Neal and I went out for lunch together today and decided upon Subway, which is right near our house. When we arrived, Neal saw through the window that it was filled with elementary school children and we, at first, thought there were no open tables. After ordered, we realized that there was indeed on booth left open, still surrounded by the tiny bobbing heads and Donald Duck voices that children this age all seem to have (especially in cacophony). We decided to forge ahead and be brave in the face of shrill voices and tiny rocketing bodies all around us.
We sat down and began eating, discussing my doctor’s appointment from this morning (ARGH is all I have to say about it for now) and Neal’s papers that he’s grading. I happened to glance over at the tiny two-person booth across the aisle from us. Sitting all alone and looking quite forlorn was a small girl with a mottled pinkish winter hat on the table next to her and dirty-white moon boots (okay, not the real deal, but pretty danged close and really high up on her tiny legs). She was finishing up a few things and hanging onto her yogurt that she wasn’t going to finish. No other child in the room was alone. In the table next to us was a little girl surrounded by three boys, the boys hitting each other with their Subway bags of litter while the little girl giggled at their antics. The other two-person booth by the girl across from us had two little girls in it who were a whirl of movement and talk.
Only this one was alone, not talking, not really moving, not frenetic—just sitting and waiting. Neal said, “Don’t you wish you could tell them that they will look back on this and really dislike themselves for being like this?” I agreed. I can remember instances of childhood where I was teased or bullied, but I never let on that I cared to those meanies—and I always had friends to grouse to and complain with about those types. I never remember being alone like this, alone with myself in a room full of happy, laughing, talking people. I know that I was never a bully, but I can definitely look back at times that I really hate myself for not speaking up in someone else’s defense. I never dished it out, but sometimes I didn’t try to stop it either.
“Don’t you wish you could tell her that it won’t always be like this? Do you wish you could see into the future and could say, ‘One day you will be head of your own company and these other kids will be your janitors!’” Neal nodded. “I really wish we had bought some cookies and that it wouldn’t be weird to give them to her out of the blue,” I said. My heart aches for these lost children, the ones that seem within themselves. My work with children who have been abused or neglected really opened my heart in a much more empathetic way than I felt when I was younger. I felt a lump in my throat, glancing out of the corner of my eye so as not to seem as though I’m staring at the girl.
When they were getting ready to leave, a woman came over and sat with her, asking how her lunch was. They had received prizes in their meals, I think, and the woman asked her about what she got—a bracelet. She asked if the girl wanted her to help put it on. The girl nodded and immediately pulled up her sleeves, holding out her skinny arm. I heard her voice for the first time. “Yes, please!” as her arm bolted outward and “Thanks!” when it was done. (Another adult in the group came over earlier and sat in the other two-person booth, putting one of the girls there on his lap—instead of sitting in the empty seat across from this girl. I’m assuming he was the teacher because we’d also seen him stopping the boys next to us from flinging their bags around at each other with a simple glance and a “Hello…”)
Neal and I looked at each other and smiled. Sometimes it just takes a little attention to be remembered forever. The kids all got up to leave, lining up, and trooped out together in a large bunch.
Yet this is only my story. I don’t know her story at all or why she was alone. Perhaps my sorrow was misplaced and she’s really mean and snotty, but I don’t think so from her reactions to the woman who sat with her. Whatever was going on, I hate seeing the casting out of fellow people begin at such an early age. “Kids can be so mean and cruel,” Neal reiterated. Indeed they can. And, remembering back on my elementary and middle school years, kids can be the cruelest to the kids who never feel acceptance—even in their own homes from their own parents or family members. I remember the biggest bullies (not the big mean ones but the snobby ones who were “the best”) were always saying awful things to the kids who were dirty or who smelled or who couldn’t afford nice clothes or the foster kids who were in and out of the school within months (if not days). I remember the kids who could least expect to take it were the ones who were hassled the most—the ones who didn’t realize they were worth more than a shove in the lunch line or a nasty word while washing hands at the bathroom sink.
Now I remember wishing, years later when I thought back on those days, that I could go back and let them know they were worth more than they thought, than their parents thought, than their peers thought. They are worth more and deserve better than life was giving them.
But even an outspoken girl such as myself didn’t speak out enough. I didn’t stand up enough and say, “Stop it!” I didn’t push forward enough and demand better for the other kids.
In some ways, that makes me just as bad as the kids who were doing the teasing and bullying. I know I spoke up some and demanded better some and said, “Stop!” some. But—in memory—some just isn’t enough for me.