Before last summer, I considered myself an up-against-the-wall right wing conservative ready to shoot down anyone with my proverbial concealed weapon. Now, I’m willing to give the other side a fair listen.
I spent two months last summer interning in Washington, D.C., in a program with 30 other budding journalists from around the world. I come from a somewhat hellfire and brimstone family that held their breath when I boarded the plane for D.C., scared to death I might return brainwashed by “those heathen liberal Yankees.”
My grandparents didn’t take too kindly also to the fact that I would be rooming with Democrats.
They’re still warming up to the idea that one of my best girl friends from the program is a Catholic from upstate New York.
Even after catching Potomac Fever, my family was relieved to see me in one piece upon returning from the District, despite mingling all summer with the lefty persuasion.
While I made lasting relationships and connections, I credit part of my success in the program to one in particular — my next-door neighbor.
Perhaps it would be prudent first to describe my friend.
I love to introduce him into my stories about D.C. by calling him “the absolute most interesting person in the world,” and he was; the Dos Equis advertisements have nothing on this guy.
With roughly a 6-foot-4-inch spindly stature, this Ohio native proudly wore his tortoise Buddy Holly specs and the occasional T-shirt with the outline of his home state. For work, he would often sport a suit with a bow tie.
He embraced his nerdy chic get-up.
As rail-thin as he was, the boy was somehow a walking garbage disposal and ate just about anything he could.
As an avid long-distance runner, he would get in roughly 5 miles or more a day by running from the Lincoln Memorial all the way to the Capitol and back to our apartment building.
Fluent in Swahili, he had an infinite knowledge of hip-hop music from the 1980s on through the majesty of Jay-Z, whose album, “Magna Carta Holy Grail” that dropped last summer he listened to like it was gospel.
To top it all off, he was by far the most raging liberal human being I’ve ever met — borderline socialist, and he wasn’t ashamed to tell it. In other words, he was the quintessence of what us Southerners consider a “goober.”
The rest of the summer, my neighbor and I often woke up at the crack of dawn before our internships and shared a pot of coffee or a stack of pancakes at each other’s apartments.
One morning, we jabbed over our cups of Trader Joe’s Tanzanian Peaberry brew about our own family dynamics. I told him I was raised with the grit and tenacity of a true East Texan, which of course was bundled with the uber-Republican, Confederate flag-wavin’ glimpse into my upbringing.
He laughed and proceeded to fill me in on his past. He grew up in a house politically divided down the middle and somehow ended up as far left as a person could be.
We chatted about our differing views, and he would intermittently insert a thoughtful head nod as I explained my conservative stance.
When the subject of my faith came up, he simply said, “I’m just not about that life,” and left it at that.
I feel guilty at times for never asking his reasoning, but I quickly remember why I didn’t: It was his decision.
It was curious that he never bothered to shoot me down like the liberal heads my family warned me about for suggesting I believe something completely opposite of him.
Instead, I poured him another cup of coffee.
It was most compelling because he was more interested in fully understanding my thinking and beliefs than he was in telling me I was wrong.
I observed his behavior all summer and took mental note of the way he treated others. He was his own best critic, but although he loved to talk about himself, he never failed to return a compliment on his listener.
He never uttered a curse word and said he found them unflattering. As a protégé journalist, he had plenty more eloquent insults in his arsenal that would bomb anyone on the spot.
He calmly and attentively recognized the world around him and seemingly took in every detail as if he would use it in his next story. I learned more simply watching him take it all in than I did in the classroom.
The night before our program graduation, I was this close to having a complete “Scarecrow, I’ll miss you most of all” meltdown when I finally had to bid adieu to my Ohio goober.
His friendship is worth more than rubies to me because he chooses to accept my Bible-thumpin’ Texan upbringing rather than belittle me for believing in a higher power.
He is slow to assume what is considered factual but quick to respect the beliefs of others — the optimal trait for any good journalist.
Besides schooling me on a few practical words in Swahili and the fact that Macklemore was not real rap, he taught me one of the most valuable lessons: live and let live.
Instead of trading my red for blue, I gained a sharper view of what I actually do believe and support, not just what my momma tells me is true.
That meant clarifying what I already revere and letting go of past notions that no longer fit the person I am today. In short, I’m now a proud purple.
Indirectly, I was raised to figuratively scare the hell out of those who didn’t agree with my beliefs, and while I still cling to a many of the ideals conservatives preach, I’ve come to realize that hate spews from both ends of the political continuum.
While I continue to respect my background, I now steer clear from the hurtful and often inaccurate assumptions I was raised to make.
I no longer cast God’s wrath in the name of George W. Bush on the ones who choose differently on their ballots. In fact, I celebrate their freedom to believe the opposite of me; it certainly makes for better conversation.
Taylor Griffin is a junior journalism major from Tyler. She is the news editor for The Lariat.