In the Classroom at Smitty’s

by DanWolgemuth on May 11, 2018

I was completely perplexed, inexperienced, and exceptionally cheap. A sprinkler system malfunction was not going to stump me.

I’ve drained and restarted the same system for 12 years, and year 13 was not going to be any different… but it was, and is. Multiple zones operating simultaneously and inconsistently was beyond my capacity to diagnose or remedy. So I did what we all do. I Googled.

Much to my surprise and delight, I located Smitty’s Sprinklers, just two miles from my office. I devised a plan to stop on my way into the office, armed with nothing but a description of the problem.

When I walked into Smitty’s there was a long counter to my right. Behind the counter were two women. Both were very pleasant and engaging. “How can I help you?”

I’m not sure what I expected, but in that moment I was flustered and indescisive. In that moment, I made an assumption.

“Is there someone here who can help me with a question about my Rainbird sprinkler system?”

The words stumbled from my mouth, even as they blatantly exposed my bias. Unspoken, yes, but clear as day. My assumption was that neither of the professionally dressed and thoughtfully engaging women at the front counter were equipped to help me. And so I subtly cloaked my question. Poorly.

“I can help you” replied Sarah.

And help she did. Sarah reached behind her and pulled a sample valve off the wall and began explaining the possible problems that caused the symptoms I was experiencing. She suggested the appropriate next steps to try to further diagnose the problem and offered to help again if I was unable to remedy my situation.

She didn’t sell me anything… in fact, she didn’t even try to sell me anything. And she didn’t dismiss me or my imprecise questions.

But what Sarah revealed was a built in presumption, a baked in stereotype that was exposed amazingly close to the surface. In a split second, I judged a situation, and I did so without information or clarity. And I was absolutely wrong.

Two days later I was back at Smitty’s with more questions, and this time Sarah wasn’t there, just Chris, the other woman at the counter. Once again, my mind raced to an assumption, even if my question was more thoughtful. And once again, Chris delivered with kindness and expertise that crushed my pathetic expectation.

Sarah and Chris know their sprinkling systems. And I don’t have reliable instincts when it comes to judging the competence of the employees at Smitty’s Sprinklers.

Is this isolated? Am I more open minded in other situations? Less judgmental?

Are there other, more insidious ways that I dismiss or diminish the gifting or skill or expertise or wisdom or value of another human being? Am I lazy or arrogant or both when it comes to extending dignity and respect simply because I’ve made a flash decision?

Is gender or appearance or ethnicity or accent tripping a switch in my mind that gives me permission to assume that I know what I so clearly do not?

Two trips to Smitty’s has held up a mirror that I’m not sure I want to stand in front of. I carry a set of biases that are woven into the fabric of who I am… and I’m not proud of it. In fact, it embarrasses me. It should.

Fortunately, Sarah and Chris extended grace, even as they dispensed advice.

I walked into a classroom at Smitty’s. And clearly, I have a lot to learn.

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