This is the week we recall the tragic assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. This tragic event occurred 50 years ago on April 4. Dr. King made major contributions to our nation and his name will be remembered as long as there are American history books and digital records.
But I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about a normal person, a kind person, a person who positively affected the people around him, including me. Eddie J. was my first friend who didn’t look like me.
When I was in the sixth grade, I was a studious, shy underweight fellow (I believe the term was “nerd” in the 1970s) and Eddie J. Poindexter was a big, gregarious, outgoing athletic African-American classmate. We were seated alphabetically, and of course Olsen starts with an “O” and Poindexter starts with a “P”, so Eddie J. was at a desk near mine. As it happened, Eddie J. decided that the thing to do was to adopt the shy little white boy and introduce me to the real world. One of the first things Eddie J. whispered to me were some important facts of life. Since I eventually became a gynecologist, this was very valuable information!
At that time, education about drug abuse was based on a scare tactic philosophy. One day in class our teacher passed out a sheet of paper which listed all the bad things that could happen with the available drugs of the era. For example, marijuana was not too dangerous, by itself, but it was the first step toward hard drug use. Glue sniffing was even worse—it led to brain damage. Heroin had terrible withdrawal pains, but barbiturates were yet more dangerous.
Eddie J. decided to have a little fun with me. “Now Marty, do you make model cars?”
“Did you ever smell the glue, just to figure out the odor?”
I knew Eddie J. was toying with me. “Uh, no, I never did that.”
“Oh right,” Eddie J. said. “HEY LISTEN EVERYBODY. WHO BELIEVES THAT MARTY…”
“OK, OK,” I whispered. “I might have done that once or twice.”
“Soooo—you admit it.! You’re a glue sniffer!” Eddie J. smiled in a satisfied way. “Now let’s look at this paper. See how bad it is to be a glue sniffer? You should switch to marijuana—wouldn’t that would be much safer for you?” Of course, Eddie then had a chance to laugh at the perplexed look on my face.
Three years later we were both on the ninth-grade football team. I was the left end and Eddie J. was the left tackle. This was on both defense and offense. We had 11 players total on the whole team, and Eddie J. and I played beside each other every down for every game for the entire season. Our best game ended in a 0-0 tie. During our last game, we scored the first touchdown of the season in the fourth quarter. You get pretty close to someone that you play next to in a season like that.
In 11th grade, Eddie J. and I both played some varsity football, but we weren’t starters. We both hoped that we had earned our varsity letters because that would validate our years of hard work (and we would look cool in our letter jackets). We were sitting beside each other at the football banquet when the coach finished presenting the “participation” awards. Suddenly, at the same time, we both realized that since we didn’t get the participation award, that meant we both had lettered! Trying to look cool, we “gave each other five” under the table time after time in our excitement. We were just two friends, happy for ourselves, happy for each other. We were way more alike than we were different.
Eddie J. is gone now, but the kindness he showed in reaching out to me lives on. And let’s be clear; I was a shy nerdy kid at age 12 and if Eddie J. had waited for me to reach out to him, we might never have had a meaningful conversation. He did more than his fair share. Many years later, when I was a doctor in training, I noticed that some of my colleagues sometimes had trouble interacting with patients who looked different from themselves, but I never felt that way. Eddie J. was the first of many people who taught me that we all share more similarities than differences, and I’ve tried to follow his example of doing more than my fair share when needed.
Only our enemies benefit from a divided America. Martin Luther King Jr. changed tens of thousands of minds, but the “Eddie J.” Poindexters of America change our country one act of kindness at a time. In this time of divisiveness in our country, we need both types of people. Let’s honor all those who show acts of kindness to our neighbors. Go ahead and throw a pebble into the ocean of kindness. The ripple that you start may continue long after you are gone.