A Teacher, His Barber, and Answers to all of Life's Questions

by: Alex Stubenbort

"In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit."- Dr. Albert Schweitzer

Serendipity.  A relatively funny sounding word for a relatively funny situation. Although I rarely allow myself to indulge in using fanciful terms like "fate" or "destiny", there is something to be said about that feeling when life just seems to put you in the right place, at the right time, with the right people; and that is precisely where life seemed to put me last weekend.

On Sunday afternoon, I found myself in Winter Park, FL visiting my in-laws and in desperate need of a haircut. Being that my residence in rural Citrus County, FL doesn't tend to offer the most talented coiffeurs, I decided to swing by Floyd's 99 Barbershop for a hella-fly new do.  After a wait of a mere 2 minutes, I was introduced to my barber. His name was Chandler. Chandler greeted me with a, "What up, bro?" that, to the untrained ear, may have been misconstrued as disrespectful or rude; however, having worked with young people for 10 years, I understood his words to be what they were intended to be--an invitation to see each other as friends or brethren.  Accepting his invitation with a handshake, I proceeded to sit down at Chandler's barber chair. Unbeknownst to me, I was about to have a conversation chock-full of pearls of youthful wisdom that I won't soon forget:

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Chandler's Life Lesson #1: No hair is the same.

In education, we often see our profession as inherently meaningful. We prepare young men and women for the "real world" through timeless life lessons and some applicable skills. However, Chandler made it clear to me that the value of your work isn't inherent in the work itself but in the mindset you bring to it.  As he asked me about my life, my work, and my story, he shared with me that our stories weren't so different. He explained that every hair on every head was unique and that to do his job justice, it was his responsibility to acknowledge this truth. Although their are certain governing principles to be followed as a barber; the hopes, dreams, and desires of the client must be understood and considered to produce the desired outcome. Unless Chandler was able to grasp the humanity of the person whose hair he had the privilege to work with, he considered himself unable to do the job well.  Likewise, teachers have the responsibility to first know their students as people before applying known strategies to garner positive results. Until we understand the student with their humanity intact, we will be incapable of doing the job of preparing them for their hopes, dreams, and futures.

Chandler's Life Lesson #2: Serving is an opportunity; not a chore.

When Chandler discovered that I was an educator, he boldly shared his personal educational narrative. At 16, Chandler was homeless. He rebelled against his religious parents' dogma and sought meaning beyond the four walls of his home.  Understandably, this decision put his chances of any semblance of a stable life at risk. However, he smiled while remembering the educators that refused to let him become a statistic. Like all of us, in the same breath Chandler remembered incredibly selfless teachers and cold-hearted, uncaring ones. What seemed to set the caring ones apart was their ability to see the opportunity in their servitude. Likewise, Chandler viewed his job as a barber as an opportunity to make his community a better place. He expressed that, in a very real way, he would have a direct impact on the happiness of every individual whose hair he cut that day. To lose sight of the weight of such an important fact seemed to be criminal in Chandler's eyes. His barber chair served as a conduit for a bullied teenager's self-esteem, a struggling father's confidence in a job interview, or a nervous groom's piece of mind. He had the opportunity to serve his community and make the world he lived in a better place simply by doing his job well.  Once again, Chandler had a lot of wisdom for educators.

Chandler's Life Lesson #3: You'll know when it's time to stop.     

Its amazing what you are able to accomplish in 30 minutes time between two conversationalists with similar passions. My conversation with Chandler took a turn toward the serious when he asked me about the kids I serve and their response to the national school walkout demonstration. As he did throughout the conversation, Chandler listened with intention and without interruption. When I finished, Chandler asked a highly unexpected question: “Do you mind if I share a quote from Cars III ?” Having never seen the blockbuster that one could only imagine to be a masterpiece, I welcomed him to continue. “In Cars III Lightning McQueen is trying to determine when it’s time for him to quit racing. Another car in the movie tells him not to worry because the new guys will let him know when it’s time. I think this generation is telling you guys it’s time to take a backseat for a while. They’ll take it from here.” We went on to discuss that high school kids championed gun legislation in a matter of months after a Democratic controlled House and White House failed to do so with 8 years. To claim that kids need to know their role and pipedown is to deny America’s rich history of change coming in on the wings of youth. From the Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama to the anti-war protests during Vietnam, young people have time and time again let America know when its actions have fallen out of line with its own scruples. Chandler understood that this moment was no different.

All-in-all, I didn’t expect for a barber to bless me with enlightenment when I walked into Floyd’s 99 Sunday afternoon. I did not expect that a young man would lead me to better understand the beauty involved in serving others. However, life tends to wake you up in the most unexpected of moments. The question is whether or not you’ll be willing to listen.

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