“It is an absolute human certainty that no one can know his own beauty or perceive a sense of his own worth until it has been reflected back to him in the mirror of another loving, caring human being.” –John Joseph Powell
“Why are you crying, Becky?” I had just left the monkey bars and was walking back after hearing the recess bell chime loudly, beckoning all of us 1st graders to return to our classrooms. A gymnast at heart, if not in body, I loved to play on the monkey bars on the Yankee Ridge school playground. Anyone staring at my one-fingered hands and shortened forearms would likely have presumed that I couldn’t form a good grip. Yet since the age of three and my first time on the monkey bars at Hessel playground, a local park in Champaign, Illinois, I have been taking seemingly impossible dilemmas and finding solutions. After several attempts where my small hands failed me, I realized that by wrapping my arms and elbows around the bars, I could hang and play on the bars like the other little girls….only differently.
Back on the Yankee Ridge playground, Becky had been sitting on a bench near a tree and I hadn’t noticed her until that moment. She and I had been in the same Kindergarten class the prior year, but I hadn’t seen her much since the school year had began. She turned to me, eyes red. “I just got glasses. Didn’t you notice?” I actually hadn’t, but still wanted to know what was the matter. “They look pretty on you,” I replied with a pause. “What’s wrong? Why are you crying?”
In response, Becky began to cry harder, worried everyone would call her “four eyes” like they did to her older brother when he got glasses a couple of years before. I did my best to make her feel better. Becky walked with her head down, tears still streaming down her cheeks. My efforts to cheer her up were fruitless. Although I was too immature to articulate my own feelings, it was startling to me to realize that something which seemed like nothing—like wearing glasses– could bother another kid so much. However, I knew what it was like to feel sad about something about my body, so I continued to try since comforting Becky came naturally to me.
Christmas week is always fascinating to me since, as a Jewish woman, it is the only season when I feel like somewhat of an outsider…I feel different than the majority of people for a reason that has nothing to do with missing fingers or toes. There is no question I think all the colorful lights and festivities are beautiful. But with Chanukah come and gone, I must admit that every time someone warmly says, “Merry Christmas” to me, and I reply, “And the same to you,” I feel a bit like I am an imposter. And what if they knew I didn’t celebrate this holiday? I presume they would adjust the greeting to a “Happy Holidays.” However, it isn’t worth (either of our time) for me to point it out.
And so, with so many wishing me good tidings for the holiday, on a quiet evening after work this week, I decided to try to get a better understanding of the meaning of “Christmas Spirit.” Sorting from among the standard symbols – the decorative trees, window designs, television specials and holiday cards, I searched for articles and stories with meaning. It was then I came across a quote from anxious parents who on December 25th annually ask the same question of their kids, “So….did you get what you want?” That comment made me think a lot about humanity and who we all are as a community. What is it that we actually all want? And is that really the right question? The search for the spirit had me wondering if the real question is whether we are getting what we need?
Sure presents are fun (and that includes my own three kids during Chanukah). But while recently promoting the 4th grade Don’t Hide It Flaunt It ‘Kids Flaunt’ contest in schools it occurred to me that I have been spending time teaching my own children and other kids about experiencing another type of spirit–that in fact they should strive to be Kindred Spirits, more alike than they all realize.
I always began my presentations the same way to the kids. “Who among you thinks of yourself as different?” Except for a few including my own one-fingered hands, all hands remain down. I then reinforced the notion of how we all have visible and invisible differences. On one occasion, our daughter Savanna joined me for a presentation at the Daly
School in Port Washington, New York. There, Savanna’s hand shot up and she happily used herself as an example of being different. I noted the reaction of the other students to my blond haired, blue -eyed daughter. It was if I could read the thought bubbles over their heads, “She couldn’t possibly have a difference!” She had recently learned that she needed glasses and pointed out that when she received her pair this was going to be her first visible difference. She then described her nut allergies and the fact she was adopted –these were the invisible differences that she’d had “forever.” During the presentation, we gave other examples of invisible differences, such as religion, having an accent, having attention deficit disorder or being deaf. We also provided the Peacock sheet from the same Kids Flaunt contest and asked students to interview one another. On each tall peacock feather they’d write down the obvious visible differences they detected in each other, but then each would share their invisible differences as well.
My heart swelled when our discussion prompted a few kids to get up and ask their teachers if they could read their own Kids Flaunt essays aloud in front of their entire grade! One boy named Ian read to fellow students about his Chinese heritage. Another girl named Rachel read her own Kids Flaunt to her fellow students that her “visible difference was the glasses she wore and her invisible difference was that she had a mood disorder.” There were also a few children who were at first unwilling to come up to read their pieces and asked me to do so for them. However, upon seeing the positive reaction from their peers after I finished, they chose to stand and acknowledge their authorship.
And so, this season, whatever holiday we may be celebrating, and after all the presents have been opened and enjoyed, my hope is that we help our children become Kindred Spirits–by giving them the gift of discovering and feeling empathy for one another.
At the end of each presentation, I thank all the students for sharing their own differences and conclude by asking once again who among them now thinks of themselves as different? Invariably I ultimately get a full show of hands.