When my daughter was a toddler, she inquired the whereabouts of the “chocolate girl” that sometimes visited next door. As I heard her description, I felt a wave of conflicting emotions. She was in awe of the older child, the granddaughter of our neighbors, and was identifying her idol by that which made her distinct in our otherwise racially homogenous world. Chocolate is a treasure for a toddler (and perhaps all of us), and the descriptor was not offered or intended as a slight. Yet to identify a child simply by skin color, especially for a white child to identify an brown child thusly, is both offensive and unacceptable. I tried to engage in a non-dramatic but direct conversation about difference and respect and even race in America, but even in the moment I was quite certain my words were inadequate.
Likewise I found myself with way too many words and none of them helpful when one of the children this week gaped at the size of a new child in our school and loudly exclaimed, “He’s fat!” The simple fact is that the new child is many sizes larger than his peers of similar age. The scientific term, morbidly obese, is no less endearing than the playground taunt “fat!”
The wonderment of our differences isn’t lost on children and we would be wise to acknowledge our own wonderment. When we see ourselves both in similarity and contrast to our peers we instinctively measure up (or down). Some differences are awe inspiring, some make us feel false (and dangerous) pride. The real danger in assessing our differences lies when we try to assign value accordingly.
A few days earlier I’d had a conversation with the children about differences that we see in the lunchroom, specifically the stemming behaviors displayed by the children with autism. Jumps, claps, and screams are commonplace and disconcerting if you’re new to them. In time it’s part of the ambiance of the place, but truly it’s unsettling to the newbie. Not surprisingly some of the children, taking note of difference, began first to point and then to tease. In our classroom discussion, we talked about difference and respect, naming the behaviors that were unusual to us and perhaps even uncomfortable. We talked about respectful responses and the children had good ideas. While subsequent lunch hours have not been tease-free, the frank discussion has empowered both student and teacher to redirect more quickly and respect grows.
If teaching is encouraging wonderment, if I daily continue to encourage children to use the biggest word of all, look!, our human differences are hard to hide. The fact is that one of the children is a size quite miniature and the new boy many sizes larger than the others. Skin tones, vernacular patterns, body shapes and sizes, hair textures, family configurations, academic abilities, all of these vary quite widely in our little world. Mindfulness invites us to encounter and respect the fullness of our diversity.
But how is it that I can take note of difference in ways that are respectful?
Unhelpful are the common attempts to teach children to be grateful for their higher value in the face of difference. When a sentence begins with “you are so lucky” or “you should be grateful”, beware. When we use difference to position ourselves, we have made a dangerously wrong turn. Our recognition of our differences are important, but we can know that we’ve missed the mark if such furthers a feeling of separation.
Helpful was an act of compassion shared in our class yesterday by Miles when Sam’s behaviors had left him ostracized and othered. No one wants to stand in line next to the child that is falling apart and the class had pretty much closed ranks yesterday at lunch. I was considering my options, still holding an anxious Sam’s hand, when Miles stepped out of line and said, “I’ll stand with Sam.” Together the two moved to the back of the line. They shared lunch hour together and I watched in wonderment as Sam engaged in age appropriate conversations with a peer. They both had fun, together. When Miles stepped out of line, both he and Sam experienced the true gift of our difference: we are better together.
A key to the dream shared by Martin Luther King, Jr. is that each of the children are equally valued, no one elevated above the other and no one left to trudge through the leavings. To teach the dream to our children is to allow them to show us their individual wonder and uniqueness, and to foster recognition of the same in every one of their peers. To bring the dream alive is to create environments where lifting one child in celebration doesn’t come with a competitive edge; there need not be a loser for every winner and the dream invites us to consider that if anyone loses none of us really win. To live the dream is to stand strong on our human legs as we marvel in the birds flight, grateful for both.
But the dream begins with simple and seemingly random acts of compassion that bridge our differences, acts like Miles shared by offering his hand to Sam. For this most of all I am grateful.