“Did you see what she was wearing? What a total loser! And look how her belly sticks out. She looks like a cow!” I had been standing with my friend Beth and a group of girls we had met in our art class earlier that week at a “Back to School” 8th grade dance. Beth had known one of them for years from church, which is how we were accepted automatically. One of the girls had made the outburst while the others began to snicker, laugh and point together. They glanced at me, waiting to see what I would do, so I feigned a grin, slowly raised my one-fingered hand to point.
Before the dance, I had gone to Beth’s to help her decide what to wear. My own fashion choices were always limited to pants or if I could wear a dress, my only choice was to wear white socks and sneakers due to my misshapen feet. I enjoyed the short skirts vicariously through my friends. That night I wore a pair of new Jordache jeans and my favorite light lavender sweater. Earlier that morning, despite my dad’s effort to polish my small, brown oddly-shaped custom-made “moon boots,” there was no denying that my shoes always ruined the cutest outfits. I chose not to think about my feet and shoes since it always depressed me. Instead, I turned my energy and excitement to dressing Beth.
And so, the irony and ridiculousness of my pointing to the other girl’s imperfections at the dance did not escape me. To me, she looked perfect wearing a cute red halter-top sundress with matching sandals and ironically, I wished I could’ve worn her clothes. But there I was, having just returned from living abroad in Cairo for a year, and I was desperate to fit back in with the local American girls…even if it meant being a hypocrite and going along with their pettiness and cruelty.
“You is kind, You is smart, You is important.” The message came from a nanny, Aibileen, one of the main characters in the film, “The Help”, as she spoke to the four-year-old girl she cared for. It was already 11:00 AM on a weekday but John, the kids and I were still in our pajamas covered in blankets, snuggled up all together. Our morning routine had been hijacked by an unexpected ice-storm. Although my kids didn’t necessarily grasp every aspect of the film’s story about gross racial inequalities in the South during the early Civil Rights era, they still enjoyed many elements of the film. In particular, they picked up on the way the maids were being treated horribly by the white housewives, forced even to use an outdoor separate toilet. They also cackled uncontrollably at the “poo-pie,” scene as they labeled it, when the protagonist maid, Minnie, treated her former boss and nemesis to a special home-made pie.
Later that afternoon we discussed the film, emphasizing the mantra Aibileen repeated to the little girl every day. Ethan turned to me and asked an unexpected question. “Mom, have you always been kind?” I hesitated, wishing his question away. Instead, I decided in the best interest of all three, I would be honest. “Not always E. There were times, especially growing up when I was your age that I succumbed to peer pressure. Not that I was ever the instigator, but I found myself going along with the crowd, even at the expense of others. I’ve always regretted that behavior.”
Recently, I witnessed a scenario that I shouldn’t have been shocked to see, but nonetheless it bothered me deeply. A middle-school-age boy took unexpectedly ill and fainted at an event where a bunch of other boys his age were present. After he left with a parent, I noted several boys laughing together about the incident. “Did you see him?” One said aloud while the others chortle. He continued. “If he comes back, I bet he’ll just make a fool of himself all over again.” I looked over at the group of them and in that moment wished that my glare could make them stop. But it continued for awhile, all unbeknownst to the innocent thirteen-year-old who, as it turned out, was simply dehydrated that morning. As I watched those boys snicker, I couldn’t help but wonder how their parents might have reacted if they had seen their sons’ behavior.
That evening, I remained bothered on multiple levels. As the mother of children who look so blatantly different than their peers, I pondered why certain kids and teens are willing, even eager, to make fun of others. In this case it was behind the other boy’s back, yet there are those that don’t hold back regardless of whether the ‘victim’ is present or not. Ironically, today with all of the uber-sensitivity to bullying, our finger and toe-challenged sons are probably safer than others. As a close friend of mine once put it when I shared some anxiety before Ethan was entering middle school, “Don’t worry, Meg. No one these days makes fun of the one-fingered kid.” The comment gave me a mixture of relief and sadness.
That night, I noted an article in the media about Chad Morrisette, now 34, who was picked on and bullied since the sixth grade. Morrisette was moved when he received an unexpected message in Facebook from Louie Amundson, someone he knew back in school growing up. Amundsonapologized for his taunting and cruelty so many years before. “I was one of maybe two gay guys who were obviously gay. Our demeanors made us visibly, noticeably different than everyone….it wasn’t just Louie who bullied me. It was almost every other guy in the school. There were times I’d walk down the hallway and groups of guys would follow me, threaten me, humiliate me, push me,” he said.
What caught my attention perhaps the most was what inspired Amundson to reach out to Morrisette. In his note, Amundson explained that the apology originated from a talk he had about bullying with his 10-year-old daughter. “She asked me if I ever bullied anyone and sadly I had to say, ‘yes.'” I hope it shows that people can change, that life can change. Being bullied is not an excuse to bully someone else, and you can’t change the past. You can only control your actions today,” he said.
Reflecting further on the article, and what I had witnessed earlier in the day from those boys, I remembered Aibileen’s message from The Help. As a parent, it is not only up to me to remind my children to be kind, it is critical I be truthful. I need not only to describe my own past behavior, but also explain exactly why I have any regrets. I want to convey that if we are fortunate we are smart or important. But being kind is always a choice.