In the Presence of a Hero...and How it Challenged Me as an Educator
This post is dedicated to my new friend, Scott. Thank you, Scott, for challenging me to be a better educator, and more importantly, a better person.
Recently, I had an experience that I can't stop thinking about. The more I reflect on that afternoon, the more I realize it's likely an experience that I'll never forget.
Like many other days, I was on the go… running, running, running. Part of my world entails spending countless nights away from home, in hotels scattered around the country, while flying from place to place.
That afternoon was similar to so many that I've had. After rushing back to the San Diego airport, I dropped my rental car off, and hopped on the shuttle bus. The wrong shuttle bus, actually. Being at airports non-stop doesn’t prevent me from making dumb mistakes at them. Just before the driver pulled away, I grabbed my stuff, hopped off and ran to the other shuttle - this time the right one. As we pulled towards the airport, I did what I've done hundreds of times; I looked down at my phone, made sure I was checked in, looked at my gate, and figured out how much time I had until I boarded. A few minutes later, our crowded bus full of travelers was dropped off in what seemed to be complete chaos. I moved through the large crowd and followed signs to Terminal 2.
Upon getting there, I looked around and saw all of the airlines for my terminal, except for the one I was taking – American. Taking an incredible amount of flights each year, I’m completely comfortable in airports, but for a few moments in this one, I felt alone and lost. I looked around and finally asked someone for help. An older gentleman pointed me towards the opposite end and said, “Didn’t you see it? It’s on the other side. You have to go all the way back down there.” I thanked him and went on my way, walking quickly back through baggage claim and again through the masses of people towards the other side of the building.
About halfway through the crowd, I noticed a man about my age that I was walking towards. I could tell he seemed a bit lost and appeared to be looking for someone or something. He was holding a cane and was wearing unique glasses. I remember thinking to myself that he was probably trying to locate his bag. I also thought about how challenging that must be if he was alone and was in fact blind like I had assumed. I kept walking....and eventually, I walked right by him, glancing back down at my phone. Consumed with my own craziness, all that was on my plate, the calls I had to make, and the work I had to get done, I continued walking towards the security checkpoint. At one point, I turned back to glance at the man that had caught my attention, and noticed that he continued to stand alone. It was clear he felt lost – just as I had a few minutes prior on the other side of the terminal.…and I started to feel sick to my stomach.
A few hours before, I had been blessed with an opportunity to encourage almost 1,000 educators who give their all for kids every day – at a Southern California opening day. In part of my talk that morning, I was challenging them on building relationships and the responsibility of building the culture in their schools. I was pushing how even the smallest interaction can make someone’s day and be an encouragement; how showing someone you care and that they matter - can be life changing.…and I started to feel like a complete hypocrite. Here I had just been challenging others to make every interaction count, and there I had walked right past someone in need. So I humbly listened to that little voice inside my head and being disappointed in myself... I turned around.
I hustled back over to the man who was still standing there, looking around and it reminded me of how I had felt only moments before; only I had been able to see where I was. I walked up to him and simply said, “Hi, my name is Tom. You look like you need some help. Can I help you with something?”
“I’m not sure where I am,” were his first words to me. I asked him which airline he had just flown and if he was trying to get his bag.“I can’t remember which one it was,” was his response.
I started to realize he needed a bit more help than which direction to head or how to find his bag. I looked around and saw an information desk over by one of the exit doors figuring those at the booth may be able to help. I asked this gentlemen his name, to which he said “Scott” and then invited him to put his hand on my shoulder to go figure it out where he needed to go. As we started walking together, I began asking if he had a boarding pass or something so that we could help figure out where he needed to go.
Scott responded, “I think it started with a “U." I don't remember....and I came from up north.” Over the next few minutes, the attendant at the information desk helped us figure out which plane Scott came in on and which carousel his baggage would arrive. The attendant asked, “Scott, was it the United flight from San Francisco?” to which he responded, “Oh. Yes, sir. That’s it. Thank you.” The attendant then pointed back to the far end of the building, exactly where I had just asked for my own directions. Scott turned to me and slowly said, “Thank you for helping me.”
Having still felt bad that, like hundreds of others I had completely walked right by him the first time, I asked if I could help him safely get down to the other end to grab his bag. As we began to navigate the crowd, Scott paused and turned towards me. “I’m really sorry. I have a hard time knowing where I am sometimes and it’s easy to forget things. It’s not that I’m blind, my brain just doesn’t function right.” he said slowly.
I said, “No problem, Scott, let’s get you there safely. Glad to help.” After glancing at my phone to see how much time I had to get to my own gate, I asked Scott what his bag looked like. He struggled to get the word “camouflage” out. He then said, “It’s a military color.”
Having a dad that served, and having tremendous respect for those that protect our freedom, I paused and asked, “Scott, are you in the military?” Scott stopped walking in the middle of the crowded room and pointed to his hat. “Purple Heart” was embroidered on it. I had completely missed it, both the first time I walked by him, and during our first few minutes of interaction.
Scott slowly began, “It happened in Mosul. It’s a place in Iraq if you’ve never heard of it. I was Delta force…it’s part of the Army." My heart stopped. I started to anticipate where he was going with his story.
He continued, "It was a beautiful day like today, except it was much hotter. Maybe 130 degrees and trust me, that's really hot. [He laughed.] I can still smell the air from that day. My team was helping a family in the city. We were keeping these women and children safe because there were a lot of bad guys in the area.”I’m not ashamed to admit that it was about that moment that my tears began to stream.“We thought the bad guys had left. A while later, I went to check if they had and walked out the front door,” and then he paused again.“That’s when it happened. I got shot.” He turned and pointed to the left side of his head.
“We were trying to help protect them. I didn’t see it coming. I didn't see it coming." As Scott relived a few minutes of a life changing day, the last day of what he had always known, I struggled to fight the tears thinking how only a few minutes prior, I was so self-consumed in all that I had to do and had walked right by this amazing man.Scott slowly continued, “But it’s okay. I’m going to be okay. The problem is the bullet is still in my brain. It's right there [he pointed]. The doctors say they can’t move it and can’t take it out and it needs to stay in there. But I’m okay. This is just my new life.”
The floodgates opened. My tears flowed as I stood talking to someone who a few minutes earlier I had ignored. We made our way over to baggage claim, his hand on my shoulder. As we slowly worked our way through the crowd, I asked about his story and where he was from. Scott shared that he had grown up in Texas. He talked about his family and how he joined the military to help people in need and how he always liked helping other people.I grabbed his camouflage bag off of the conveyor belt and together we moved to the place outside where his dad was going to come get him. As we waited, he turned to me and said words that gave me chills, “I don’t understand why you wanted to help. Most people just walk right by.”
My heart sank. Because that HAD BEEN me. I WAS one of the people who walked right by him. I WAS the one who couldn’t make a few moments to help someone, all consumed with everything….me. I WAS the one that was too busy and too consumed with all of my needs to realize that I was in the presence of a hero.
“Hey Scott, it’s not every day that I get to meet an American hero. Can we take a picture so I can remember you and your story? I want to tell my kids about you. I want them to grow up and understand what true sacrifice means and what a hero really looks like...and it looks just like you." I said.
He nodded and said, “I'd be honored to, Sir.”As his dad approached, he stuck his hand out and said, “Thanks for being a friend, Tom.”
Feeling like I didn’t even deserve to carry this hero’s luggage, and with tears streaming, I could only get out, “No, thank you, Scott.”
Scott – you are a true hero. Thank you for challenging me to make sure I see other people first, put other people first, and never forget those families, and heroes, that sacrifice all that they are and all that they have, for every day, selfish people like me.If you want to see a humbled man, look at the person in the photo on the left. If you want to see an American hero, look at the man on the right. It was truly an honor to be in Scott's presence and have the privilege of carrying his bags while helping him safely get to where he needed to be. It was an honor that I will never forget.
As educators head back to open a new school year, we can never forget that every interaction matters. As kids walk by us in the hallway, how do we react? Are we looking at our phone or looking into their hearts? When we see that child in need, or the one that appears to be lost, or the one that looks like they have the heavy heart, do we keep walking, like I will humbly say, I did that day? Or, do we pause our own world for a few moments to help lift someone else's higher? Every day is an opportunity to have an amazing impact on those around you. Even a chance interaction can be life changing... just as Scott was for me that afternoon.
All for the kids we serve,