The human brain is wired to seek patterns. That’s why we see the man in the moon and Jesus on a grilled cheese sandwich. Our subconscious mind takes the unfamiliar and tries to make it familiar.
In much the same way, on the conscious level, we try to discover connections. When we meet a new acquaintance, we often try to find the commonalities: "You’re from Gainesville? I’m from Gainesville!" "You went to Alabama? I went to Alabama!"
It always amuses my New Yorker husband when people tell him about their cousin in Manhattan and then stand expectantly, waiting for him to announce, "Why, yes, I do believe I know somebody by that name. He lives on West End Avenue, right?"
What they’re doing, what we all do, is employ a sort of shorthand that allows us, right or wrong, to make all sorts of assumptions about this unknown person.
When a tragedy occurs, we do something much scarier. We try to find reasons to fault the victim. I remember when Meredith Emerson was abducted and murdered on Blood Mountain. Over and over, I heard murmurs of, "Women shouldn’t be out in those woods alone." and " That’s why I never leave the house without my gun." What they were really looking for was some magical reassurance that this could never happen to them or someone they love.
Now it’s happening in the Trayvon Martin case. He’s the unarmed 17-year-old kid who was shot and killed by a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain in Florida. The shooter has not been arrested or charged and is now claiming the victim was the aggressor.
In initial press reports, Trayvon was portrayed as the heroic paragon who saved his father from a fire when he was 9 and hoped to someday become a pilot. The accompanying picture showed a fresh-faced young man wearing a Hollister shirt.
Then there was a turn. There were reports of school disciplinary problems and suspensions. School officials had found him in possession of a pipe and a plastic bag containing marijuana residue. The image beside that article was one lifted from Trayvon’s Facebook page, showing him leering with a mouth full of fake gold teeth, a far cry from the all-American kid in the name-brand, preppie clothes.
Some people look at the Hollister picture and draw their conclusions about Trayvon Martin. Others look at the gold teeth image and do the same, each convinced that they now understood who this young man was, what happened and why.
Like everyone else, I’m making assumptions about this case based of the evidence that is far from complete. My assumptions don’t come from Facebook pictures or hooded sweatshirts. They come from a sentence in an Associated Press article that reads, "He (Trayvon) and his father, a truck driver, were active in the Miramar Optimist Club, an organization that runs sports and academic programs for young people."
That speaks volumes to me. It transforms the Martins from pitiful strangers to part of my Optimist family, and therefore, my friends. It tells me that while Trayvon may have gotten into trouble, his father would have moved heaven and earth to straighten him out.
It tells me that his dad worked to help other kids, too. Trayvon was most likely recruited to help sell Christmas trees or run a golf tournament or call bingo, whatever that particular club’s activities might be. He may have tagged along to conventions where like-minded people brainstormed about the best ways to reach the most kids.
It tells me he was by no means a lost child. Like the majority of teenagers, he was complicated, struggling to define himself. And sometimes, during that process, kids lose their bearings. It tells me his father, that stoic, heartbroken man seen in newscasts, would have been his anchor, preventing him from drifting too far away.
I wonder how long it will be before his parents can find any comfort or solace in the last line of the Optimist Creed, "Promise yourself to be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble."
There can be no healing without justice. I hope, whatever form it takes, it comes soon for Trayvon and his family.
Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman. Her column appears biweekly on Fridays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.