I saw a co-worker and his wife in a social setting. The man turned to his wife, “Tell Jeff the story you told me.”
Her face lit up as if she remembered something important. She began a story from the high school cafeteria where my kids went.
She told me about a young man who doesn’t “fit in”. She said the student being picked on wasn’t popular, struggles in school, and in all reality, is not very socially skilled. By all accounts, he’s a little odd. Add it up, and he’s an easy target.
The young man’s primary defense mechanism is to blend in like a social chameleon, then avoid others. That’s impossible during school days when he would unwilling become the center of attention. He’d shrink alone, virtually defenseless, and silently absorb any words, jokes or laughter directed his way.
That’s bad enough, but one day during lunch a group of guys with a few loud mouths became the primary perpetrators. They didn’t cross the line. They shattered it, and in the process, humiliated this high school boy sitting all alone at the end of a long string of cafeteria tables.
Even though the humiliation burned searing wounds into the deepest part of his heart, the young man’s only expression was to stare down while slowly eating his food, as if the humiliation wasn’t getting to him. His bright red ears and flushing cheeks, however, said otherwise.
The lady telling me the story stopped briefly to look away, took a deep breath and continued.
She said a young man sitting with this group of guys stood up and had an irritated look on his face. He barked something at the loud mouths in the group, but she didn’t know what.
He reached down, grabbed his lunch tray and walked away from the group of guys to the boy sitting alone at the end of the long string of tables. He sat down and talked with the young man the rest of the lunch period while ignoring the guys at the other table.
This wasn’t a random story to tell. She wanted me to know.
Now I briefly looked away, took a deep breath.
With a tear rolling down her cheek, she said she wanted to tell me that the one who got up and went to the other table to befriend the boy was my youngest son, Clark.
She said a lot of the kids had discussed this, including her daughter who saw the whole thing. She said it was an object lesson of life, and wished there were more young men like Clark who would go the one alone at the other table.
Quite proudly, I agree!
On the other hand, it could’ve been any kid, on either side of this story. My son, my daughter, they could have just as easily been at the end of the other table.
The difference between popular and not, is a very thin line. What’s cool, what’s not, is usually simple interpretation.
The difference between harmless humor and cruel mockery is intent, and at whose expense it’s directed. And the difference between sitting at a long table surrounded by friends, and sitting alone at the end of the other table can’t be measured, much less explained, but day in, day out, it happens.
And lest we think it’s just high school kids or children on an elementary playground, it happens every day at work, in grocery store aisles, at the restaurant, on church pews, the movie theatre, and down the street at the third house on the left. And everywhere else we as people gather, it can, and does, happen there too.
Always, they’re there.
I may need to learn from my youngest son, pick up my lunch tray and look for someone face down in their food with bright red ears.
I don’t know. Just thinking.