(One of the noblest purposes of a true education is to teach empathy. I’m not sure computers will ever be able to teach it. But we humans can.)

I can spot ’em from a country mile; staggering along state Route 126 toward Bristol. Inmates, fresh out of the Sullivan County Jail. Though they usually don’t smell so fresh when you give ’em a ride. Yep, that’s what I do. Long as no one’s in the car with me, I pull over and offer them a lift.

There is an element of danger involved, no doubt. No, not just for those who pick them up. For the hitchhiker, too. Put yourself in their shoes. A complete stranger has offered you a ride. You are at that stranger’s mercy.

I find many a hitchhiker to be either hot and sweaty or cold and shivering (depending on the season). But I find that most all are grateful. There’s nothing like an open door, a friendly face, and a cheerful voice to lift your spirits a bit after having your hopes dashed for mile after mile.

Before I type another word, I must make it known that I understand why most people don’t pick up hitchhikers. Believe me, I truly do. My friends know I am anything on Earth but a male chauvinist, but I especially understand why you ladies don’t pick them up.

In fact, the most memorable soul to whom I’ve ever given a ride was to the very first hitchhiker I ever picked up — a young lady. She was hitchhiking down a rural road near Knoxville back when I was in college. (No, I didn’t give her a ride for “that” reason, the one you might be thinking, but I was worried that someone else might — which is why I stopped to begin with.) She appeared to be either inebriated or on drugs (or both) — I couldn’t quite tell which. And approximately seven seconds after she entered my car, I added mental illness to the mix. Once she sat down, this gal immediately commenced to talking to herself and grabbing at “angels and demons” in the air (or so she told herself).

So I made up a big ol’ fat lie, and I made it up quick. (Enough fear will break even the most honest among us.) I told her I could tell my car was about to blow up and asked her to get out so she’d be safe. She said, “I don’t mind dying in a blown-up car.” Then she gave a hysterical laugh that surely made my long blond hair curl (yes, once upon a time, my hair was both long and blond).

I acted like I couldn’t hold the car in the road and swerved off into some gravel. By the grace of God or the luck of the devil (at this point I wasn’t sure which) I spotted a little country store about a quarter mile up ahead. It came to me that maybe I should act drunk and on drugs and plum half past crazy, too. “Come on!” I yelled. “We’re gonna run to that store. Let’s go!” I took her by the hand and she took off alongside me, trusting every word I said.

When I detected she was out of breath, I spun around and sprinted back to my car. The young lady never said another word. But as I glanced back (yes, I had to, just once) I saw the look on her face. It haunts me still. There was no anger in her eyes. Just sadness. Deep desolate sadness. It was as if she had died.

Yes, I’ve picked up many a hitchhiker since, whenever I’ve had the time and am driving alone. Time, wisdom — and developed empathy — have now taught me how to better respond to virtually any hitchhiker “situation” with less fear — and more with compassion and understanding.

But I’ll always remember that first one. Gosh, what a sad life she must have lived, if she lived much longer at all. I still see her. I see her in the eyes of every hitchhiker I’ve ever picked up since — and I hope I always will.

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Ben Talley is an inductee into the National Teachers Hall of Fame, a former Virginia Teacher of the Year, and a McGlothlin Award Winner for Teaching Excellence.

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