|Judging Books By Their Cover|
|By Bryan Avila, TDCJ Correctional Training Instructor - Sergeant of Correctional Officers|
After a while in this line of work, we all seem to become cynical about what goes on around us. Not just situations, but also about people that we see as well. It is true that we do not work with the best that society has to offer and are therefore incarcerated, but we also tend to see what we want to see and not what is really there.
In mid-February the NBA held All-Star weekend right here in Houston. I had gone out with my wife to run some errands/have dinner. While we were just sitting there I noticed 4 young men, maybe early 20’s, walk in and sit at the counter to eat. My first thought was hoodlums. Tank tops, tattoos all up and down the arms, hat turned sideways, sagging pants, etc. I then looked out in the parking lot to see what they were driving since it was just us and them there. In the parking lot I saw a brand new Camaro, brand new Mustang GT and a new SUV.
After seeing the vehicles my thought went straight to drug dealers. Half listening to the conversation that they were having, they had driven in from San Antonio for the All-star weekend.
I was completely convinced that I was right based on everything that I had seen throughout my entire career. I continued to half listen and have these thoughts and even told my wife the same. As time went by I was paying less and less attention to them. As they went to leave something didn’t feel right (I couldn’t explain what it was at that particular moment) so I started to pay some attention to them and what they were saying. The words that were coming out of their mouths for some strange reason were not really registering in my mind. Looking back I think it was because what they were saying was not in sync with their appearance and the assumption that I had made about them. It still had not registered as they walked out of the restaurant and got in their vehicles.
As they were pulling out, I saw their license plates as well as their windshield. It caught me completely off guard and a feeling of shame and guilt swept over me. I realized in that moment that I judged these 4 young men based on what they looked like and nothing else. It all hit me at once. What I was hearing coming out of their mouth while they were about to leave was “Yes ma’am” and “No ma’am” and it just didn’t correlate in my mind with their appearance.
What was it about their license plates and windshields that made me feel this way? Simple enough…the Dept. of Defense stickers on the windshields and the Purple Heart license plates that were on some of the vehicles. They were on leave from Fort Sam Houston and Lackland AFB and came for the All Star game. Shame on me…
We tend to take some things for granted based on who we deal with on a daily basis and only see the negative from society. We need to take a step back and refocus ourselves in order to exit the negative mindset that we develop over time. I believe that none of us are immune from it. The only difference is whether we admit it or not.
I had forgotten what humility felt like and was given a heavy-duty dose of it. Bittersweet reminder of what I had been told many years ago…don’t judge a book by its cover.
Editor's note: Corrections.com author Bryan Avila started working as a Police Officer in 1994 while attending Norwich University in Northfield, VT. In 1999 he began working for the Vermont Dept of Corrections while still working as a Part-Time Police Officer. In 2007 he left public service until 2009 when he began working for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He is currently a Correctional Training Instructor- Sergeant of Correctional Officers, at the TDCJ Region I Training Academy located in Huntsville, TX.
Other articles by Avila:
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God heals but doctors stitch and sew.Our minds are programmed as Americans to determine evil by seeing and/or feeling.Trusting in perception because of previous imprinting and trauma can be not only dangerous by mere projection.
Mr. Avila, your story and the accompanying pictures give us all something to think about. My biggest prejudice/generalization? Not tats, but hanging pants. I suppose there are guys out there who've served this country and say "m'am," and still let their undies hang out. I suppose. After reading this, I really will try to give the next ones I see a second look, and chance. Thanks for writing.