Can I Sit with You?

School Nurse
December 18, 2007, 6:55 am
Filed under: Canada, elementary school, kindness, self esteem, stories

Ken Putnam
Fourth Grade

In 1959, I was in grade four at Brentwood Park Elementary School in Burnaby, British Columbia. I was not a bright student; far from it. One day, while I was trying my best to avoid a question from the teacher, the PA system came on. It was the school secretary, summoning me to the nurse’s office. The school nurse was a nice lady, and since I did not feel sick and other kids got called to see the nurse all the time, I was not at all concerned.

When I knocked on the nurse’s door, a male voice said, “Come in.” I went in, and was met by a really old man — probably around forty years old — who introduced himself as Doctor Someone. The good doctor wore a light scruffy beard, thick glasses with large black rims, a plaid sports jacket, and of course a tie. On the desk was a pipe, because this was back when most adults smoked just about everywhere.

The doctor asked me some questions: “Ken, do you have brothers and sisters?” “Where do you live?” What’s your favorite colour?” “Do you have a pet?” I answered all the questions to the best of my grade four ability and was feeling pretty good about the whole deal. At least here I could get some answers right, not like in the classroom.

Then he hit me with the big one: “Ken, I’m going to give you some coloured pencils and I would like you to draw me a picture of a man.” I began to panic. Fear froze me. I couldn’t draw a straight line, let alone a picture of a man. He told me he was going to leave the room and come back in about 10 minutes. He left. I wanted to jump out the window. I had no idea why this guy wanted me to draw a picture of a man. What had I done? Why was this happening to me?

I did know one thing: the results of my artistic endeavors were going to be very very important to my future. A pass or fail on my drawing would no doubt be the catalyst for something great or terrible. I picked up the green pencil, then the red, followed by blue and yellow. My brush-cut head was wet from sweat, and my fingers sore from squeezing the pencil so hard. My little brain was roaring at 1000 MPH.

The door opened and back in came the doctor: “Well, how did we make out, Ken?”

“Okay, I guess,” I said, and I handed him my picture. A slow smile came across his face and then a soft chuckle. He put down the picture, looked me eye and said, “You know Ken, I don’t think there is anything wrong with you at all, you’re going to be just fine.”

The doctor was right. I’m 58 years old now. In 2005 I retired after 34 years with the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] and now work for Yukon Department of Justice. And the picture? Well, I drew the Doctor: complete with his pipe, plaid jacket, glasses, and beard.


Schooltime Story
December 3, 2007, 8:01 am
Filed under: cruelty, elementary school, fitting in, race, self esteem, yearbook

by Mariann Vlacilek
Fifth Grade

Back in grade school, in Huntington Beach, California (in the 1940s), I felt so out of place, plain and unnoticed. I was very thin, and olive complected with long, straight, dark hair plus I felt like I was all arms and legs. I was born in Panama and my mother was Castilian and French, ergo the complexion that is now called “Mediterranean.” I grew to envy all the girls at school with light skin and blue or green eyes. One girl in particular had red hair and green eyes, and I though she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

Sometimes, I was mistaken for another race and even called by a racial slur. At one point, this actually led to an altercation in the nurse’s office. I am a very laid-back person but enough was enough! This was so very hurtful and damaging to me and I became even more self-conscious, and suffered a great loss of self-confidence.

It was a custom at my school that members of the graduating class would compile a list of underclassmen’s traits that they admired and would like to have, and then publish it in the yearbook. Imagine my utter amazement and disbelief when my name appeared on their list not once but twice — it had been unanimously voted that I had the most beautiful eyes and hands! Me … the fifth grader with the long dark hair and olive skin. ME!

This was somewhat of a turning point for me. It made me realize that I wasn’t an unnoticed nobody, and that there was something of me that was admirable. I should have learned from this, but the previous hurts were so deeply embedded that I bottled them up inside me, for years.

I didn’t fully realize the lesson of being listed in the yearbook at the time. It didn’t hit me until some thirty years later, when I looked in the mirror one day, and that little girl seemed to reflect back at me. At that moment I learned from her that, although thought of as pretty, I was also someone of value. That changed my life.

Every so often, I think back and am once again thankful and amazed that these “older” girls actually wanted something of mine that they didn’t and couldn’t have!

It Happened Several Years Ago

But it’s still something that brings tears to my eyes and inspires me when I’m feeling low.

by Jessica of Kerflop and Flawed but Authentic
High School

The public schools I attended from 6th grade to 12th grade had amazing special education programs for children with various handicaps. Children with Cerebral Palsy, Down syndrome, Autism, and more participated in “mainstream” programs that placed them along side the rest of us in classes like gym, Biology, History, and more. As a result, I grew up with a fairly mature slice of the adolescent population. I never heard anyone with a disability get teased or made fun of. Popular girls and guys joked with the special ed kids in the halls, walked with them to and from class, and volunteered as aides in their homerooms.

I was very close friends with a darling girl named Vanessa who had Downs. She made us a “Best Friends Forever” wallet card that I still have in my keepsake box. I was proud to see Jeff, another boy with Downs working at a local big box store a few years after we graduated. He would ride the bus and ask me if my friend Amy was willing to marry him yet.

Three years after I graduated from Murray High School, my little sister was a Senior and a finalist for Homecoming Queen. Among the 10 Homecoming Queen finalists were two girls with disabilities. Shellie Eyre had Down syndrome, April Perschon suffered from physical and mentail disabilities due to a brain hemorrhage she had in her childhood. Since special education students usually stay for a few extra years, I too knew Shellie when I attended Murray High.

The finalists were escorted out to the gym floor by their fathers or dates. When Shellie and April walked out, the crowd rose to its feet, cheering and clapping.

Shellie’s parents tried to prepare her for the possibility of not winning, but it was unnecessary. Murray High School crowned an adorable little plump girl with Down syndrome their 1997 Homecoming Queen that night. And you know what? There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience.

Kids can be so cruel. The movies and media that show the popular kids regularly mocking and ostracizing the “losers” isn’t that far off the mark. But stories like this do my soul good. Kids can be mature, responsible, caring human beings. I’ll never forget Shellie’s little face, beaming beneath her sparkly crown. April’s too, as she was crowned an attendant.

Whenever I feel like all of the terrible things that happen in the world seem to be winning, I just open my old sheet of newspaper and read the whole story again. Hope in humanity makes everything feel better.

My Right Toe
November 11, 2007, 4:56 pm
Filed under: peer pressure, popular crowd, self esteem

by Eric Thomas
Age 12 at the time

Steve Ramirez was cool. Even as a sixth grader he could dance and play any sport well, make people laugh, and talk to girls without nausea. In other words, he was the polar opposite of me.

He broke his toe playing football in his front yard with other cool kids, and was in crutches for a few weeks. At school, his injury made him shine even brighter. Teachers and students alike wanted to carry his books while he crutched from class to class. Everyone asked him how he hurt himself, when he would get the cast off, did it hurt or itch.

I wasn’t jealous of him. I didn’t dislike or resent him. I liked him as much as everyone else.

A few weeks after Steve was off the crutches, I lay on my stomach on the floor of my room, kicking my right toe against the floor as hard as I could stand. I was trying to break my own toe. I kicked harder and harder, but stopped when it was clear that I didn’t have the will to do any real damage.

As silly as it seems now, it seemed like a reasonable sacrifice to make in order to make a few friends.

Sunday Short: Left Out
November 4, 2007, 5:07 pm
Filed under: bully, cruelty, Jesus, popular crowd, religion, self esteem, sunday school, supportive parents

by Victoria Davis
Age 11 at the time

The little girl sat at the edge of the classroom — sensing the excitement but knowing her only form of participation could be observation. Squeals of delight came from the popular corner as white and pink tissue paper flew from the gift boxes wrapped in lots of curly ribbon.

Oh, she would get a gift too. But if she squealed it would be met with ridicule and various mimicking of whatever sound she made.

No, life was better for her if she was invisible. Teachers were oblivious or chose to tune out her peer-enforced solitude.

She loved people. She loved to tell jokes and laugh. But right now in this classroom — she was the only joke. What would she do wrong today? Oh, it would be something.

And she’d see these girls at church again on Sunday with their curls, angelic smiles, and stockings, looking like the apples of their moms’ eyes. Not saying anything, they would steal glances at one another as she spoke up in Sunday School — oh, what fun they’d have tomorrow about this lesson!

And yet, there was one place she could go with complete acceptance. Her mother and father adored her and enveloped her in their respect, love, and care the moment she came home.

And — in her room at night — she’d open her Bible and read of her Saviour. He was a “man of sorrows.” Enemies hung on his every word looking for their next point of contention with him. This man — this Jesus — knew what it felt like to be alone, to be made fun of even in church. To be left out and not fit in. He understands. He knows.

And snuggled under her covers beside a small lamp in the darkness, they met in conversation, talked about their day, and became best friends.

Sunday Short: Fish Face

by elswhere
Age 13 at the time

I was a nerd in junior high school, but my friend A. was even worse off. She was new in town, she wore weird clothes, and her family didn’t have any money. She looked funny, too; all the kids called her “fish face.”

In spite of these strikes against her, A. was mysteriously self-confident. In 8th grade, she decided to run for Student Council vice-president. I was aghast: everyone knew Student Council was just a popularity contest, and A. was anything but popular. What was she thinking?!

But A. didn’t seem worried. She made posters, campaigned, did everything a Student Council candidate was supposed to do. Just as if she had a chance.

On the morning of the election, the whole school gathered in the auditorium to hear the candidates’ speeches. One after another, the candidates for treasurer and secretary stood at the podium and read carefully rehearsed banalities about how they would dedicate themselves to improving the school.

Finally, it was A.’s turn. My stomach clenched. I was mortified for her already. She was sure to say something weird, and even if she didn’t, just her being who she was and standing up in front of everyone was sure to be social suicide. It was bad enough that she got teased and harassed in the halls and at lunch: how much worse could it be to see her humiliate herself in front of the entire school?

A. stood up and approached the podium. The room rang out with hoots and whistles and cries of “Fish Face!” until the principal made everyone be quiet. A. waited patiently for silence, then began her to read her speech.

“Some of you call me Fish Face,” she said.

Pandemonium erupted! Once again the principal called for silence. When it was quiet enough for her to be heard, A. calmly continued her speech. She talked about how regardless of names people called her, the important thing was whether she would get things done on the Student Council. She talked about changes that needed to be made, and about her ideas for making them. She talked about how everyone said that Student Council was just a popularity contest, but that this was our chance to prove them wrong.

Everywhere in the halls that day, you heard the words, “Fish Face.” “Fish Face!” Nobody could believe it. Nobody could believe she’d had the guts. Nobody could stop talking about it.

A. won the election.

The Survey
October 26, 2007, 7:01 am
Filed under: bully, junior high school, middle school, name-calling, new kid, self esteem

by Alison Weiss
Age 12 at the time

It’s 1975 in Southern California, and I have entered junior high. “Love Will Keep Us Together” blasts from every car stereo, and it never really gets cold enough to wear a coat. I begin to understand what the Beach Boys mean by endless summer, even though I’m not the kind of beach babe the Beach Boys sing about. At age twelve, I’m thin with pale skin, straight black hair, and wire-framed glasses that are perpetually bent and sliding down my nose.

My family and I have landed in this beach town after stunning bad luck. My parents’ dream to run an alcoholism treatment center has failed utterly after less than a year. In short order, they have lost everything they own and are living in a rental house with me and my four sisters. My father is gone every weekend to make money. My mother works full time as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital. During our first six weeks in L.A., my youngest sister gets hit by a car and spends all summer in a body cast and then a wheel chair.

There is no money for clothes. My grandmother has learned to sew and specializes in quick-and-easy polyester. Each girl is given a huge bag of my grandmother’s creations. I start 7th grade in a powder blue polyester pantsuit. People ask me so many times that first day who made my outfit that by the time the last bell rings, I’ve taken to lying that I bought it at Orbach’s department store.

It’s hard enough to learn to navigate through Oceanview Junior High’s long halls, but I’m doing it alone. I want something that is out of my reach: a friend. Not a group of friends, that’s way beyond hope, but I’ll take a friend. It doesn’t even have to be a best friend, just a friend to save me a seat in class. I can’t impress people with my athletic skills because I’m terrible at sports, and I’m already out of the running with my homemade wardrobe. The only thing I think I have is that I’m smart. So, I do the unthinkable, I actually show my intelligence. I write ten-page reports for Science class. In English, the teacher chooses my poem to read out loud. For a while, my academic success carries me — and then it takes me straight to hell.

It starts out as an ordinary day. In social studies, I raise my hand too often, answering a question correctly that Christy gets wrong — Christy, who is the leader of a gaggle of girls, and who doesn’t like to be embarrassed. She gets perky, sporty Jax, her second lieutenant, to take me down. Without catching the attention of our teacher (who has tired hair and always reeks of cigarettes) Jax starts passing around a note, some kind of survey. It makes its surreptitious way around the classroom, and there is lots of giggling. It doesn’t reach me before the bell rings.

The next period is math. I slide into my seat, and Jax walks by, casually slipping the survey onto my desk. It’s my turn, I think, to see what everyone was laughing about. There is only one question on the survey: Who thinks Alison is a geek? My eyes slide down the paper, and I see that all my classmates have signed it with cruel embellishments, “She’s the geekiest.” “She stinks.” “She’s greasy.” My stomach drops and I almost stop breathing. I dig my nails into my palm to stop from crying, but it doesn’t work. I have never felt more alone. There is not one safe person in the room.

And the worst part of this story? I will keep that survey rolled up in my nightstand drawer to take out and re-read. I will not lose my sense of utter loneliness for years.