Last updated: July 18. 2013 4:57PM - 56 Views
NATHAN S. WOODS
"Chicken Soup for the Ocean Lover's Soul"



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One humid day in May while walking through the New Orleans Aquarium where I worked, I heard a voice say in a heavy accent: "Excuse me, sir. Can you direct me to the penguins?" I turned and found a young man in his mid-20s accompanied by a woman in her mid-40s and an elderly woman who stood quietly behind him. The young man had a warm demeanor and stated that he had just moved to the states from South Africa. I learned that our aquarium was one of his favorites, and he had come to show his mother and grandmother our exhibits.
As it happened, my duties as an educator at the aquarium included narrating the feedings of our penguins, so I happily offered to escort them to that exhibit. As we strolled through the building, I was impressed by their knowledge of ocean life. They seemed to know a great deal about many of the creatures that were housed at the aquarium. When we reached the penguin exhibit, he was pleased to see an African black-footed penguin, which was indigenous to the Cape of Good Hope, near where he grew up.
We talked about the penguins for more than an hour. The young man and his mother were very enthusiastic. The grandmother, on the other hand, remained silent no matter how much I tried to include her in our discussions. The young man noticed this too, because he leaned in close to me and said: "Excuse my grandmother. She is a South African woman and from a very different time when our people did not fraternize with yours." I told him that I understood why she was being that way. I remained upbeat, but I could not help but feel shaken by his admission. As a black man, I had experienced prejudice before, and it did not sting any less in this instance.
We continued to discuss the penguins, and before I knew it I had completed a full-fledged guided tour. When we reached the lobby, they thanked me vigorously, and I bid their family farewell. On the way out the door, I looked toward the grandmother one last time. She never made eye contact, nor did she allow me to do so with her.
About two months later, I came to work and found a letter in my mailbox. The letter had no name or return address. It was postmarked from South Africa and read: "Thank you for your kind tour. You are very knowledgeable, well-spoken, charming and a wonderful host. I grew up with a number of opinions on black Africans and heard even worse things about American blacks. During our visit, I watched you quietly and noticed that your love for the ocean is equal to that of my grandson. I am a very old woman and set in my ways, but you have certainly showed me that at least one of my beliefs is not true. Thank you for changing an old woman's mind."
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