The frenzy over the upcoming Christmas season had escalated to such a fever pitch in the Madden family home; neighbors wondered if our highly charged energy was from some other white powdery substance my mom sprinkled over the top of our oatmeal!
Surveying the shopping list of toys from the Sears catalog my 10-year-old heart desired, intense hyperactivity overtook my normal calm as I waited for the big day. I didn’t know then that one truly unexpected gift would arrive early and change my life forever.
On December 1, 1962, I went to sleep a happy, well-adjusted fourth-grader. I had friends. I blended well with the other green and blue-plaid-clones at St. Charles Catholic Grammar School. I was my heroine in a Hans Christian Anderson Fairytale, and life was good. Out of nowhere, an evil witch decided to sprinkle nerdling dust over my blonde head, and I woke to find my status as socially acceptable wickedly transfixed into that of a leper. Apparently, freckles, ponytails, and pink diamond crusted winged-tipped glasses had become uncool overnight.
Bullying has been around since the beginning of time. Stronger students born with the need to demonstrate their alpha dominance carefully handpick a pack and collectively gather to attack the weak. During the 1960s, this type of aggression was looked upon as a rite of passage and something kids just had to endure. It gave true meaning to the survival of the fittest.
Seeking ways to hide from the jeers, teasing, and physical trauma I began to endure at the hands of my classmates, I discovered the best way to make it through the day was to become invisible. Performing the art of duck and cover, I’d conceal my body under my desk in hopes of staying in at recess. Dawdling at the end of the day, I made sure I was the last excused. And hiding in bushes became my new safe haven as thoughts of running away overtook my imagination—A place fantasy had once flourished.
One day, after peeking around the corner to make sure the coast was clear, I ventured onto the playground when from out of nowhere, a tall, lanky girl ran towards me. Sure she was about to pour more acid over the newly ripped apart sores of the day, I ran.
“Jackie, wait!” she cried.
Quickly catching up, I slowed down and closed my eyes prepared to take another verbal beating. Grabbing my hands, she placed herself in front, and in a breathy tone asked, “Would you like to come over to my house today and play?”
Frozen in my tracks, Nan Coughlan’s brown, doe eyes melted the ice sculpture that had become my current home and loneliness magically dissipated from the lining of my wounded soul. Astonished, I instantly understood her kindness took great courage. By allowing me into her inner circle and befriending me, she opened herself up to be the next target for criticism and ridicule.
I’ve often thought of that day and the impact her simple gesture made on the rest of my life. It far exceeded the joy of a brand new Barbie Doll or new outfit left under the tree. Nan’s kindness brought back lost hope and a feeling of belonging. It also taught me to stand tall and never allow myself to be victimized again.
While I’d like to say I continued her legacy of compassion, I know more often than not I’ve come up painfully short. The self-imposed ego has a way of blinding you to your surroundings, but it’s time for a change.
The holidays can be joyous, but they can also cause heartache. Not everyone is fortunate to have all they need and loneliness is crippling. But maybe we can make someone’s pain a little less by being mindful of those around us and reaching for their hands just as Nan’s did mine. Paying the gift of kindness forward is not only unexpected but precious.
I don’t think any of us leave this world without experiencing some social pain, whether it be from bullying or just feeling inadequate. Sharing our stories is a present we can give to one another to remind us we’re not alone. What have you experienced?