Would Orlando have happened had the shooter heard the letter?
I remember it very clearly. It was slightly darker than normal, and it was patchy, maybe even flaky. It looked like dirt, and was all over the child’s neck. It went far from unnoticed. The child had short hair, and, as with anything in plain sight, seems to draw the attention of children. Some classmates were verbally abusive, others glared. Me? I’ll get to that.
Every single day, this brave child came to school with that flaky, “dirty” neck, and I’m guessing not a day went by the child wasn’t teased. Anything–so much as a smidgen–out of the range of “normal” fueled that fire. What exactly was normal? I’m sure we were experts.
The child was one of several in their family, and times were tough among the lower middle class with one parent working, one at home. Everyone knew their family struggled. The knowledge wasn’t lost at school; we all knew.
The child had few friends, and about that I feel awful; I know with certainty I did not go out of my way to befriend this child. None of us made much effort. The child had a speech impediment. I wondered later if fourth graders could cause it, given the incessant teasing.
Yet, in spite of what the child endured, there was a certain sweetness. Mild mannered, polite, kind, and docile easily come to mind when thinking of the child’s personality. The child never fought back and wasn’t aggressive; the child took it, day after day.
And so went fourth grade, until the day everything changed, a day I’ll never forget.
The teacher called our attention. As we sat at our desks, face forward, she began reading from a paper she held in her hand. Soon we were all looking at the child. It was a letter to all of us from the child’s mother. The teacher used a calm voice, read its message without malice or threats. The mother wanted us to know that the patchy area on her child’s neck was a skin irritation, something that could not be removed, or washed off, that it was, in fact, NOT DIRT.
It was a non-contagious skin disorder.
I remember looking around the room. I saw sheepish faces, humiliation, regret. You know the look. The air was still, the room silent. No one breathed; no one moved. We each and every one felt horrible (as we should have, no question). I looked at the child. There was no smugness, no air, no haughtiness. That could have been the child’s one moment to get us back, to smirk and give us what we deserved. It could have been the child’s one, well deserved moment of nanner-nanner glory. I braced myself, figured the others did, too.
I’ll never forget what I saw next.
The child sat perfectly still as the letter came to an end. The child did not move a muscle, eyes were straight ahead. And, in that moment I learned something about the human spirit. After all the teasing and foul remarks–day after day, week after week–there was no hate. There was only love. The child simply wanted to be accepted, to be loved as we already loved and accepted each other.
And, there it is. The one single thing, the ultimate desire of any child, “normal” or not, to be accepted, loved, and treated like everyone else, had been denied.
What had been my part? What had I done? Before the letter, I’d caught the child staring at me. I began to notice it with regularity, then it was day after day. At the time, it never entered my mind, but maybe the child sensed I could be a friend, an ally. I, too, was quiet, always kept to myself.
The staring occurred so often it was unnerving. You know that feeling when you make eye contact with someone you don’t know, and then it happens again, and again? It is very uncomfortable and I had no idea what to do. I didn’t have the smarts to ask my parents or the teacher (arguably, in a 10 year old mind, that is forgivable). Eventually, the staring stopped. I never hurled an insult and I hadn’t overtly teased. Maybe my crime was assuming something was wrong with the child because something didn’t look right. I’d followed the crowd. I am ashamed.
Why does this matter? It matters a great deal. Somewhere along the line we have forgotten, or never learned, how to accept one another. Why does what happens in grade school matter? If we don’t learn it there when we first become social beings, when we meet new people, we may never learn tolerance, acceptance, and what makes others interesting.
It matters because of Orlando. It matters because something went horribly wrong in the shooter’s life, something horrific, that steered him toward violence. He may have been having trouble accepting that he identified with a particular group (it appears the jury is still out), or maybe he didn’t know (or see enough examples of) kind children and adults during his formative years. From what I gather, profiling these shooters is complicated as there are many variables that factor in. Regardless, I can’t help but wonder what his growing up years were like, if he had enough positive role models, someone to tell him he was accepted but when certain behaviors were not.
I wish the shooter had been in my fourth grade class. I wish he’d heard that letter. He would have heard love. He would have heard acceptance. He would have seen what a mother did for her child. He would have seen a kind, astute teacher teach that moment, that she seized on it, knew its priceless value. He would have seen the shame.
He would have realized that not everyone fits into a perfectly normal category (whatever that is). He would have learned the value of difference, that being different is absolutely OK.
Kindness, manners, and a simple please and thank you go a very, very long way. Let us find those teaching moments and not be afraid to speak up for what is right. Kindness and respect breed acceptance and tolerance. I am grateful for the loving mother and the giving teacher. I am grateful I was in the child’s class.
My heart is heavy as I watch the news, it heart breaks for the grieving families trying to make sense out of a horrific act in this, our troubled nation. Let us all do better.
❤ Love to those in Orlando. ❤