“It’s okay, Meg. Don’t worry about everyone being like that to you. I know the truth.” I was in 6th grade, sitting on the field under a tree in Urbana, IL with my friend Liane. Liane’s father was Caucasian and her Mom Hawaiian. Liane was so physically beautiful that years later, after she moved away to Japan (never to see her again), I would learn she had become an international model. Despite my having moved abroad back and forth already for long periods, I had known most of the kids at my grade school, Yankee Ridge, since we were all in Kindergarten.
I looked at Liane, and in that moment, felt comforted and appreciative of her kindness. Tears had been streaming steadily down my cheeks, so my eyes were quite red and puffy. “I don’t understand why no one but you will believe me.” Earlier that week, the entire 6th grade decided to have a food fight in the school cafeteria the Friday before Spring break. Although Liane and I weren’t actively planning the food fight, along with our classmates, we excitedly anticipated the event. Only everything began to go downhill the prior day. Our teacher, Mrs. Proctor, let us know she and the other 6th grade teachers knew about the forthcoming food fight, and if anyone planned to move forward with it, they would receive a week’s suspension from school. Although I was disappointed, I didn’t think much of the news until later that day in recess when no one would speak to me, and all I received were angry glares.
Thankfully, Liane came through (after a bit of investigating) to let me know what was going on. Apparently, someone in the class decided that I must have been the person that informed the teachers about the plan, and the rumor traveled around our class like wildfire. Despite my attempts to defend myself, the only person that stood by me was Liane. As a result, she became ostracized as well.
After school, Mrs. Proctor asked to see me. “Meg, what is going on? Why are you so upset?” Feeling like I had nothing to lose, I let her know what had happened. “That is ridiculous!” she exclaimed loudly. Giving me a hug, she added, “Let me take care of this first thing tomorrow.” The next morning, as soon as the bell rang and we were all in our seats, Mrs. Proctor turned to the class. “Before we begin, it has come to my attention that many of you believe that the 6th grade teachers learned about your food fight from Meg.” Complete silence. “To be clear, every time I leave the room, I turn on the intercom so I can hear everything going on from the main office. No one person told me anything. I actually heard about it from all of you who were planning it.”
As I walked home with Liane that day, and as other kids were once again waiving and smiling at me, it occurred to me that Liane was the only one willing to be seen with me, willing to be my friend, regardless of any damage done to her own reputation at the time.
About six months or so ago, I wrote a blog post called, “Acts of Kindness.” In it, I questioned, “Why can’t more people simply be kind for the sake of kindness?” By use of several examples, I happily described how certain people are self-motivated to be kind to one another. But then, about a month ago, I read an article that has made me revisit this concept. The piece captured a convocation address by the accomplished author, George Saunders, to the 2013 graduating class of Syracuse University. Saunders started by sharing a story of personal regret from 7th grade. A new kid named Ellen had joined his class. Ellen was small, shy and, as Saunders described, wore cat-shaped glasses that only “old-ladies” wore. Ellen, according to Saunders, was mostly ignored but also occasionally teased. He could tell this behavior hurt her, and noticed her hanging around by herself…a lot. She was isolated and lonely. And then one day, her family moved and she was gone. At this point I expected Saunders was about to confess to how he participated in the teasing or cruelty. Or maybe that the abuse she suffered had driven Ellen to some tragic end. But no. Instead, Saunders mentioned that he was actually pretty nice to Ellen, at least relative to other kids. He never knew what became of her. Yet the memory still haunts him to this day, leaving him filled with regret. Why? Because it was a failure of kindness.
As Saunders described the failures of kindness as: “Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, even suffering, and I responded sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.” I was fascinated by this concept, but when Saunders questioned WHY we aren’t motivated to be kinder, it was because, in his opinion, that we prioritize our own needs over the needs of others. While I agreed with that in principle, I felt there was something still missing from his explanation.
And then, I happened to be having a conversation that day with our son, Ethan, about a kid with a certain disorder that he had known back in his elementary school. The kid was extremely bright, but had been categorized as “special needs” as a result of his condition. As Ethan and I began to discuss his entering Middle School soon with many new kids, I began to think about this boy, wondering whether the other kids had been kind to him before, and how the new kids would treat him. “Mom, everyone is kind and considerate to him in class, but once we leave the classroom, things change. It’s not that anyone is mean or anything like that. I just could tell most of them didn’t want to be seen hanging out with him.” I paused, and turned to our eleven-year-old son. “E, do you think it would ruin their reputation?” Ethan placed his one fingered hand on his chin and paused. “It might. Yes, it probably would.” “I wonder how things will be in Middle School for him then,” I remarked almost to myself. As I was speaking, I also considered the irony of his comment. I couldn’t help but to wonder whether there would be any kids that Ethan would newly meet that might feel the same way about hanging out with him, given his physical difference.
It then occurred to me that while I agreed with Saunders (I too deeply regret my own failures of kindness ), I think the reason behind our “selfishness” is not simply prioritizing a personal need over the needs of another. To me, it is more complicated. While I think many are motivated to do something nice for another, I wonder if they would take that extra step, knowing their reputation might be at risk? It seems to me that the group-think that led kids to isolate the girl from Saunders’ story contained a certain mob mentality. To befriend Ellen, or even just make a public gesture in support of her, might seem easy, but not if it endangered a person’s social status. I think the risk to reputation, the fear of being added to the unpopular list, can be a big deterrent to acts of kindness.
Not surprisingly, I thought about this in terms of my own children. How could I help them so they would not look back decades later and recall events when they failed to be kind? “Mom, don’t worry. He is my friend.” Ethan hadn’t realized I was deep in thought. In that moment a wave of emotion washed through me. Somehow, in my commitment to raise our children to overcome the hurdles of being pre-judged based on their physical appearance (or mine), Ethan in particular (at eleven, more mature than his siblings) had already developed the ability to not care what others think about anything. Somehow, I have raised a son who has the same type of spirit that my childhood friend Liane had with me. He is ready to not only unconditionally accept himself and his difference, but also to spend time with people otherwise imperfect and/or unpopular.
If you are in Ethan’s shoes, learning what he has learned, true acts of kindness are inevitable. Failures of kindness are improbable. And, I expect his commencement speech will be empty of Saunders’ regret.