“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:18 NIV)
Before my son was born, a dear friend gave me a copy of Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions. Amidst ruminations about her impending motherhood, she writes, ‘‘The seventh and eighth grades were for me, and for every single good and interesting person I’ve ever known, what the writers of the Bible meant when they used the words hell and the pit.’’
While my experience in middle school (which started in sixth grade) was overall really not so bad, no one comes out of adolescence unscarred. As I was thinking about what to write this week, I was burdened by a memory that I have never shared with anyone, and I felt that God might be saying it’s finally time to do so.
In one of my sixth grade classes was a boy who wasn’t particularly popular, successful, or self-confident (the latter not surprising given the former). He had an unfortunate name and kids liked to tease him. One day while he was for some reason not in the room, some kids got it into their heads to pass around a binder full of collectible cards that he’d brought to school and take out cards they liked. When it got to me, I had a split second to make a decision. I knew what the right thing to do would be, but I’m ashamed to say that I took some cards and passed it along. He came back into the room right after that and figured out what was going on, and I felt awful. Yet, even worse, when I returned to him some cards with an apology, I actually didn’t return all of the ones I’d stolen (it hurts to use the right word), but kept some for myself. In fact, I still have them; I had forgotten about the incident for years, but remembered when I found the cards.
It would be easier for me to admit my actions if I could say that I just got caught up in the moment, that everyone was doing it and egging each other on, but the reality is that I think that played only a small part in my decision. I was already well known as the goody two-shoes and teacher’s pet in the class; it would have cost me very little social capital to roll my eyes at the instigators, say “That’s not yours,” and stop the madness when I got the binder. Instead, I remember a moment, I remember the feeling, where I decided I wanted to have the cards more than I wanted to do the right thing.
Looking back, I am appalled at my heartlessness. He must have spent hours carefully collecting and organizing those cards, and who knows how many weeks’ allowance buying them. Poor as my family was, I’m sure I could’ve bought the cards if I had really wanted them. But I wanted them “for free.” I feel even worse when I think about something like that happening to my son. Would he even be able to admit to me that it happened so that I could fix it? Or would he carry around the wounds unspoken until they festered?
In the throes of puberty, it can be so hard to have perspective, to do the right thing when it would cost you or when you just don’t want to. But fifteen years from now – heck, maybe next year – no one will care or even know how cool you were or weren’t, whether you had the right shoes or the wrong haircut. What people will remember is how you treated them. I’m sharing this story to remind you that you will never, ever regret showing mercy, kindness and compassion. It’s also worth noting that in the heat of the moment, it’s even harder to make a good decision. When you’ve committed ahead of time to doing the right thing, acknowledging to yourself that doing so might make you look “uncool” but deciding to do it anyway, the split-second decision can be a lot easier to make.
I found out through friends on Facebook that the boy, now grown up, committed suicide right before his 30th birthday. I doubt that the one incident from his childhood was the deciding factor, but who knows how much good it would have done if I had done the right thing? I would so, so much rather be able to say that I was a good memory for him, rather than just another kid who would steal from him right under his own nose. I would almost be willing to relive sixth grade, just so that I could have a chance to show him love when others wouldn’t.