The group of boys walked past the small boy and as one they slowed and their heads swiveled to look more closely. The boy stood still like a statue and held his breath. To move would call attention and so he turned his head and looked down at his feet. And though his eyes did not see their stares, his ears heard their words,”ugly” and “monster”. Whispered words punctuated the school hallway; louder than a yell, painful as a slap, and as permanent as the scars from his surgeries. A handful of words with enough power to shatter every thought he had of being loved and worthy. Words spoken out of ignorance that will not be forgotten, but will be stored in a box of shame and hurt; to be opened and inspected alone, in front of a mirror where every imperfection can be analyzed and picked apart. The box we all carried in school, that is labeled “what they think”. Broken heart strings can’t be mended like broken bones. Words once launched, cannot be sent back like mail stamped “return to sender”, instead the letters are slipped into his box to be removed and read over and over again.
It’s the first day of school and I walk into my son’s 2nd grade class with four brand-new apples. They are Gala apples and all are perfect and unblemished, except one was missing a stem. A missing stem was not something I ever really noticed or cared about, but I was bringing apples to his class to teach a lesson about differences. I was nervous and worried that I educate his classmates about physical differences, not just draw attention to my son and his congenital facial deformities. I hate the word deformities, but it is part of the definition of my son’s impairment and unfortunately it is usually the first thing people notice when they see him. So I walked these four apples to the front of the classroom and I lined the apples up in a row and began to tell the story. I began to share about the apple with the missing stem or as society calls it; a deformity, impairment, abnormality, disfigurement or difference and the children listened.
“This is the story about four apples. These four apples are all round, with the same yellow and red coloring and everyone calls them APPLES. However when the apples went to school, they noticed something different about the apple named Sarah. Look at Sarah, what’s different? At first the students did not notice and this was actually good. Finally I pointed out that Sarah didn’t have a stem and she was slightly more red, than yellow. I continued with the story and told the class how the other three apples thought Sarah looked different and decided they wouldn’t pick her to be on their team. This made Sarah so sad, but she was brave and didn’t cry. At lunch the other apples decided they wouldn’t sit by Sarah in the cafeteria. Sarah was so sad, but she kept a smile. At recess, Sarah sat on a bench by herself and the other apples only pointed at her, no one asked to be her friend. Sarah rode the bus home and sat alone. All the way home, other apples stared and whispered. Sarah pretended she didn’t hear, but she heard every single word and stored it inside. I looked around as I told the story and no one squirmed, no one looked distracted, and not a single child made a sound. They were intent on Sarah and her missing stem.
I stopped telling the story about Sarah the apple and I asked the kids why the other apples don’t like Sarah. They immediately knew it was because she was missing a stem and because she was a different color. I pointed out to the kids that these are all external qualities. I told them that the other apples decided they didn’t like Sarah because of how she looked on the outside. This is when I brought up all the differences we see on the outside of people, but how we were all created the same inside. I talked about wheelchairs, color of skin, hearing aids and glasses. The list went on and on, and still they listened.
I wrapped it up by taking Sarah the apple and holding her up for the class. I said that Sarah had a really bad, sad day, but no one would know it from looking at her. Nope, she kept a brave smile at her school. However, when we choose to be UNKIND, we hurt people on the inside. All the mean words, the staring, the pointing, and the children choosing not to sit by her caused her to be hurt on the inside. I took Sarah the apple and cut her in half. Unbeknownst to the students, I had dropped Sarah many times the day before so that she would bruise inside. After I cut the apple I showed them the bruised inside. I told the class that our actions and words have consequences. Sarah was just like the other apples, except for her color and her stem. Sarah is now bruised on the inside because of the hurtful actions of others.
I explained that being kind is intentional, never accidental. Kindness cannot be silent or remain neutral. It cannot ignore at school, or pretend it doesn’t see a child sitting alone on the playground. It cannot take a backseat to bullying or mean remarks, and then hide behind the justification that it didn’t say the mean words or poke fun. Kindness does not stand in a hallway and whisper words like “monster” and “ugly”. Kindness is a verb, an action. Kindness is not always popular or easy, but it is always right. Being Kind is a CHOICE!
My son, Joel was born with Goldenhar Syndrome, which causes a cranio-facial impairment. A big diagnosis that means he looks very different than other children and this can be perceived as frightening or disconcerting. His first year in all day Kindergarten, I did not directly address his facial differences with his class. To be honest, I didn’t even think about it. Within the first week, he was stopped by a group of students in the hallway, who pointed and called him monster and ugly. This was devastating to me as a parent, but it taught me that I needed to act, not react. To help my son, I determined to be proactive in educating about physical differences and it helped that my first degree was in elementary education.
As a parent and teacher I have learned that children are naturally egocentric. To move our children away from egocentric choices, we must model and teach empathy, appreciation and kindness. I walk a very thin line between educating Joel’s fellow classmates and embarrassing him. The previous story was an object lesson I found on the internet and I changed the story, it would work well in any primary classroom or in your own home. I believe it takes a village to raise our children, and if we are all helping model and teach kindness, we will be raising up an incredible generation.
When I tucked in Joel after teaching about the apples in his class, I was once again struck by his depth of soul. He touched my face and brought it close to his in the dark, warm night. He said, “mom. you talked about apples today, and one didn’t have a stem”. I nodded in the dark, a lump forming in my throat. “Mom, I was the apple without a stem?”. “Yes”, I whispered and moments passed in the quiet room. “I liked your story about apples”, he whispered and he kissed my face. And once again I was grateful for a dark bedroom, so that my boy didn’t need to see a tear slip off my cheek. And I prayed that one day my child would set down his box, and know that when he looks in the mirror he is not “what they think”.