by Heather Reid
In my fifth grade class there was a new kid. He was the kind of kid who, even to my 11 year old mind, seemed to have the deck stacked against him. I clearly remember his fair complexion and his slightly long white-blond hair. He seemed slightly unkept and understandably quiet, and as if all of these superficial factors weren’t enough, he also had what could be considered a ‘girl’s name.’ I’ll just call him Tracy.
He arrived in our class part way through the year. He was an easy target. In the world of childhood, kids like Tracy seemed to attract all the negativity that their peers can muster. There was never spot in the cafeteria for him to sit during lunch, forcing him to wiggle his way on to edges and corners where his cafeteria tray would hang off the side precariously. He was picked last at our dusty kickball games, just because. He was tripped and jostled, ignored and taunted. Countless other little hells that the class put him through. That I put him through.
I was one of the mean kids.
In hindsight, I know that as a child I was blessed beyond my own comprehension. I was fed, clothed, housed, loved, nagged, bathed, worried about, scolded, tucked in, carpooled, noticed, entertained, read to and with, hugged, punished and listened to. And as a youth of such easy bounty with a big and loving family, I didn’t think about how lucky I was. For all I know, Tracy came from a wonderful home who simply moved around a lot. But I don’t know. I never got to know him.
I wasn’t the only mean kid, but as a smart kid with friends, food and family, I had nothing to lose by giving him a break. But I did nothing. Worse than nothing, I was mean, too. I never moved over to give him a seat, never showed him a kindness in any way, even though it would have cost me nothing and might have meant everything to this lonely boy.
He was only in our class for a few weeks, but I remember that he left a note with our teacher saying that of all the places he’d lived, this was the worst school he’d ever been in. I remember a pang of guilt and feeling a little ill. But in time the desks were rearranged and some other adolescent drama took its place in my mind and I also moved on. But I never forgot.
I recently heard a TED talk by political pundit and author Sally Kohn who recounted a similar incident in which she was the lead tormentor of a girl in her elementary school class. Decades later, Kohn also recalled in vivid detail the ways in which she singled out this child for derision. Kohn went on to research compassion and humanity and her TED lecture is about changing the culture of hate. Something in her immature brain must have known that it was wrong, even then, and she spent her adult life in search of answers to why we hate so virulently, and how to stop it.
It turned out that the victim of her abuse came out as a lesbian as an adult and did everything she could to leave her old identity behind, which is not surprising, given the statistics that show that 9 in 10 LBGT students report being bullied in the past year. The irony is that Ms. Kohn is also gay.
And it struck me that my cruelty toward Tracy was of a similar nature: The year before, in the fourth grade, I had been the new kid. I survived that awkward, lonely time, and by the next year I was probably just relieved that someone else was the new kid instead of me. So much so that all my insecurities came flooding out in cruel exploits. My lack of compassion sickens me now.
A documentary of Fred Rogers (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”) is coming soon to theaters. This film tells the story of this peaceful radical who, more than any television personality of modern times, was the personification of compassion and love. I watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child and was always comforted by his gentle nature. But sadly, I think it took until I was an adult, and more embarrassingly, an adult in my 30s, to realize the true power of compassion.
I came of age in the late 80s and early 90s, in the time of Gordon Gecko’s refrain of ‘Greed is good,’ and mantras of ‘Coffee is for closers.’ Icons of success were women who never smiled and had terrible social skills or men who literally stomped others to death. In my early professional life, I saw how sensitive, compassionate people were often seen as weak or even less intelligent than my brash, dispassionate colleagues. Sometimes those with less bold personalities were passed over as not having good ideas simply because they didn’t shout them out or crush someone else underfoot in the race to the top.
Later I began to see how having a compassionate, forgiving heart actually came from a place of strength, not weakness. It’s something I still struggle with, as the recovering Type-A parent of a sensitive child. I want him to stand up for himself and to be strong, but I hope he’s able to keep his kind and peaceful nature without being trampled.
I have been thinking about Tracy a lot lately.
I hope that he went on to a place where he was given the respect and kindness that he and everyone deserves. Like Kohn, I would like to apologize but Tracy doesn’t owe me anything, especially forgiveness. I hope he never wasted his time thinking of us, of me. I could have stopped it, I could have at least made it better. I should have, but I didn’t. He deserved to be treated better. With compassion and kindness. I hope he found it. It was brave of him to let us know what we had done. I remembered that lesson.
Former neo-Nazi skinhead gang leader turned peace activist Christian Picciolini says, “Hatred is born of ignorance. Fear is its father, and isolation is its mother.” In a time of such public displays of ignorance and hate, it’s clear that fear fuels so much rhetoric. It’s quite one thing to be an ignorant child, afraid and trying to fit in. It’s quite another to spout hatred in a public forum, as an adult, or even worse, as an adult in a position of immense power, clearly fueled by a life of isolation and fear, terrified of those who show insight, intelligence and who seek connection.
There’s no excuse for that, and there’s no reason we should sit by and let it happen. I’m glad to see the world stand up against bullies in public forums everywhere. Its starts young, but it can end young, too. And it’s never to late to change. To grow up. To learn to love.
This essay also appears at heatherreidwrites.com.