Is this the "Worst" Disability?
Or simply the most prevalent? I'm talking about what some days feels to me like a crippling lack of civility in our culture. What makes it so difficult to intervene when someone is distressed, to offer kindness in a situation where such a gesture is badly needed? And why is it so easy, and sometimes even fun, to do otherwise? Those are some of the thoughts raised in my mind lately.
By now, most folks have heard the story of the bus monitor, Karen Klein, who was relentlessly harassed to tears by middle schoolers for a full ten-minute recorded period of time.
Here’s the story if you missed it, as well as the heartbreaking footage at the bottom of the page:
There have been “lukewarm” apologies from a couple of the kids involved along with some parental regret expressed. Karen is hoping her ten minutes of fame will permit her to remind everyone about the importance of civility – of the significance of it in our everyday interactions, of modeling it for our young people.
Watching Karen’s ordeal brought to mind my own horrid experience in middle school, and the times I went along with other kids to try to get them to like me. I was the tall, overweight, pimply kid with glasses, wearing ill-fitting plastic shoes on her big feet along with her grandmother’s hand-me-downs or her father’s shirts, trying really hard not to be too intelligent - too anything. I happened to resemble an unpopular, overweight teacher and was often called by her name. I bribed the boys in Mr. Beckmann’s class with sticks of gum to leave me alone, happy they settled so I could experience at least one class period of the day in relative peace. Daily, I wished I were invisible, and at least one afternoon I recall wishing I were dead. What was wrong with me? What made other people so right, and me so wrong about who I was?
Here’s where the story goes a bit awry, and I get caught up in groupthink myself, which is possibly what happened on the bus during Karen’s fateful ride. I liked English class because words on paper were a private matter, and I got to write a lot of them for my teacher’s approval. I worked hard for her and got good grades. One class assignment was for us all to make up our own myths, along the lines of ancient Greek stories. After we submitted our essays, the instructor asked us to make a book of them to show off at an upcoming public event.
What should the title be? She asked. Several classmates offered options, decent ones, as she wrote them on the board. Then the most popular boy and one of the worst students of the class, Lenny, was asked what he thought could be a good title. He leaned back to stare thoughtfully at the ceiling, then rested his face on his hand as he pondered.
“Uh…Legendary….hmmm…Legends…” The class fell silent until Lenny straightened at the moment of inspiration. “Of Myths!” he shouted. “Perfect…Legendary Legends of Myths!”
Dutifully the teacher put his offering on the board with the other suggestions. And then we voted. You already know how this ends. Lenny’s suggestion, the last and worst, won by unanimous vote, and yes, he got my vote, too. Our poor instructor had no choice.
At the time, I knew better, but I did not do better. I didn’t hurt anyone or anything in my decision, but I compromised my sense of what was right as well as my respect for language. It was, then, a self-betrayal. What did I get in return? For a brief moment I was able to accomplish something in unison with my peer group in a situation where my vote would have been as insignificant as I felt myself to be. In the end it brought nothing but frustration over that stupid title, and all the memories associated with it.
Back to the bus monitor story. I thought a lot about the kids who’d banded together to do such violence to Karen emotionally. I wondered what they’d been told about themselves as each matured (or didn’t). There are no excuses for what the kids did; but they went so far beyond the bounds of civility and humanity that I wonder what they had or had not been given by their parents and families by way of love, approval, basic life instruction, modeling, etc. I wonder if others had been unkind or cutting to them, or if any of them had been hurt so much as to be numbed.
Again, no excuse – just something to think about.
On another, even more personal news note for me, a “standout” high school student and football player named Billy, from the community where I used to live, committed suicide last week and was buried last Monday. There had been no obvious indications anything was amiss; folks remember his family and he as selfless, giving, wonderful people. My sons had gone to school with Billy’s sisters, and as I always say, all kids growing up together in a community are “ours.” We’ll never know why this happened, but his parents asked in his obituary:
In Billy's memory, please extend an act of kindness to another.
I am going to do as his grieving parents asked, to mark the significance of Billy’s life and human life. Their suggestion doesn’t bring their boy back, but offers hope of some counteraction to all the terrible acts we have witnessed - or borne - ourselves.