It’s no secret that kids are often cruel (I’ve written about it at least a couple of times myself), but sometimes the depth of that cruelty and the forms it takes seem beyond the pale even for teenagers.
Special Education has gone by many names over the years. Labels change with shifts in understanding and cultural acceptance of those labels. Throughout my secondary education, at least two labels were used to describe two specific groups of special ed students: Educable Mentally Retarded and Trainable Mentally Retarded. I won’t go in to it, but it is fair to say those labels affected how the “regular” (if there is such a thing) students viewed the students in those classes.
One year a TMR class had P.E. the same time as I. The coaches and teachers seemed to intentionally keep our groups separate, possibly in an effort to avoid what happened one morning on a morning seared in my memory.
We played basketball on one end of the gym with much trash talk. As often happens with teenaged boys, the talk at some point shifted from good-natured to mean-spirited. I found myself as the object of many insults that morning and did my best to ignore them and pour my anger into the game. One kid in particular really kept it going even when the others slacked off. I wished he would lay off, but he never let up.
Our game ebbed and flowed until something happened that stopped all of us. A red kick ball bounced across the wooded floor in our direction. It came from the TMR class. It rolled to a stop at the foot of the tallest kid with us long before the student following it made it halfway across the court.
I knew his face well, though to my shame I never learned his name. He was mostly noticeable because of his walk. From the waist down he had an easy loping gait. He turned his torso side to side and his head in the opposite direction with each slow step. The boy whose feet the ball stopped at reached down and picked it up. We all, including the one who moments before seemed intent on inventing new phrases to insult me, looked on curiously.
The student from the special ed class finally made it over to us. The boy with the ball held it out. I saw a look pass his face and held my breath. Then he sneered, drew back the hand with the ball, and threw it as hard as he could across the gym. He had a good arm. The ball travelled the length of the gym and thudded against the far wall. No one spoke at the echo of rubber hitting concrete block reverberated through the air.
“What the hell, man?” came an indignant voice from our group.
“Dude!” someone else said.
The ball thrower flung his arms out and defiantly asked, “What? What’s wrong?”
The the kid who until a moment before I thought of as the cruelest, most thoughtless of our game walked over and pressed a finger into the ball thrower’s chest.
“You are,” he said simply, “So wrong.” He pulled his hand and walked away in disgust. Almost as a group the rest of us turned our backs to him. It’s probably a good thing the ball thrower didn’t say anything else because several clenched their fists. I’m sure punches would have been thrown if he opened his mouth again. I don’t know if he had the decency to hang his head because we didn’t spare another glance at him.
I’m struck by a two things about that morning. One (and the most obvious) is that kids may be capable of great cruelty, but occasionally exhibit moments of sheer honor. That day I saw one who many would consider a bully draw the line and through his actions say, “There are those we never bully. There are things we simply do not do.”
The other thing that really stands out for me, though, is the way the boy who was wronged behaved. I know he got mad because his anger was evident on his face. When the ball flew past him, his eyes widened and his mouth opened wider. Then the boy considered not intelligent enough to be educable, the one too many would look down upon looked at his antagonist briefly, just for the barest moment, and turned and walked away. I don’t know why he just walked away, but I do know that when he reached the other side of the gym, he picked up the ball and started playing again.
Now, I find myself wondering how our culture would look if we called out the wrong and bad behavior of others, if we weren’t willing to let it go on. Do we have the will the call out injustice committed against others? And if that injustice is committed against us (assuming it is truly not worth it), do we have the strength to walk away?