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Shedding the skin of intolerance - Shannon Jenkins

I deliberately touched a snake the other day.

Since as long as I can remember, I've been taught not to do that. It was common knowledge that snakes bite, they'll inject you with venom, and you'll die.

Growing up in rural Mississippi, I learned to fear the creature. I can't tell you how many snakes I've run across. One particular incident comes to mind. I was riding my bike on a dirt road, when I saw what looked like a 10-foot snake stretched out in the road. Without thinking twice, I made a U-turn and pedaled home. I was through with biking for the day.

So, what made me touch this snake recently? Well, since I moved to Stockbridge, I've been living with a roommate who isn't so scared of snakes. At least, he's not scared of the ones that won't kill you. He has a South American red tail boa constrictor and a Dumeril's boa constrictor as pets.

At first, I cringed when I passed by their tanks. I stared at them in wonder from a safe distance. Every morning when I iron my clothes for work, I cut my eyes at the tank holding Ricky, the red tail. I'd had an unpleasant encounter with him before. He had just been fed a nice, little mouse, and I was playing on the computer with my back to him. When I turned around to leave, there was Ricky raised up in his tank with his mouth wide open and his neck flared out on the sides. He was looking at me. It took me a moment to build up my courage to run past his tank, which is conveniently right next to the door. As I ran by with my eyes squeezed tight and squealing like a 6-year-old girl, I just knew Ricky was going to rip the lid off his tank, wrap around my neck and bite my nose off. He never did, of course.

As time passed I got accustomed to seeing the snakes. When my friend would pull one out, I wouldn't run away as quickly. I guess I've gotten used to the critters, despite them not having arms and legs, which I still think is a little creepy.

The other weekend, when some unwanted guests rang the doorbell, my friend ran upstairs and wrapped Ricky around his neck. Much to our disappointment, the snake didn't seem to bother our solicitors. Since Ricky was out, I figured it was as good a time as any to face my fear. He's quite soft and not so yucky after all. I even allowed my friend to briefly put him on my shoulders. And, I do mean briefly.

I didn't think much of this encounter until recently. Then it hit me all of a sudden. I was raised to fear snakes, but no one told me that some are good. It's been pounded in my head that snakes are evil. They'd rather sink their fangs into me than let me pass by safely. My good friend, Jenny, seems to share this belief. I guess getting bitten by a snake will do that to people. She called me the other day, and I told her of my snake experience.

"I'm so disappointed in you," she said.

Of course, she was joking, but her comment made me think. What happens to people who choose to ignore the warnings they've heard all their lives and see for themselves if something truly is bad? Do they get bitten, or do they discover that some fears are unfounded?

Whether it's a conscious effort or not, I believe most of us are taught to fear one another. We learn to enclose each other in glass tanks based on our skin color, religion, sexual orientation and countless other factors. We fear that if there's not some degree of separation, we'll get bitten just as easily as we would by a snake. I wonder what would happen if there was no glass to separate us, and we weren't afraid to reach out and touch one another.

Chances are we wouldn't get injected with venom. We'd probably just discover that beneath all the scales and fangs there's plenty of beautiful creatures out there.

Shannon Jenkins is the education reporter for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at (770) 957-9161 or at sjenkins@henryherald.com .