Know Their Stories
For our theme The Gift of Empathy, Billy Coffey observes how much better we could get along if we would all walk around with signs that preemptively explain the nasty things we do so we can better understand what's going on, so we can know each other's stories.
I have spoken to television cameras and radio hosts, stuffy book buyers and kindly library enthusiasts, but none of them prepared me for Career Day with fourth graders. I knew this going in. My wife, whom I have loved for over half my life but never truly understood until that day, invited me. She also warned me of what could happen. Tough crowd, she said. Don’t care, I answered. I’d seen tougher.
Pride, the Bible says, goeth before a fall.
See me now, smiling down at two dozen ten-year-olds who are staring up at me, wondering if I’m worth their time. My wife is to the side, seated at her own desk. Her eyes are open, but her hands are folded. I think she might be praying.
A boy in the front row starts talking before I can begin. He says he knows why I’m here cause I’m a writer but writers ain’t so much and would I hurry up because the next guy is a forest ranger? In my thoughts, I christen the boy Gums. My wife forces an apology out of him. The one I receive is more out of respect for her.
I tell stories, I say to the class. They aren’t so impressed. I write books. Sometimes, I even write books in my pajamas. A hand shoots up from the back of the room, five fingers attached to a little girl that, given the location of her other five fingers, I’ve named Nose Picker. She asks me what kind of pajamas and then looks at my wife, wanting the teacher’s approval.
The best part about writing, I say, is that it’s a kind of magic. This enraptures Nose Picker but not Gums, who says ain’t no such thing as magic and never has been, stuff like magic’s stupid. He apologizes to my wife but not to me. A boy with a Mohawk in the middle row wants to know how he can do magic. I tell him I learned by reading books, all the books I could. Freaky Hair rolls his eyes, an act that somehow shivers the Mohawk. He calls that dumb under his breath and apologizes to my wife as Nose Picker sinks another knuckle into her nostril. A girl with chocolate smeared across her lips (Fudge Face) apologizes first, getting it out of the way, and says books are just about the stupidest things ever.
Twenty minutes. Twenty minutes in front of those kids. I had to go home and take a nap.
How to Love Those Kids
My wife has been dealing with this sort of thing for twenty years. That’s 3,600 days of children like Gums and Nose Picker, Freaky Hair and Fudge Face. She comes home at night laden with papers to grade and plans to write, so weary that she’s been known to leave the car door open and her purse in the refrigerator. But she’ll sit in prayer for her class at night, calling each child by name. She’ll remember their birthdays. She’ll write them notes and sneak them things. Candy sometimes. Sometimes, a pair of new shoes. I’ve never understood how she could devote so much of her heart to something that robs her of so much. How she can love those kids, most of whom were attentive and polite but also apathetic and smug, already infected with the teenage virus that would erupt in only a few years more. Yet my wife loves them. And more, they love her right back. They love her twice as hard.
She asked me that evening what I thought. I told her all that I’ve told you. We went out to the porch to rock and watch the deer, and she told me that loving her kids isn’t always easy. Not at first, and not until she comes to know them. Gums and his yammering wasn’t so easy to endure, she said, until she learned that both of his parents work evenings, and he’s left with no one to talk to. Just like Nose Picker was so interested in my pajamas because she likely doesn’t have any herself, as her family has been living in a car ever since her daddy lost his job. She said Freaky Hair wanted to know how to do magic because his sister has cancer. Fudge Face hates books because she can read only on a first-grade level and maybe, if she works hard and her parents don’t give up, maybe someday a fourth-grade level.
“That’s how I love them,” she said. Because she knows their stories. And then she said, “Everybody has a story. You should know that.”
Yes. I should. I do. But sometimes, I need reminding.
It would be wonderful if we would all walk around with signs that preemptively explain the nasty things we do: I'm sorry I'm behaving like this, it's just that . Fill in whatever is appropriate. I'm sorry I'm behaving like this; it's just that I’m sick; my dog just died; my child is getting picked on at school; my mom has Alzheimer’s; I’m alone; I've lost my hope.
I wonder how much better we would all get along if we did that. But of course we would never be so open, so vulnerable. I suppose, then, we all should just imagine that a sign is there above everybody. I’ll try that next year on Career Day. Because you know what? I love those kids.