It's not uncommon for kids to ask their parents about "that thing" on my head.
In most instances, the parents look at me uncomfortably, embarrassed that I might be offended in some way. I'll usually acknowledge their discomfort with an awkward smile before looking away and pretending not to notice as they try to discretely shush their kids.
But recently I had the most amazing experience. I walked into the elevator of my apartment building in Manhattan and -- despite knowing New York etiquette -- I couldn't help but smile at the two little girls standing with their young mother. The girls were wearing matching, polka-dotted raincoats, and they were fully focused on not dropping their popsicles.
The older of the two girls must have sensed me enter the elevator, because she slowly shifted her neck to look up at me and gawked for a few seconds. She then turned to her mom and unabashedly shouted: "Hey Mom! What's that thing on his head?!"
The young mother made eye contact with me and quickly checked to see if I was planning to respond. I flashed my standard awkward smile, and she returned an awkward smile of her own before totally catching me by surprise.
"That's a turban."
"Why does he wear it?"
"It's part of his religion. Do you remember the boy in your class who wore a turban?"
"Yeah, he doesn't cut his hair. He has really long hair. "
I was shocked. I wanted to give everyone in the elevator a high-five, but remembering I was in New York, I tried to play it cool. I put on my Denzel Washington face (the coolest person I could think of on the spot), and as I walked out of the elevator, I turned to the mother and whispered a soft "thank you."
I'm sure she has no idea how much of an impact that random interaction had on me.
I realized that the young mother and I had entirely different attitudes that bore entirely different results. Whereas I was busy trying to be a cool New Yorker, the mother was concerned with more important things -- she had a child to raise and didn't want to let a learning opportunity pass.
That kind of commitment only comes out of love -- she cared deeply about daughter and was willing to nurture her growth with patience and care.
And this sparked a question in my mind. If I care about the world and expect it to progress, why am I not seizing every opportunity to help nurture it?
It seems natural that, just like raising children, a more purposeful and loving approach could help cultivate a more progressive society.
I'm so lucky that an everyday elevator ride with a young mother and her school-age daughters sparked these new thoughts.
It was a conversation I usually avoid by standing in the elevator and intensely staring at my phone so I don't seem like that guy who makes small talk with strangers.
In fact, it was a conversation that didn't even include me.
But I guess that's kind of the point: Sometimes we just have to figure out how to include ourselves.
Follow Simran Jeet Singh on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SikhProf