I love this video. Among a group of supporters vying for a slice of Barack Obama’s attention at a rally in Maryland, one man decides to tell the president, “I’m proud of you.” He says it in his first language, American sign language. Without a second thought Obama replies, “Thank you,” also in sign language.
Now I realize that Obama was saying thank you to pretty much every person he met along that line, without necessarily even hearing what anyone was saying to him. So it’s possible, maybe likely, that he didn’t understand what had been signed to him. He could have inferred from body language and context that it was something positive. I also recognize that the supporter in question, a student at Prince George’s Community College in Maryland, arrived sufficiently late that there was “such a long line and I got so worried that I wouldn’t get a good seat to be able to see my interpreter” according to his own telling of events, so the fact that he got close enough to attract the president’s attention suggests that he may well have been seated deliberately to enable this kind of interaction.
But I don’t care. Because those thoughts occurred to me after I watched the video. What I thought of while I watched it was something much less cynical, and much more valuable.
There’s a movie scene that’s been among my favourites for, wow, nearly 20 years. It’s from the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street. In it, Richard Attenborough’s Santa Claus finds himself with a deaf girl on his knee at his grotto in the mall. The girl’s mother tells him that he doesn’t have to talk to her, that “she just wanted to see you”. Of course he ignores this comment and he talks to her in sign language. To him it simply doesn’t make sense that any child should be excluded from experiencing what all the other children get to experience just because she happens to be deaf.
Despite being a fiction, this one scene is the most touching example of how making a small effort to ensure people aren’t excluded can make a big difference.
I was 11 years old when that movie came out, and I’ve seen in any number of times since. That scene still inspires me to remember the huge effect an unexpected yet simple kindness can have on a person. I imagine that’s how this Obama supporter must feel.