Behind the Curtain

October 27, 2018

Saturday of the 29th Week in Ordinary Time

Beaches in the Pacific Northwest lend themselves to different kinds of activity than those that generally attract tourists. We joke in the Seattle area that the weather is more likely to see us waterlogged than sunburned, and while this is certainly an exaggeration, sunbathers were a rare sight. On a trip to the beach I was far more likely to see scuba divers or clam diggers. Our rocky shores were meant for naturalistic exploration, and like many children in the area I learned at an early age about tidal pools and the many discoveries that could be made just by turning over rocks—look! a hermit crab!

This week, I’ve been thinking a bit about the character of the Wizard of Oz. As portrayed in the classic movie, Dorothy and most of her companions (except her feisty terrier, Toto) are terrified of the eerie, imperious figure with the booming voice. However, Toto’s intervention reveals that the “Great and Powerful Oz” is simply a combination of special effects manipulated by a man hiding behind a curtain who ends up being very gentle and accommodating, but only once his true figure is revealed.

When I was teaching at Mount Saint Michael Academy in the Bronx, there were students coming from all kinds of family situations. Some of them were gentle and impeccably mannered, presumably coming from a relatively stable home in a safe neighborhood. Others had a hard time not bringing the street with them into school. For some, this was likely part of a survival strategy… if I seem tough enough en route from home to school and back again, maybe I won’t get jumped today. The thing is, it can be tough to leave all that at the door, even when arriving at a place where it is safe to be a kid. I was fortunate many times though to see students gain enough comfort to show the young man behind the curtain, the gentle goofball behind the front. But would you ever see that person if you never took a second look? Certainly a great number of tragedies have been caused by individuals who opened fire in part because they saw their own fears instead of the actual person in front of them. When I first saw a photo of Mike Brown, the young man whose shooting by police brought Ferguson, MO to a standstill, my thought was, “he’s not scary looking… he looks like he could be one of my students!”

I had an experience just this week of a very different nature that also reminded me of the importance of taking a second look, this time at reported facts. I was with a group conducting interviews with members of the rural Dominican community of Piedra Azul in Monte Plata. This is a community that relies primarily on the rain and a hard to access well to get whatever water they can. The local health clinic is staffed only by a nurse because no doctor has agreed to serve in this place where simply bathing requires such effort. I was surprised to hear this nurse say that she has not seen much in the way of water-borne illness. After all, where safe water is scarce, people often resort to drinking whatever they can. The interviews continued however, and the very next community member was a father who talked about how his girl had fallen sick and been taken to the doctor in a neighboring down, where it was discovered that she was absolutely infested by parasites. The nurse wasn’t lying, but neither did she have all the information: how many community members suffer their illnesses at home because they cannot afford the clinic? How many other community members go farther away for treatment because they can afford the trip to see a doctor? If the nurse’s account had been the last I had heard that day, I would have failed to take both of these realities into account.

Let’s remember to turn over rocks, look behind curtains, and listen to more perspectives. The effort will surely be rewarded.


The “ear candy” and “brain food” for this week are closely linked to each other and to this blog post as they both somehow relate to the idea of taking a second look. While the song deals with this theme in the context of one’s own personal life, the essay examines how good intentions can unfortunately lead to harmful actions if they are not scrutinized.

Ear Candy: “Dreams” by The Cranberries

Brain Food: “How to Really Help Children Abroad” by Tina Rosenberg

Come back next Saturday for a new post!