All names have been changed to protect the identities of those herein.
It was always an odd time for me: when summer nears its end, and the impending school year was to start anew. Looking back, I can see that my affinity for office supplies (and the smell of the stores) has been a part of me for a long time, because I always had a ping of excitement when my mom would take me shopping for new school supplies for the new grade. Then there were the few new items of clothing that I’d get, and that was cool, too. And the last sign that the beloved days of lazing around, probably annoying the mess out of my parents, and little to no scheduled anything were over: school open house. I suppose open house was always bittersweet for me. Summer was ending, and something new was starting. It was exciting, kinda.
I remember going to open house for 3rd grade. I think that might have been a special year because my teacher had actually been my brother’s 5th grade teacher a few years prior. Her name was Mrs. Blake. From what my brother said, she was cool. She had a good relationship with the kids, joked around with them, liked The Simpsons…cool.
Her classroom was walled off by these bizarre partitions that looked like they could’ve come down with enough force, and the door was extra big, with a slot machine-like arm for a handle. I walked up to the door and pulled down the handle and opened it into the classroom.
I saw Elizabeth at about the same time she gasped and said “TERENCE!” Smiling, she ran over to me and greeted me with a hug. My 3rd grade self felt both a little awkward and flattered. I can’t quite remember exactly where my history with her began – it was obviously prior to this event – but this moment stands out as a marker in my relationship with her. So we were in the same class in 3rd grade.
Later in life, when I became old enough to put two and two together, I figured out (not with complete assuredness) that Elizabeth and I weren’t in the same class by chance. I’ll never know if others were placed there specifically as well, though it wouldn’t surprise me, but she was the only child in our class – our school, I think – with Down’s Syndrome, and I had befriended her previously. And I would become her ally.
[Pause: It’s important to note that there were others who certainly could’ve found themselves in my class under the same circumstances. I had somehow built a reputation in my elementary school; I was smart, accomplished, and well-behaved. I guess I was a teacher’s pet, but I know I was well-known by staff and well-liked. I know this is horribly boastful, and I really don’t mean to brag, but there’s no reason to sugar coat. I think my reputation might’ve had something to do with why we were placed in the same class. That is absolutely not to say that Elizabeth was lowly and I was there to rescue or protect her – I was not her savior, but maybe she needed a support system. Lastly, I don’t wear my elementary school amazingness like a crown of laurels. That was 20+ years ago. My amazingness these days measures around “poor to average” on the amazingness scale at best.]
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves…” Proverbs 31:8a
I’m not sure why I had a soft spot for her. Kids can be cruel, too cruel, and I suppose I took great issue with people mistreating her because of a genetic disorder. How unfair. We sat next to each other for a good part of the school year, if not all of it. I can remember how she would play with her pencils, tapping them across her desk on their erasers. One time I tried to join her. I hadn’t the slightest idea of what exactly she was doing, but I thought I’d give it a shot. WHAM! It took a half of a second before she swatted my hand away. Apparently I was way off in my interpretation of the pencil-dancing. It still makes me chuckle.
I can remember how she liked cowgirls, or at least I think she did due to the gusto with which she would say “RIDE ‘EM COWGIRL!” as she galloped around the room. It made us all laugh. I’m pretty sure most of the kids were laughing at her expense, and to be honest I think I did, too, the first one or two times I saw her do it. Eventually I laughed with her. How couldn’t I, feeling such joy coming from her?
Perhaps what I remember most was a sad moment during PE class one day. The challenge of the day was to run towards the two posts with a jump rope stretched between them and jump over the rope. There were only two posts and one jump rope, so that meant that each of us gave it a go by ourselves with everyone watching. One by one we went, cleared the rope, then sat down in the grass to watch everyone else. We were getting down to the end of the line, and Elizabeth was up next. Off she went running, then she jumped, and down she went. She pancaked face first into the mat. Can you imagine the sound of roaring laughter from a class full of 3rd graders? That’s what it sounded like. But it wasn’t funny. It wasn’t funny at all. During the uproar I remember shouting “At least she tried, y’all!!!” And again, “AT LEAST SHE TRIED!” Thankfully my voice was heard by the teacher, who thanked me then addressed the class in the same manner. I remember seeing her pick herself up and walk back to sit with the rest of us. I wish I had been old enough to think to walk over to her to help somehow, or at least offer…or even just walk with her. My heart still hurts when I replay that defining moment of my childhood.
Eventually middle school came, and Elizabeth wasn’t there, or at least I don’t remember seeing her there. I’m not sure if she stayed behind in elementary school or if she went to a different school for 6th grade. I still thought of her, though, and to this day she still holds a place in my heart. I think she went to my high school, but it had been so long since I had seen her that I wasn’t completely sure if it was her or not. I think I said “Hi, Elizabeth” to her once, but she must not have recognized or remembered me, if it was even her to begin with.
But middle school had it’s own memorable moments that bore similarity to the ones with Elizabeth. Middle school is hell for almost everyone in some way or another. If you aren’t part of the elite that seem to separate themselves and become elite for no tangible reason, you’re going to have some problems at some point. I know I did. I was obviously picked on in elementary school because of dance, but when boys start becoming “men” (in quotations because a lot of them still haven’t earned that title in the past 18 years) in middle school, differences are magnified and far less accepted. Not to mention, I made the unfortunate choice to have longer hair when I started middle school. Why on earth I thought that was a good idea, I’ll never know. I guess I was naive still, and saw people as mostly good, so I didn’t think it would be an issue. It shouldn’t have been.
“Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Psalm 82:4
At some point in the 6th grade, I started hearing about a boy who was supposedly a big loser. Sickeningly enough, I found solace in that. Somebody was actually more despised than I was, and he made them forget about me for a minute. If I remember correctly, he was a “baby”. “John Glass is such a baby.” I had no idea who he was as he had come from a different elementary school than mine. It didn’t take me long to figure it out.
One day we were spilling out of the gym after an assembly. I don’t know why hundreds of 6th graders were allowed to rush the halls like a herd of buffalo, but we weren’t in any sort of lines. I remember the crowd turned down a certain hallway near the cafeteria, and I heard a bunch of commotion, shouting, and loud laughter. In my memory this whole occasion is a flash, but I think I remember seeing teachers trying to pull kids away and push through the crowd, and I couldn’t see why. Then before I knew it, there he was. John was at my feet, crying in the fetal position, face red, eyes squeezed shut, and tears streaming down his cheeks.
I stopped dead in my tracks. My jaw hit the floor. I felt the crowd sweep past me on either side as I bore against the force of people who kept coming behind me. It was like when a wave crashes on your back, or when you stand at the shore while the undertow pulls at your feet. I felt like I stood there for an eternity, but it must’ve only been a few seconds, because I eventually walked past him as the crowd was coming to an end and the teachers managed to get to him. I kept looking back at him and seeing myself. There he was, on the ground, crying out for it all to stop. I can’t really bear to think of what might’ve happen to him as he was there, defenseless on the ground while hundreds of kids surrounded him.
I never actually met him, but I tried to defend John after that incident when I had the opportunity. Sure, I had once taken delight that I wasn’t alone down at the bottom, but even then I couldn’t just let people continue to trash him. I’m not sure what happened to him, either, other than the few times I saw him in high school. He seemed to be hard and shut off from the world. Why wouldn’t he be? When you’re forced to a place of such vulnerability – humility – it’s no wonder that walls go up. Who knows how high or wide or strong his were…or probably still are.
“Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Hebrews 13:16
Fast forward to about 5 years ago. (I don’t mean to skip my high school and early 20s years, as I’m sure those years held enough lessons to be learned and pivotal moments. If I’m being totally honest, I might’ve turned a little more selfish then in order to re-establish myself as somebody important, as well as focus on my career. The lessons I learned during those times are different from the ones that came from the first two situations I’ve mentioned.) If I remember correctly, 2010 was a pretty cold winter for us. I remember one particular January morning walking outside to my car in 18 degree weather. As a North Carolinian, these kinds of temperatures don’t work for me. It is beyond frigid, and borders on unbearable. I went to the gym anyway.
On my way back, I saw someone on the side of the road, begging. It was 18 degrees outside, and he was standing there in a sweatshirt. A sweatshirt. His sleeves were pulled over his hands, clenched in his fists, and the drawstring in his hood was pulled tightly around his face. Thankfully, the gym, Target, and the apartment I lived in at the time were all within 5 minutes of each other. I made a quick decision to take a detour to Target to pick up a few things to help this guy in even the smallest way. I got some granola bars, and made my way over to the outerwear section to get some gloves and a hat. As I was trying to make an educated guess on what size gloves I should buy, I felt myself getting choked up, so I moved over to the underwear aisle to hide my mini breakdown. Here I was, using my money to buy something to help make somebody more comfortable as he stood in the freezing cold, asking for help. I didn’t really think what I was going to give him could do much help, and even if I shouldn’t have, in that moment I felt a tremendous amount of guilt for having the luxury to walk into a store and spend money on something (that I wouldn’t even use), then return to my warm home.
Thankfully he was still there when I returned to give him the bag of stuff I had gotten. I stopped at the light at the intersection he was standing near. By the time he walked over to me, the light was turning green, so I quickly rolled down my window to hand him the bag, so I wasn’t able to have any sort of conversation with him. I quickly rolled the window back up, shutting out the obnoxious cold, and drove away. I hadn’t gotten very far through the intersection when I looked in my rear view mirror and saw that he already had the hat on and was putting on the gloves. It really was so bitterly cold.
“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2
Every now and then, one of these three moments runs through my head, and I’m sure they will for the rest of my life. It seems as if there is a definite reason why I can’t escape the memory of these; why I’m immediately taken back to how I felt as I experienced them. Those are feelings that I can’t shake. They are ingrained in me. But how can these three all be connected? Obviously the first two can be easily linked together, but the third?
The truth is, I wasn’t completely sure until I was well into writing this. After re-living these moments from years passed, shedding tears for the downtrodden, and for the times that I was the same, I got it.
In order to help those in need, we have to become like them.
No, I can’t literally become somebody with Down’s Syndrome, I most likely won’t ever be in a situation where I’m on the floor while surrounded by a taunting mass of people who don’t like me, and at this point in life (hopefully never) I can’t be without what I have and beg on the street.
But I CAN gain try to gain understanding, empathize, and sacrifice.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had started to understand Elizabeth. I tried to get into her world and play with my pencils like I would have several years earlier in my life. At an age where imagination begins to fade away, I could join her in the exhilaration of riding a pretend horse. When things came easily to me, I could see and appreciate the full-hearted effort she put into trying to jump over the jumprope. Thankfully I get that now, so hopefully in the future I can bring myself back to that place so I can be giving of myself to somebody I don’t quite get. Or that maybe my first reaction to somebody who is a mystery or makes me uncomfortable is one of acceptance instead of shunning. I pray for that.
I’ve never been even close to being at risk of being trampled or kicked by a group of people, or at least not physically, anyway. But I felt what John was feeling on the floor that day. My heart broke for him, and felt real empathy for the first time in my life. Empathy is what drove me to defend him, even when I was viewed as the same as him. Given my position in life at that point, I wouldn’t have naturally spoken up on his behalf, but for the same reason, I did speak up, because even if I was someone who was shunned, John needed somebody to support him.
When I gave the beggar those few items, I only felt the smallest amount of sacrifice. I was out $20. I have no idea what it’s like to be without to a degree that would put me on the side of the street and hope that somebody would look upon me kindly, but isn’t the first step to making a difference in the life of someone who is, a small step towards sacrificing something?
Becoming like the ones who are in need, the overlooked, is to take their yoke upon ourselves. We ought to be bearing their burdens. Sure, we could write a check to our favorite charity or smile at strangers, but to make a difference in someone’s life, don’t we have to walk with them? Share in their journey somehow? Connect ourselves to them in a real way? It might mean an uncomfortable conversation, acting in opposition to our reputation, or bringing ourselves to a place of humility, but we have to. We have to identify with the overlooked lest we become the overlooked.
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21
As a Christian, shouldn’t the gospel compel me to act in this way? Christ, who knew no sin, became sin so that I could be His righteousness. Christ became what I was in order to bring me righteousness. His perfect act of becoming is the perfect display of understanding, empathizing, and sacrificing. Can’t it be that those who are forgotten or overlooked are brought to a higher place in a similar way to how Christ has made me His righteousness through His sacrifice?
Modeling this behavior is difficult, and God help me, definitely something I need to work on. It is the ultimate act of love; one which contains immeasurable power. It’s an act that can reach much farther than the three examples I have mentioned. Perhaps you are already doing it and don’t realize it, so keep an eye out. Just what would happen if we all became servants to those who are “beneath” us? It’s a concept that seems counterintuitive, right? But just as we should have a desire to deeply affect the lives of the overlooked, that same generosity will probably be given to us. And I think Somebody already has.