Look for the people behind the faces

My earliest vivid memory as a student at The University of Alabama is not an uncommon one: I was sitting in my chair at Bama Bound, staring out into a sea of unrecognizable faces, waiting for someone to start speaking into the microphone so I wouldn’t have to worry about trying to find someone to make small talk with. Before that happened, however, I was approached by a decidedly unintimidating elephant, raising their hand toward me. I reciprocated as I imagined I was supposed to do, and this was my first Big Al high-five, a true Alabama tradition if ever there was one.

But even then it stuck with me. I wondered to myself, as I still do, what kind of person signs up for that job. Walking, strutting, doing push-ups in 90+ degree heat in an elephant suit—none of these things appeal to me, even as someone who marched with the Million Dollar Band for three years. I was fascinated, as I still am, with the people behind the suit, who they were, what they wanted, and why being Big Al mattered to them.

In the four years I’ve spent at the Capstone, I’ve met a lot of people like Big Al. In fact, I’ve never met a person who wasn’t like Big Al in at least one important way: they all wear a suit and mask, placing something between themselves and the world with which they interact. I don’t really mean to imply that this is a problem, just that it’s a fact of the human condition. We can never show our true selves, our entire personhood, our full identity to everyone. We must pick and choose, and the people we seek out to reveal ourselves to our the ones we call our friends, and we trust them, as it should be.

But part of that dilemma is remembering that everyone has a story, even those we don’t call our friends. Not only that, but everyone has a fascinating story, a story worth telling if only it can find a receptive ear.

I don’t have a lot of wisdom to impart. In fact, I still read senior columns as a graduating senior because I’m looking for that wisdom in other people, knowing that they understand something I don’t. That said, if there’s one principle that I’ve found has had the biggest impact on my time at UA, it’s that you rarely ever know someone the first time you meet them. Some of my closest friends and the greatest people I’ve interacted with in college are people who, frankly, I would never have imagined holding more than two conversations with after our first encounter, and I’m quite sure many of them thought the same.

What I realized, and what I wish I had realized sooner, is that a first impression will only give you so much. We tend to gravitate toward people who seem to present a similar face to the world as us, and we avoid people who offer something very different. What we miss in the process are the people behind the faces, the stories and experiences and dreams that aren’t given out for free. We miss the people who aren’t the labels upon which we depend so heavily. We miss the people who challenge us, fight us, and force us to grow and learn. We miss the people who will inevitably miss us too, if we only look at the faces.

Big Al taught me a lot. He taught me how to love the Crimson Tide, he taught me how to march on a field, and he taught me how to stay hydrated in a uniform on a hot Saturday in September. But as I leave this place I’ve called home for four incredible years, I realize the people behind Big Al taught me a lot more. There are over 37,000 students just like Big Al at The University of Alabama, and if we don’t really look, we might just miss them.

Chisolm Allenlundy is a senior majoring in economics and philosophy. He served as SGA Chief of Staff this year. After graduation, he will be working for Impact Alabama in Birmingham. 

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