My twins are taking a summer class through the local school district designed to help ease their transition from kindergarten to first grade. Kids from various elementary schools around the district are participating in it. On their first day, I recognized one girl in their class as someone who attends the same elementary school as my kids, but was in a different kinder class last year.
See, I taught an empathy through art class at their school last year and this little girl – we’ll call her Jennifer – was a big fan of it. After I lead her class in the program, she would always say hi to me in the hall and even stopped me on the playground one time and asked me to push her on the swings. I complied happily; I like kids in general and I dig this kid in particular for a few reasons. First, she is kind, friendly, and greets everyone with a bright smile. Second, she has the coolest hearing aids I’ve ever seen.
My guess is that Jennifer was born hard-of-hearing and the hearing aids do what hearing aids do. She and her parents must figure that if she has to wear hearing aids then she might as well wear them with style. One is bright pink and the other is florescent green. On Jennifer, I would dare to say that they are downright cute.
On the first day of their summer class, Jennifer didn’t notice me. Yesterday, she did.
I was standing off to the side of the cafeteria, waiting for my kids to pick up their sack lunches when Jennifer suddenly bounded up to me and said, “Hi!” and flashed her usual cheerful smile. I said hi back, chatted with her for a moment and then noticed her dad holding her spot in the lunch line. I asked Jennifer if I could go over and meet him. She was delighted. I introduced myself and filled him in on how his daughter knows me.
About that time my kids came back with their food. I introduced them to Jennifer’s dad and asked if they knew Jennifer. I got the sense that my kids knew Jennifer was in their class, but hadn’t really interacted with her much before that moment. Based upon how Jennifer interacted with my kids I suddenly recognized a familiarity in Jennifer. She was very much like the child I had been. My kids and I said our goodbyes to the two of them and went on our way. I realized that my kids have a special opportunity this summer.
Last night at dinner, I shared a story with my kids. It went something like this…
Hey guys, I want to talk to you a little bit about that girl Jennifer from your class. You see, there’s something I’ve never told you about myself that I want to share with you now, and it might help you understand Jennifer a little bit better.
You see, I was born with a concave chest cavity. The middle of my chest – it was kind of pushed in, and doctors and my parents were worried that if something wasn’t done to correct it I wouldn’t grow right. So, when I was your age and starting out in school, I had to wear a big brace that went from my shoulders down to my waist. It made me stand up straight, pulled my shoulders back, and forced my chest out. Everyone noticed it and some people treated me differently because of it. People always asked me about it when they first met me. It made me really self-conscious. Do you know what self-conscious means? (Happily for them, they didn’t. My wife and I explained it.)
Anyway, another way to say it was to say that I was shy. I had a much easier time talking to adults than I did to kids. Kids sometimes seemed like they didn’t know how to treat me, or they seemed like they didn’t really want to be my friend because I was different. Now, I don’t know Jennifer all that well, but from what I’ve seen she reminds me a lot of me at that age. I noticed that she seems to have an easy time talking to me, but seems to have a little bit of a hard time talking to you.
I just want you to know that it would mean a lot to me, and it would probably mean a lot to her too, if you would try extra hard to be friendly with Jennifer. She seems a little shy, but she also seems nice and pretty much just like any other kid. See, I was just like any other kid except for my brace, and she’ just like any other kid except for her hearing aids. I had to wear my brace to help my chest and she wears her hearing aids to help her hear. With my brace on I stood just like anyone else and with her hearing aids on Jennifer probably hears a lot like you and me.
So, guys, what I’m trying to say to you is this… I hope you will make an effort to be friends with Jennifer, because I was like her and it meant a lot to me when kids made an effort to be friends with me. I’m still friends with a lot of the kids who befriended me when I was shy. So, when you see Jennifer, think of me, and try to be her friend.
I don’t know if my story has a happy ending. I can’t tell you if my twins will go on to be great friends with this young person who reminds me of me. But I can tell you this: Whether you’re five or fifty-five, being kind to someone who is different from you is always worthwhile. It might take little extra effort at first, but will pay you back in the form of a loyal friend.