Never under estimate the power of kindness, no matter what age we become
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 usual calm as I waited for the big day. What I didn’t know then was that one truly unexpected gift would arrive early and change my life forever.
On December 1, 1962, I went to sleep as 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 the heroine in a Hans Christian Anderson Fairytale, and life was good. But out of nowhere, an evil witch decided to sprinkle nerd dust over my blonde head, and I woke to find my status as socially acceptable wickedly transfixed into that of a leper. 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 of followers and collectively 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 and ring leader, 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’s brown, doe eyes melted the ice sculpture that had become my current home, and loneliness magically dissipated from the lining of my wounded heart. Astonished, I instantly understood her kindness took great courage. She opened herself up to be the next target for criticism and ridicule by allowing me into her inner circle and befriending me. But she didn’t care, for being nice was far more critical than any backlash.
I’ve often thought of that day so long ago 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 shiny bike left under the tree would bring. Nan’s kindness brought back lost hope and a feeling of belonging. Because just one person cared, it also gave me the courage 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 I’ve come up painfully short more often than not. The self-imposed ego has a way of sometimes blinding you to your surroundings, but it’s time for a change — especially in these hard times of COVID and political unrest.
The holidays are coming again. They can be a joyous time of year, but they can also cause heartache. Not everyone is fortunate to have all they need, nor does everyone feel loved and appreciated. But maybe, just maybe, if we could be the good stewards on this earth (those souls who see the need and care for others less fortunate), and reach for the hands of those in despair, just as Nan did mine, we, too, can make a difference in someone’s life. Paying the gift of kindness forward is not only a sweet gesture. It can create magic — it can save a life.
I don’t think any of us leave this world without experiencing some social pain, whether 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?