ABOUT 40 foreign students listened to the college security director, a Baltimore City police officer and a Maryland State trooper discuss the need to take precautions.
Repeatedly, the officers stressed the importance of being wary of everyone and trusting no one. Many of the students expressed concerns about the violence and crime that's continually reported. The students asked well-informed questions filled with concern. "What if I am lost while I am driving? Should I stop and ask for directions?" "Should I go to the ATM at night?" "Where can I be totally safe?"
The foreigners were confused by words that are not found in many English language dictionaries, like carjacking. Even after it was explained it was a bewildering concept to people who come from countries where it is impolite to even be rude to a stranger, let alone steal his car at gunpoint.
The recent crime prevention workshop offered to foreign students new to this country gave me a new perspective, too.
I began to see my surroundings as a foreigner would. I am in the country of opportunity and freedom, but I must take great steps to remain safe. I have a Club for my car. I park in well-lighted areas. I travel with others rather than alone. I don't go out at night unless I have to, especially to an ATM machine. But where can I be totally safe? In my neighborhood, where cars are stolen and houses are broken into on an almost routine basis? At my job, where security continually posts signs of "suspicious" people who have been spotted on campus?
We have become a people who are petrified of the guy next to us. We are afraid to look at each other when passing, for fear
that the wrong look or response will trigger a violent reaction. Often, we appear to lack consideration to avoid contact with a possible criminal. One foreign student told of her first encounter as a "stranger" when she went up to a family in a supermarket parking lot to ask for directions. The mother quickly threw her children and groceries into the car and drove off, leaving the young woman confused and hurt. She didn't understand our "don't bother asking" policy when it comes to those we don't know.
We are afraid of each other. We live our lives in constant fear of the other person on the street, in the next car, in the parking lot who just may cause injury and harm to us.
We have become unapproachable and unsure of whom to trust. The Baltimore City police officer told a humorous anecdote about earning quick money in Atlantic City, N.J. He saw a woman drop a wad of bills in front of him. Being an honest soul, he picked up the money and tried to give it to the woman, but she wanted nothing to do with the money.
Actually, she wanted nothing to do with him, and although he insisted by telling her he was a policeman, she walked away, apparently afraid that he was trying to pull a fast one. And in a strange way he did. He walked off with her money that she had refused to claim.
Have we let our imaginations run wild, or is the state of affairs this bad? Every so often I press my luck about being safe to reaffirm my trust in others. Baltimore is a big city with a high crime rate, but I have been known to park in a lot and leave my car windows down while I run into a store for 15 minutes or half an hour. I have driven through the less desirable areas of town after dark when I'm in a need of a short cut. I have spoken to strangers.
For some reason, though, I need to do this once in a while, to assure myself that we are not as dangerous to each other as we think. I want to be able to tell my students that America can be a safe place.
Elizabeth Scott is a teacher in Baltimore.