which two strangers seek solace from a few words, spoken softly and truly across a gearshift, behind masks.

Categories / Op-Ed

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