Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Kindness instead of cruelty

Many years ago, when I was in first or second grade, I witnessed an ugly scene.

It was in the golden days, when elementary-aged school children were released en masse onto a playground and permitted to roam freely all over the place, even with no fences and semi-thick woods crowding the borders of the designated play area. Those were the good ol' days, when recess sometimes featured absolutely unsafe snow tubing (I lost one of my front teeth and never recovered it on a snowy hill), and some of the regular playground structures were a vomit-inducing merry-go-round and the fracture-encouraging monkey bars... But I digress.

So we all flooded the playground one day, and ran like crazy children to our favorite haunts. I couldn't help noticing a group of kids huddled in a semi-circle on one side of the basketball court, all looking in the same general direction. I wandered over to see what was the fuss (I'd never been fast enough to secure a swing right away, anyway).

There was a boy in the middle of that cluster, probably my age or a year older, and next to him was a girl. There was nothing spectacular about either one of them, until I noticed something unusual on the boy: one of his hands, and the same arm from elbow to wrist, was under-developed. It was very small, like a young toddler's hand and arm. The deformity was noticeable, and the poor boy was being teased mercilessly. I don't recall what was being said; I only remember his frightened, ashen face and choppily cut hair. And his silence.

The girl who stood with him was apparently his friend, and was telling the other kids to leave him alone. At one point, as the crowd pushed in too close, she picked up his arm and swatted at them with the offending tiny hand. The kids all crushed back upon each other, away from that hand, as if something so small and innocent could harm them.

I only witnessed that moment, perhaps 30 seconds of the entire event, and I don't know how long it took for the group to scatter because when they all leaned away from the hand, I turned and walked away, feeling sick. I've never forgotten that boy, his loyal friend, and the reaction of the crowd of children. Where were the teachers? Why was this poor kid left vulnerable to a bunch of young, insensitive playmates?

I wonder where he is now, and what sorts of scars that incident, and countless others, left on his soul. I wonder if teacher defenders would have made it better for him, or worse. I wonder what became of him when he grew to adulthood and found, with utter disappointment, that many grown-ups respond the same way those children did. (See here.)

I really wonder more than most, I suppose, because my sweet little boy has a slight deformity on his left hand. When he was just born, and I was lying there thanking God that he was out, that he was a boy like his dad had wanted, that I was still alive somehow after that ordeal (I suppose all those thoughts are pretty normal for a woman who's just finished birthing a kid), one of the doctors called Todd over to the exam table and explained that our son was missing approximately the last knuckle of three of his fingers on one hand. I heard this exchange as if in a fog, thanks to the many drugs I'd been given to prevent seizures, but I did hear it and the news did register.

It didn't really hit me, though, until my sweet little guy was starting to spend time with other children consistently. Would the kids in Sunday school notice his fingers? Would the others at preschool have unkind things to say about that hand? Would my darling boy whom I love so much ever face a crowd of curious, cruel children pinning him into a corner?

I think the answer is yes, but I also think that answer applies to most kids at some point. Marcus is nearly 4 now, and he's never mentioned his fingers. I'm prayerfully hopeful that his lack of concern mirrors the lack of attention that hand gets. It's not a terribly noticeable disfigurement, and it's never slowed him down one whit. But I worry. I still worry. He's the dearest thing to me; how could I not?

The weird thing about it all is this: at the same time I was trying to convince Todd that I was the one for him and he should propose marriage, his best friend was dying of cancer. A quick, unexpected death, a death that none of us could possibly have prepared for. That best friend died before we ever married. He died well before Marcus was conceived or born. He never met the little boy whose middle name was chosen in his honor. But perhaps the best friend knew him? Perhaps? Because, you see, that best friend lost, in a work accident, the end knuckles from his last three fingers.

The same three fingers.

Not the same hand. But I'm not grasping at detailed straws here. I believe there are no coincidences.

I don't know what it all means. I won't pretend to know. But when I worry too much about that hand, and my boy, I remember the friend who bore the same short fingers. And I know it means something. I just hope it all's explained to me someday.

In the meantime, let's all be nice to everybody. EVERYbody.


Facie said...

Wow. I believe, in some ways, that everyone who is born is meant to take the place (not literally, and certainly no one can really take someone else's place) of someone else. So I think it means something.

As for kids teasing others, I have been on both ends. I remember teasing my friend with a patch over her eye when we were 4, even though my mom told me not to. I have never forgotten that because that was just not something I normally did and I knew it was wrong. I don't I have ever done it (made fun of someone with a physical or mental imperfection) since.

I tell Jordan over and over that God made all of us special and different. So far, I think she is on the right path, but others have certainly been mean to her. Children reap what they sow, and you just know that some parents openly make fun of others, sadly. But as bad is that kids want to belong, so many of them will jump on the bandwagon, even if that is not their normal nature.

Anonymous said...

How awful is that British debate? Instead of using it as a lesson to teach children that some people are different -- and that's OK -- parents are complaining? It's disgraceful.

Mike is also missing the tip of one finger on his right hand from a childhood accident. I hadn't even noticed it when he pointed it out to me, saying "You'll probably notice this at some point..." Maybe when Marcus is older he will be able to diffuse any comments in this way.

But really, this is where parents (and teachers) have to step up and teach kids right and wrong. Sad that it often doesn't happen.

Mel said...

hi gals. yes, sad when adults don't rise to the occasion (and I use the word adult loosely). we just have to do the best we can to influence folks around us (little and otherwise) and hope that we can impact someone positively.

Anonymous said...

I have told that story to many close family and friends, and I whole-heartedly believe right along with you that there is no coincidence there. It gives me the chills just thinking about it. WE MISS YOU DAVID...