Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Failures of Kindness

In this season of graduation speeches and advice, I read this speech from George Saunders on the Times site. You should definitely read it in its entirety. It's filled with lovely sentiments and good advice, but the part that really punched me in the gut was this:

                   But here’s something I do regret:
                   In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech 
                   name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only 
                   old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into  
                   her mouth and chewing on it.
                   So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair 
                   taste good?” — that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such 
                   an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was 
                   trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, 
                   I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, 
                  fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”
                  Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.
                  And then — they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.
                  One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.
                  End of story.
                  Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other 
                  kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even 
                  (mildly) defended her.
                  But still. It bothers me.
                  So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:
                  What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
                  Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. 
                  Reservedly. Mildly.

It reminds me of one of those things that I can't let go of from middle school, that niggles at me to this day. There was a girl who was a bit slower. She didn't have the ease at making friends that so many others had, but she was genuine and would never have dreamed of anything hurtful to say to anyone. And one of the popular girls who was certainly capable of thinking and doing hurtful things toward other girls took notice of her one day in our gym locker room and told her she needed a makeover. 

This potential mean girl proceeded to outline her eyes with tons of liner and tell her how much better she looked. I didn't say a word; I just went home that night and cried because I didn't do anything for her. I didn't (and actually still don't) know if this was one of those rare times that the potential mean girl was being genuine. After all, it was her own eyeliner and it was a similar look to her own, so it was not obviously done to be funny or hurtful. I was afraid to speak up because I didn't want to hurt the shy girl finally getting attention from the popular girl. She practically beamed at herself in the mirror afterward. 

So why did it bother me so much and why does it continue to bother me? 

At the time I thought it was the uncertainty about the situation that bothered me so much, but now I suspect it's because I didn't go out of my way to be her friend. That memory just illustrates so vividly how badly she wanted a connection and how often we were all so indifferent to her. Perhaps that potential mean girl was actually nicer to her than I was. She paid attention and made a gesture, and I didn't. I wasn't mean, but I missed the opportunity to be kind.