Tom remembers how cruel and insensitive he and other classmates were to Judy in grade school just because she was poor and wore the same dress to school nearly every day. The boys even played the game “Who’s got the cootie?”—which implied that Judy was dangerously contagious. Even today, years later, he is ashamed for taking part in such an ugly exercise and wishes he could apologize.
In 1962, memories are still vivid of Charlie, a black football player on the high school team—the only black player. Charlie made a great tackle on one of the star running backs. The star took offense and called him the n-word. Often Charlie stood off by himself in the locker room after practice. He knew his place. And his young teammates seemed okay with that.
In school the kid with serious acne was called Pizza Face. The kid with glasses was Four Eyes or Coke Bottles. The girl with freckles was the object of pretend connect-the-dots games. We held our noses when the kid with body odor got near us—and accompanied our disgusting gestures with loud protestations. Wanda stuttered, which opened her up to all sorts of Elmer Fudd and Woody Woodpecker imitations. Sissy Bill swung a baseball bat “like a girl.”
All in good fun. We weren’t really hurting anybody. At least, that’s what we thought.
In eighth grade, Tom got a rash of boils. No one could explain why. (Maybe he earned them.) The one on the back of his neck was difficult to hide, so he wore a large bandage. It attracted much attention, and eventually he became Judy and Pizza Face and “Boil Boy” all rolled into one. All in good fun of course. Tom felt the sting of meanness and intolerance and insensitivity. In high school, taunting of many kids was louder, nicknames bolder, and practical jokes meaner.
Embrace Our Differences
A new study by the American Academy of Pediatrics reveals that boys who “act like girls” and vice versa are at risk of abuse and bullying. Sons who play with dolls and daughters who play with toy soldiers, for example, sometimes experience rejection from parents and others. Too often we focus on and make fun of mannerisms that don’t conform—the way a person walks, talks, gestures, dresses or looks. There’s pressure to “fit in” and rejection if you don’t. This results in teens feeling isolated, harassed, and needing to form alliances that we may not embrace.
It Starts at Home
Negative behavior might start harmlessly but the blade of ridicule can cut deeply, leaving words that terrify and wounds that never heal. As parents, we need to be careful how we characterize others. We need to set an example our kids can emulate. It’s so easy for us to draw conclusions and be intolerant of differences. With a little care, we can be the ones to help spread the blanket of tolerance.