My children often ask about my life as a kid, and I love telling them stories about my childhood. Usually the tales make them laugh or gasp or involve Poppy getting thrown out of my Little League games. But last week, as we were driving, I told them a different kind of story. With the school year about to start, I wanted to tell them a story about their Uncle Eric.
My brother Eric is 18 months older than I am, but having been held back in school early on, we were always in the same grade, like twins. Though we spent some time at different schools, we spent many years together in different classes at the same school.
Eric is the kindest person you’ll ever meet, and my children adore him. He’s a teddy bear of a boy, now a man, and a friend to everyone. Eric also has a disability, and as child with special needs, he was often taunted by a small but cruel group of schoolmates.
Most people were nice enough to Eric. They smiled back when he said hello and gave him high-fives at his request, but for those few kids, he was the answer to whatever insecurity or inner hatred they harbored.
On countless days, I’d turn down a corridor to see Eric breakdancing in a hallway, with people just watching as some mean kids doubled over in laughter at his expense. Eric laughed as he danced, sure he was making them happy, unable to tell the difference between being laughed with and being laughed at. I’d be the one to stop it.
On many occasions I’d enter the lunch room to see him doing karate atop a lunch table, the same scene again unfolding. His lunch money was often stolen, people made him repeat stupid things for a cheap laugh, and sometimes a kid would throw a pencil at his head to see his reaction.
But the story I told them in the car last week was this one:
One morning at school, some kids told Eric to take off his shoes, and then they flushed them down the toilet. They didn’t go down, just rumbled around in the toilet as the kids pumped the flusher, but they tried nonetheless. Eric spent the rest of the school day in socks. When I found out, I went into the girls’ bathroom, kneeled down in a stall, and cried so hard I couldn’t breathe. My heart was broken. I couldn’t understand how anyone could be that cruel or could set out to hurt someone so vulnerable.
I told my kids how Poppy left work to bring Eric new shoes later in the day, and how that evening, Nanny and I cried together. My kids didn’t understand why anyone would do that. I told them I still couldn’t understand, and Uncle Eric never understood either.
And then I told them this…
Make sure you treat everyone kindly, at school and everywhere else. Never try to hurt anyone, because when you do, you hurt all the people who love them as well.
I told them to be better than nice — be the kids who stand up for other children. Back then, there were a few of those kids who would stop the taunting if they got there before me. They looked out for Eric, took him aside and told him they had his back, to come get them if he needed them. They weren’t my friends, but what they meant to me was indescribable. And they followed through. If Eric went to them, they helped. I told my children to be like them.
That day in the car I realized I had spent so much time preparing back-to-school schedules, wardrobes, sports carpools and backpacks, but maybe the most important thing — reminding my children to treat others with kindness — went unspoken. Yes, it’s an everyday lesson, but with all the recent stories about bullying, maybe it needs to be a bigger, more direct conversation.
I know my kids won’t always get it right. On occasion, they’ll leave someone out or say something that hurts a friend’s feelings, but this year I made it clear that bullying, teasing, or taunting anyone is unacceptable and would be the most disappointing thing they could do.
As our kids go back to school, let’s remind them to be kind and to stand up for the kids who need an extra hand. And I promise that somewhere, someone’s sister will be forever grateful.