On Compassion

Middle school wasn’t a good time for me. I was painfully shy and like many I was navigating puberty (albeit a bit later than my peers since I was already younger.) I was also one of the few brown faces at my school and navigating the cultural divide was alienating in and of itself. As the first one going through school, my parents had no idea what school should be like for me so I had little way of guidance. Add to that being a type of boy that eschewed sports and loved to read. As a result, I was a winning combination: I dressed oddly, rarely combed my hair, talked softly, mumbled, and was eager to talk about Doctor Who. It should be no surprise I had difficulty in making friends.

I was also in the gifted program, which at the time tracked students together. So through middle school all the gifted students in the district were treated as a cohort. Once we got to high school I largely stayed with the same cohort in my English and Social Studies classes. That means that there was no escaping the people that I was in school with for a large part. That can either be positive or negative. The familiar faces year to year can help. The largest negative is that it was much harder to leave your identity behind as you matured. As children are wont to do, you’re pegged into a label and held there.

I was a nerd, no doubt about it. When being a nerd wasn’t especially endearing. The kids on Stranger Things are nerds but relatable and likable – NOW. Back then we were just considered weird.

Since I felt so isolated, I was the butt of jokes and the target of unkindness. But as you get older you tend to question the emotional veracity of your own memories, especially as time creates distance from them. Was it as bad as I thought? Was I being sensitive? And unlike now where everything is documented in real-time by way of photos, videos and texts – there’s little in the way of that from that era.

This past weekend, your Dadi told me that I had a box in the attic. I had no idea that I had left anything, so when I went up and got it and examined its contents, I was surprised to find a treasure trove of report cards, awards, and various memorabilia over the ages.

One thing in particular caught my attention. A booklet from my 7th grade Humanities night. The gifted classes put on a night for the parents, poems that we’ve written, songs that we wrote about what we learned, and a collection of our thumbprints made into drawings and limericks about what we thought our future would hold.

Pretty cute to examine. But apparently – and I don’t remember this – this booklet served as a yearbook of sorts. Which meant that various people signed it.

Sadly, I only had a few signatures. I imagine the popular kids had more. A couple of the signatures were from a couple of guys that I considered friends. Fellow nerds/geeks. The one guy who invited me for my first sleepover, another guy who became a good friend throughout my schooling career. (Sadly, he’s no longer with us.)

I turned the page and found another one. A relatively popular girl that I didn’t know well at all signed it . She wrote: “The rumors that I heard about you long ago ARE true.. your (sic) a nerd if I ever met one! But at least you’re a *nice* nerd! Have a nice summer.”

Wow. I guess I really was considered and labeled a nerd. Openly. I have no idea why she signed it. I don’t remember her well, except for a specific memory of her casually asking me an embarrassingly personal question. I think she was attempting to be nice in her own condescending and belittling way.

Then I turned the page to read something written by someone else I didn’t particularly care for. I can’t imagine I invited her to sign it, but somehow she did.

“Even though I hate you, have a nice summer. “

This particular girl was quite unkind to me. Not a bully -it never rose to that – but she wrinkled her nose at me every chance I got. I remember encountering her awkwardly during the summer between 6th and 7th grade. We half-heartedly waved at each other and she asked, “So what section are you going to be in?” I told her what, and she said, “Oh good, I’m in a different section.” It was casually cruel, and that’s how I experienced her and some of the others in my class.

Somehow – improbably – I’m Facebook friends with this woman. I suppose there was a wave of friend-making a few years ago among my high school class that I got caught up in. And – for varied reasons – I do get intensely sentimental about past relationships. Even, I suppose, those that weren’t that great.

Ironically, she now is now known for her philanthropy and focusing on “kindness”.

I have to admit, for a while I unfollowed her because the perceived hypocrisy was just too much. But seeing what she wrote in front of me, it seems different. Yes, she said she hates me, but it’s incongruous next to the “Have a nice summer.” I’m suddenly struck by how young we were. All of us. I’m absolutely sure she doesn’t remember it the way I do, and even if she does she cringes at her behavior. And I’m equally certain that she faced her own unkindness. And due to the established social hierarchy of 1986 middle school, as a nerd I was below her in the pecking order and therefore ultimately acceptable to pass that unkindness down.

And I’m reminded of the few times that I either participated in or was silent in the face of unkindness. I don’t remember her name, but I do remember her face. She was a chubby, awkward girl in a pink see-through rain coat at summer camp. The others were relentless and mean, and she just stood there and took it. And I said nothing. Because for once I wasn’t the target.

So I am motivated to find some compassion. Not just for myself, but that girl who felt like she had to memorialize “I hate you” to someone in their class that they didn’t really know well. The fact that she’s sending kindness and positivity out in the world and doing her best to change it for the better is just a testament to how multi-layered we all are.