Three Words

I heard three words today that I have heard countless times before. But I heard these words in a way I have never heard them before.

I picked up my wife and daughter after an early matinee at the cinema. We were hungry, and decided to stop at a favorite taco shop. A favorite of my wife’s, but not my daughter’s. She had already negotiated a price for her patience while we ate – a trip to McDonald’s afterwards. She is eleven years old and talks like she is afraid she might run out of words if she uses too many at once.

“What are you going to order?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” came her predictable reply.
“Do you want French fries?”
“Yep.”
“And a milk shake?”
“Sure.”
“What flavor?”
“Vanilla.”
“Just a small one?”
“OK.”
“What about chicken nuggets?”
“No, thanks.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m fine.”
“Are you just saying that because you know Dad says they’re bad for you and you don’t me to see you eating them?”
“Uh huh.”
“Well, it’s ok to have them as a treat, and I don’t mind if you have them. Do you want some?”
“OK.”

That made me ponder how much of influence I have over her. I did not feel comfortable with this kind of power, as I know how thorough the training has been to be the defining role model in a young girl’s life. It went along the lines of other parents telling me “You’ll be fine. None of us had a clue, but you just kind of pick it up.” Awesome. Thanks for making me feel so prepared.

I stood in line to make the order while my wife and daughter got napkins, ketchup and a straw and sat down waiting for me to bring the food. The Hispanic lady who served me was dressed in the standard McDonald’s uniform. She was in her thirties, greeted me with a smile and asked me what I would like. I thought for a moment that she looked a bit overweight, an occupational hazard of making minimum wage and working in a job with ready access to junk food. It was an observation more than a judgment, and any thoughts of judgment went to a restaurant industry built on bad pay and bad food. The transaction concluded smoothly as I swiped my credit card. She handed me my receipt and I stepped to one side to wait for the food.

As I waited, two young boys walked up to the counter. They were probably about nine or ten years old, noticeably shorter than my daughter. One caught my eye with his skateboard and his beanie hat. The top half of the wool hat was green. Under it was a band of yellow with the bottom quarter a band of red – the colors of Rastafarianism made famous by Bob Marley. I looked closer at this kid, and smiled as I wondered if he knew he was a walking advertisement for the legalization of marijuana. He was wearing a navy hoodie but had the good sense to keep the hood down lest it take away from his impressive accessory. He had nice white Nike sneakers which were well worn in a way that let you know that they were his number one choice of footwear and that there wasn’t a number two. The seat of his cargo pants hung just above his knees at the perfect level for annoying Bill Cosby. His green skateboard revealed New York style silver graffiti writing on its underside. This kid was cool.

What really made me notice him was how he ordered his food. The lady serving him was older than my server, probably in her late forties. She was wearing the white shirt of a manager. Skateboarding-reefer kid ambles up to her holding his board by his side like it was his sword, his left fist like a grappling hook around the truck that anchors the wheels.

“Hello, Mam. May I have a …………,” I heard him begin his order. I can’t recall what he actually ordered, because I was still processing the surprise of his soothing voice’s respectful and polite phrasing. After my earlier uncertainty about my powers as a parent, I thought how his parents must have done a lot of things right. I don’t know why his voice came as such a surprise. I must be far more conditioned than I realized to hearing self-important salesmen in suits bellowing orders as they speak to the overhead menu rather than to the human being serving them. You know the kind: “Yeah, get me a Bacon & Cheese Quarter Pounder meal. Hold the tomato. Eh, Diet coke. And a chocolate fudge sundae. To go.”

The manager, also Hispanic, pointed to Reggae-kid’s skateboard, but couldn’t find the correct English word to come out.

“What’s that? Rollerblade?” she eventually asked.

“No Mam, it’s a skateboard,” came the empathetic reply, his tone conveying that she should not feel embarrassed and that he was happy to help her overcome her little error.

“Is too cold to skateboard, no?” the manager asked as she tapped her keypad to process his order.

“No, it’s fine. Skateboarding keeps you warm.”

“Ok, that will be $4.77.”

With that, our little pint-sized pocket of Jamaican civility looked down into his right hand, happy to see that he was holding a $5 bill. As he handed it to her, he created a small moment of magic.

“Keep the change.”

Those three words affected three people immediately. “Way to go, little man!” I thought. I looked at the manager as she heard this. She smiled and turned to her colleague (the lady who had served me) who was already smiling as she had been following the exchange while her line was empty. The manager quickly assessed that the right thing to do was to accept the gesture in the spirit it was offered. She leaned forward, making sure she had solid eye contact with the boy. “Thank you”, she said simply, leaving no doubt that she was anything but completely sincere.

Her eyes and her facial muscles had changed in the seconds since she had taken that $5 bill from the hand of our Caribbean Kid. So had her colleague’s. So had mine. I saw a lady transported for a moment by those three little words to a better world. I saw a mother, working to provide the best life for her family, forget for a moment the constant struggles she faces. I saw a woman forget that she was in a uniform behind a counter in a fast food restaurant as she shared a connection with a wonderful little boy. I have no doubt that the counter was all that stopped her from picking him up and giving him a big hug.

That little prince, with his 23-cent tip delivered on a platter of kindness, is a reminder of how much we really can make a difference in how we treat each other. We are all connected, and we are all capable of small kindnesses. It costs us nothing, and creates waves of positivity that continue to ripple long after the words are spoken. A 9-year old seems to get this concept. What’s stopping the rest of us? This boy was also a reminder that hate has to be taught and learned. The world is a better place because he was not getting any of those lessons at home from his parents.

“Keep the change.” Three little words said by a boy wearing a funny hat. They conveyed all the meaning of the lyrics from the famous title of almost the same name, sang by the most famous wearer of the hat. I am sure Bob would be proud of his protégé.

Three Little Birds

“Don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right.
Singin’: “Don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right! ”

Rise up this mornin’,
Smile with the risin’ sun,
Three little birds
Each by my doorstep
Singin’ sweet songs
Of melodies pure and true,
Sayin’, (“This is my message to you-ou-ou: “)

Writer(s): Bob Marley

Copyright: Odnil Music Ltd., Fifty Six Hope Road Music Ltd.

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