One boy, two girls, and some candy wrappers
With the candy finished, the boy moved across the room. His movements were unexpected and out of place for the smallish lobby. You see, he almost ran across the room, but at his height he only made about three steps before reaching the bottlenecked space between the lobby and the classrooms. The boy flapped his hands and hooted while he ran. Everyone noticed, though no one reacted.
I went back to playing on my phone, and I didn't notice the boy had left until the two chatting girls were now on my right. One sat on the bench, then the taller, perhaps older girl said in a loud but disgusted hush, "That's where his candy was!"
The sitting girl jumped up. My heart sank.
Ignore, then gossip
In Firegirl by Tony Abbott, Jessica Feeney is the new girl in school. She arrives just after the start of the school year, and her teacher introduces her by saying, "There's something you need to know about Jessica." It turns out the Jessica has suffered extensive and severe burns, but that is all the seventh graders are told about her before she arrives in their small parochial school. The children react as you might expect - with apprehension. Jessica makes no effort to connect with her classmates, and they pretty much ignore her, in return. Behind her back, however, rumors fly. Disgusting things are said. Their resentment towards her builds. One kid refuses to hold her hand during their prayer circle. Her isolation continues.
I don't know how it ends, but since this book is written for young readers, I hope it ends well.
This mother's fears
My child looks different. Long-time readers know that Seconda has no hair due to alopecia areata. In a school of 700-some kids, there are students with glasses and students who write with their left hands and there are students with food allergies and there are students with emotional challenges and there are students who do not speak. Seconda is the only child without hair on her head. The fear that always lies in the back of my mind and sometimes comes to the forefront is that some other child will say, "Don't sit there! That's where she sat." It's that someone will refuse to hold her hand in some kind of school activity. It's that her classmates will pretty much ignore her to her face but let the rumors and disgusting comments fly behind her back.
It's a fear that has, for the most part, not come to fruition. For probably nine months of the year, the fears lie dormant in the way back of my mind because our school and our neighbors are everything I hope for when the fears rear up. I hope for a world where no one cares if you have no hair. I hope for a world where my family can go out without inducing stares. We have that in our small corner of the world, but when the fears rear up, I just wish I could somehow make the whole world aware of alopecia areata so that Seconda and I never have to have another conversation about it with others again. I mean, does anyone really talk about people wearing glasses to help their vision? No. Do people talk with wonder about a child who writes with her left hand? No. People see it and they just know.
Roughly 2% of Americans, or about 4.5 million people, will be diagnosed with some form of alopecia areata in their lifetimes. An estimated 1 in 1000 children has alopecia areata.
That's about 160,000 kids living with alopecia.
One out of every 68 children in the United States has an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
That's about 235,000 kids living with autism.
Around 300 children each day are treated by emergency departments for burn injuries, and 2 of those children die.
That's about 109,000 kids living with burn injuries.
Protection from cooties
The chatting girls in the dance studio acted as children do when another kid has "cooties". The characters in Firegirl treated Jessica Feeney the same way. They avoid the "affected" child and classify his things as unclean. They protect each other from catching the cooties themselves.
Maybe it's because my own child is at risk for a peer-diagnosed case of "cooties", but nevertheless I found myself sad for the chatting girls. Sure, I have empathy for the boy who left his candy wrappers out and ran across the lobby. The chatting girls, however, stayed on my heart because I wonder who is watching out for them. Who is watching out for their character, so that they might not diagnose "cooties" in another child?
Knowing better, doing better
A friend of mine who works as a special education teacher shared this video today. It is about a boy with non-verbal autism who delivered his school's graduation speech.
I saw the video and thought of the chatting girls again. Lectures to children about teaching others with respect rarely work. They are just too vague. Respect is something you know when you feel it. Our words for respect lack the nuance to really describe it. Respect is often confused with politeness, or simple obedience. True respect is about empathy, and people can't be lectured into empathic feelings.
Stories, however, whether true or fictional, can develop empathy. I think most of us recognize that truth just from our own experiences. Think of all the social media memes asking you to list the books you read that "stayed with you" the most. Think of the TV shows you watched as a child, as a teenager, as a college student. Which stayed with you? Which changed your worldview? Which confirmed it?
We have our personal anecdotes about the power of fiction to develop empathy, and we have scientific research as well. Researcher David Comer Kidd said, "What great writers do is turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others."
Empathy is about understanding the minds of others, and as with any other kind of knowledge, when you know better, you do better.