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Lesson from a barista

| Friday, April 1, 2016

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to fly home to see my friends and family for Easter. On Monday, I bid farewell to them and to my dog and drove to my flight back to school, an afternoon departure from Boston’s Logan Airport.

This trip did not seem unique. I went through security as usual, found my gate and began to walk towards the nearest Starbucks before my plane boarded. What I found at this Starbucks was perhaps the most powerful scene in my recent memory.

As I reached the front of the line, a smiling Middle Eastern man met me with a smile, and, in his broken English, asked, “What is your name? What you like?”

“Scott. Venti black tea lemonade,” I replied, nearly automatically. The man removed a cup, took out a Sharpie and began to write my order. What happened next struck me.

He started with my name: S. C. O. T. “This correct?” he asked. “No,” I responded with a laugh. “There are two T’s at the end — S. C. O. T. T.” He immediately thanked me, and promptly added the second T. The exact same process continued through his spelling of the remainder of my order; he had me check each word. Black. Tea. Lemonade. If it was wrong, I corrected him; he always thanked me.

What had started as a near annoyance had become playful, an impromptu spelling bee in an airport Starbucks. When my order was complete at last, as he proudly handed my cup off, I asked this worker why he was so concerned with the spelling. Surely, I thought, this could not really matter — the attention to detail seemed irrelevant to me.

“I do not want this job always,” he responded. “I must learn English here. I have a family.”

I stood in my place, dumbfounded. After wishing him luck, I walked to my right to retrieve my drink. He started to take his next order. He started to spell his next word.

This man was building his new life one word at a time. Brick by brick, his future would be laid on the foundation of the American Dream. I believed this dream dead, and yet its embodiment stood joyfully behind the counter.

Sometimes, our privilege is our greatest undoing. Too often we hear of immigrants in a negative light. Too often we assume those making less money do not work as hard as those in the upper rungs of society. Too often we are told the American Dream is dead.

What I found, on that day, was the antithesis of this. This man was stopping at no bounds to get ahead, to provide for his family and to live the Dream of the United States of America that many of us take for granted each and every day. He was not lazy, nor was he a “taker.” This man did not shirk in the face of adversity. Instead he dedicated each day to the betterment of himself and his family.

Let us all take a lesson from this. Millions, billions, of people would love to have the opportunities we have at our hands today, as students and Americans. This privilege is not to wield superiority over those holding less; achievement is non-binary.

Success comes in many forms. All people, regardless of race, ethnic background or socioeconomic status, can embody hard work. We each must recognize this reality. While those in the highest caste of society work hard, so too do the workers we all too often take for granted. In simply working his job the best way he knew how, this inconspicuous Starbucks worker taught me an incredible lesson.

We are in this life together. All of us can benefit from understanding what makes other tick, what they are working for and what drives them on a daily basis. Next time you see a person doing their job, disconsolate as it may be, showing up to work time and time again, pushing forward to better their life, pause. Think of their work, smile, ask how they are, find out what their story is — recognize they likely embody the same work ethic you do, even if their opportunity is less.

This compassion, this humanity, this drive is what makes our America great already. From janitors to investment bankers, doctors to fast food workers, recognize that a job does not define a story, a tax bracket does not define a work ethic and money does not define life. Americans can still dream — do so proudly.

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