The Little Me Smiles

One of the bittersweet parts of working at the elementary school is that I get to be confronted with memories of my own elementary (middle, junior high and high school) days everyday.  Bitter, because I have to admit that school was pretty traumatic for me, and sweet because I get to feel like maybe I’m able to make a small difference in some of these kids’ lives.

I’m at school for two hours before I  sit down and actually teach a reading group.  From 10:30 until 12:30, I help to wrangle the kids through the cafeteria and then go with them out to the playground for their recess. There’s a ton of playground equipment out there but I wish I could afford to buy them some balls, jump-robes and Frisbees.  Some of the kids just walk around aimlessly until the bell rings and it’s time for them to go back to class.  I’ve tried to encourage them to see how many pull-ups they can do or how many times they can swing around the bar or if they can make it all the way to the other end of the monkey bars, hand-over-hand without dropping.  Can you believe they only have organized P.E. once a week in public elementary schools these days?  No wonder so many of the kids are overweight.  Anyway, that’s another blog for another day.

Today in the cafeteria, I heard a ruckus down at the end of table #1.  When I got down there I said, “What’s going on down here ladies and gentlemen?!”  Eight index fingers appeared at once and they were all pointing at someone else.  One boy did not point.  He just looked down at his half-eaten salad (he’s a little overweight and something tells me he knows it) and tried to keep his lip from quivering.  “Well?!”  I prompted.  Then the  eight started talking all at once about who had been the most mean to the crying boy.  I wasn’t in the mood to hear witnesses from the prosecution or the defense.  I shifted fast into stern and serious mode.  Something about making the 6’5” Marine unhappy get’s their attention.  Even if I am the guy they seem to love most of the time.  “Stop being mean to each other!  I’m about tired of it!  Come with me little man.”  I took the emotionally injured boy to an empty table where he could have a little more of his chocolate milk and we could visit.

“Now, why you cryin’ lil bro?”

“Th-th-they’re mean to me.”

“Really? How are they mean to you?”
“They laugh at me and call me names.” He pushed a cherry tomato around with his plastic fork.

“That’s great!” I said as if he’d just told me the tooth fairy had left him $100.  That got his attention.  He looked at me as if he thought I hadn’t heard him correctly; that or I’d gone insane.  How could their calling him names and making fun of him possibly be “great?”

“They did me too!  I mean the kids in my school when I was your age.  Oh I hated to go to school.  But you know what?  I hung in there and stuck it out and now that I’m an adult… I can see how awesome a kid I really was.  And you’re an awesome kid too.  There is nothing wrong with you!  When other kids laugh at you and call you names, there’s something wrong with them not you! What sort of things do you like to do?”

“I like to do art.” He seemed a little ashamed to admit it. (I shoulda seen that one coming.)

“Me too!” I told him.  This seem to turn on some kind of light in his eyes.  “I love all kinds of artistic things.  I did when I was your age too!  But I wasn’t very good at sports.  Do you like to play sports?”

“I like to do art.”  he repeated, this time a litter prouder of the fact.

“Yeah, and that’s a great thing.  The world needs more artistic people.”

We sat their in comfortable silence for a few more minutes, kindred spirits who understand what it’s like to be people like us.

“You ready to out and play with the other students?”

“You go with me?”  he asked.

“You betcha, kid.” And I wanted to add “to the end of the world.”

So if you’re someone who knows what it’s like to be bullied, someone who’s been on the other end of the name calling, the physical threats, the general unkindness that most often goes with being “different” in some way—even if you’re all grown up now, let me say that I understand.  And I am so sorry for all the pain you’ve had to endure.  But if you can look at it this way for just a second, your experience can benefit others and move us all forward (if only just a little bit) when you reach out to a younger version of yourself and make it better for them.  What happens for me when I get to have a talk with a kid about how wonderful it is to be different, is that it’s like time travel.  I actually do get to go back to 1977 and tell the 12 year-old Jeff, “You know what Honey?  You hang in there.  You’re gonna be just fine… And these redneck fools are going to be stuck selling trailers.”

And somewhere deep inside me, the little me smiles.

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