“Why would God do that? Make someone look like (that), so that everyone makes fun of him?…Maybe because God didn’t see anything wrong with him in the first place.” —“That’s What I Am”
A ginger-haired eighth-grade boy with ears too big for his head stood a foot taller than his classmates. Most kids avoided him. A few hung out in the “designated geek” area with him. A few others teased him. One tormented him.
One befriended him. His friend spent most of his time explaining the logistics of living the life they were meant for: steering clear of as many people as possible and making it their life’s work to be invisible, with the exception of extreme situations. If attacked, attack back, faster and harder.
It was this thinking that drove the ginger-haired kid’s friend completely crazy when, instead of standing up or attacking back, he kept eye contact, took the abuse and moved on.
“Why do you do that?” he would plead with him after a bout with torment. “Why do you just stand there and take it?”
“If he didn’t do it, there would just be another one to take his place,” he calmly replied.
The ginger-haired kid’s friend never got that. The fact that he had a glass-half-full personality probably didn’t help the situation. Even as best friends, there were parts about each other they didn’t understand. No matter how the other kids tormented this boy, he would not cover up who he was, or disguise—even for a minute—what was under his physical appearance.
Another classmate was assigned to be his partner for a short-story project. After the necessary mental preparation to enter into the geek area, which to his surprise, caused neither a rash nor turned him into something hideous, the two were able to connect with a topic for their story.
The assignment was to base their story on one word that meant the same thing to everyone. Their first idea was prejudice, but decided that because people are on different sides of prejudice, their definition of it would be different, too.
They settled on tolerance. It’s meaning was clear: “Sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices different from or conflicting with one’s own; the act of allowing something to be different.”
I have been told by those who know more than me that you can’t erase a bad habit, addiction or thought. Instead, it has to be replaced. Bad, out. Good, in. To put it into terms I understand, this is why it is nearly impossible to say, “I will not eat Rolos.” Because unless they are replaced with something less amazing and sugary, I will obsess until I eat the Rolos.
As this tall ginger-haired kid stood proud in every situation—while he was with his one friend, while he was being bullied, and even while performing in a talent show to the initial giggles and ridicule of the audience, you sensed a hope that his self-dignity would lead to tolerance.
He gave hope for the kid who is relentlessly picked on, the one who is overlooked because they won’t fake it to be noticed, and the one who makes sure they are the loudest so the surface is all people see.
The story goes that the tall, ginger-haired kid grew up to make a home in the south of France with someone who didn’t have to lift off a cover to see him. He never did see a reason to hide who he was. Not to the people who didn’t care and certainly not to the ones who did. He lived a life of tolerance that started by being tolerant of the lot he was given.
School and the pressure it brings are now in session, so it seems like a good time to remind ourselves. The rest of us, while we might try, don’t always stand as the best examples of why the ginger-haired kid knew it was the perfect word choice:
“That’s why tolerance is such a great word. It’s not even saying that you have to like the other person. It’s just saying…leave them alone.”