Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Strength in Compassion

Today when I picked up Truman from school, his 5th grade teacher met me at the door with an exacerbated expression and a long exhale. "Uh oh," I said, replacing my typical greeting — I wasn't sure I wanted to hear what came next.

I should back up. This week Truman takes his turn as the "Fabulous Face" in the classroom, which means he presents a visual display of his biography and personality in a large poster collage. On Friday, he will bring to school important artifacts which represent that which makes him him, and then he will stand before the class with a magic wand, pointing out the significance of each photo and item, after which the other students will interview him. Watching Truman create this project, I was struck by the bravery kids muster and the vulnerability they share when revealing cherished parts of themselves in such assignments. We adults rarely open ourselves up in this way, standing before a room full of peers, saying, here is my face, here is everything important to me: this is who I am. Kids are brave.

Anyone who knows Truman knows that he put a lot of thought and planning into selecting his photographs. Among others, he included shots of himself playing the saxophone, staring up at Mt. Rushmore, and jumping on the trampoline. One picture showed all of us traveling on our Massive Road Trip last summer, and another represented the wide smile and beautiful face of his brother Jukie.

This is where Truman’s teacher returns to the story. She described an incident where a student walked up to Truman's poster, pointed to the photo of Jukie, and made some disparaging comments, the details of which I won’t repeat here. To say that the teacher was angry would be an understatement; she was livid. In the moment that she explained to me what had happened, I felt more a familiar sadness than anger. Truman and I locked our sad eyes with one another, and I knew we were both dying to get off the school grounds so we could debrief.

Because of Jukie’s differences – his unusual behavior and facial features that are typical for children with Smith-Lemli-Opitz Syndrome – my family has occasionally encountered this kind of bullying and cruelty over the years, although rarely in our progressive and inclusive college town. For the most part, schoolchildren in Davis show love and respect toward kids who seem different. Seen often on adventures with members of his family, Jukie is known and loved here. So every time something like this happens, we feel betrayed and a bit stunned.

As we walked away from his classroom, Truman described how he handled the situation, and as his mom, I felt proud. Truman told me that he was in line a couple children behind the boy who had cruelly disparaged his brother, and that he had heard the whole thing. He said to me, "Well, I WANTED to punch him in the face...and I nearly did!" "What stopped you?" I asked. "I knew I had better options." He opted to talk to his teachers, finding support from adults who, in their measured ways, focused on the restorative justice that is made possible by an apology (in this case, both written and presented verbally).

Like any 11-year-old negotiating the social structures of the elementary school playground or classroom, Truman is concerned about his peers’ opinions of him. So walking through this world with an unusual brother has given him many more opportunities to display his bravery, to stand up for his principles. Truman impresses me the most, however, when he shows the sort of patience, kindness, and maturity that having a brother like Jukie has taught him. Truman’s kind-heartedness has helped him recognize the quiet (and sometimes noisy) dignity and value in every person, often because of our differences, not in spite of them. More children, and the adults they aspire to emulate, would benefit from time spent reflecting on the strength and bravery that can result from a commitment to genuine compassion.

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