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Penkava: What part of his day do you want to be?

Published: Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

I’ve done it. I bet we’ve all done it. In fact, I did it the other day.

We were at a store and I saw this really tall guy. I nudged my wife and whispered, “Look at the size of that guy … he’s a giant!” I don’t know if the guy heard me or caught me gawking at him, because, quite frankly, I didn’t give it a second thought. After all, if anyone can handle stares and comments, it’s a giant guy, right?

But now I’m not so sure what I did was OK. Check that. Now I know that what I did wasn’t OK. And it took a really little guy to teach me that lesson. Let me introduce you to him…

Jonathan Novick is a 22-year-old movie producer. He studied film at Hunter College in New York City. He’s bright and articulate and engaging. He also is 48 inches tall. Jonathan Novick is a dwarf.

Jonathan directed a six-minute documentary titled, “Don’t Look Down on Me.” He spent two days walking the streets and riding the subways of Manhattan last month filming as he wore an undercover camera disguised as a button of his shirt, showing us what a day in his life was really like.

What he documented in his film, his candid and articulate comments, and especially his literal down-to-earth perspective, has truly opened the eyes and hearts of the almost two million people who have viewed his film.

In his documentary you see children staring at him. Some adults actually snuck paparazzi-type photos of him. He was stereotypically asked if he was an actor in television or movies. He was called demeaning names and his manhood was questioned. All through it Jonathan did nothing but be small.

His film reveals the breadth of our society’s reaction to human diversity and difference, from the innocent curiosity of children to the inexcusable ignorance of adults, from blatant prejudice and intolerance to utter vulgarity. And that’s just one day for Jonathan. Then there’s tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, and … well, you get the picture.

In his narration of the film, Jonathan presents the viewer with a striking challenge. He asks us, “The next time you see someone who is different from you, think about what their day might be like … think about all of the events of their life leading up to that point … and think about their day and think about what part of their day you want to be.”

What Jonathan is asking us to do is to see life through the eyes of the other person. To see beyond the height or the weight. Beyond the walker or the wheelchair. Beyond the anxious pace or the distant gaze. Beyond the being different.

That got me wondering. What if we all conducted ourselves as if the other person had a camera hidden in their button, chronicling how we treated them? Would we become part of their documentary about intolerance? Or about prejudice? Or about heartlessness? Would that change the way we treated them?

All through this column I have been thinking about that tall guy from the store. What did he see from me in his button camera? Geesh, I’m not feeling so good about myself right now.

So I’m going to try to do better. The next really tall person or really short person or really different person I see, I’m not going to stare at them. I will not refer to them as  “Giant”  or “Tiny” or  say “Geesh.” From now on I’ll just be friendly, smile and say hello and try to be one of the better parts of their day.

Oh, and maybe I’ll wave at their buttons, too, just in case.

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He encourages you to go on the Internet and watch Jonathan’s film. Its six minutes may just be the best part of your day. He can be reached at mikepenkava@comcast.net.

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