Lessons Learned The Hard Way

Often it seems the lessons we learn the best are the same ones that we learned the hardest. When I was in 4th grade there was a girl in my class named Tina*. Tina was ‘that kid’. You know, the kid who was strange and wore old clothes and smelled a little weird. Kids bullied her quite a lot. I never said anything. In 5th grade Tina was in my class again. She was still ‘weird’ and still bullied. But now she started to fight back. Now kids thought she was weird and mean. When students would yell names at her across the playground, she would run over to them and yell right back in their faces. I still didn’t say anything. Then in 6th grade Tina’s ‘weirdness’ went to a whole new level. She got caught eating the hamster food for our class pet. The other kids in our class were ruthless. This time I said something, but I was on the wrong side. I joined in the taunts and the gossip. Two weeks later Tina was gone. I found out from my friend who was her neighbor that she had been taken into foster care by child protective services; her parents had been abusing and neglecting her, including not giving her food. She was so hungry that she ate the class hamster’s food.

We never know why people are the way they are. As a child, I did not try to imagine what could be happening with Tina. I did not connect her new meanness to self defense or hunger. And it has become one of my biggest regrets. If I could go back and be a friend to Tina, I would. Wherever she is now, I hope she is well.

This story taught me to be vigilant…vigilant for unfairness, for bullying, and for isolation. It is easier to doubt that what is happening is ‘really that bad’ than it is to do something. It’s an attitude that I have seen when it comes to sexism, racism, and other harmful ‘isms’. It’s not that bad when some random man tells me to smile at the grocery store. It’s not that bad when a person of color gets pulled over for no good reason. It’s not that bad when your coworker tells a joke about rape or sexual violence.

But the truth is, all these ‘not that bad’ things add up to a lot of bad. We are all the product of our experiences. If those experiences, day after day, are discriminatory or degrading, what does that mean for our development as human beings? As a social group?

I’m tired of letting the little things slide. I’m tired of watching them add up to big things, like the alt-right rallies full of hatred and racism, that we are seeing, or the attacks on access to women’s health care (which, let’s be real, should just be called ‘healthcare’). We’re past ‘it’s not that bad’ now.

What experiences opened your eyes? What did you do about it? What are your suggestions of how to be involved now?

*Name has been changed to protect privacy

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5 Responses

  1. Amelia Christensen says:

    My heart breaks for Tina. I imagine, and hope, schools would be more equipped now to notice red flags.

    But remember, you were just a child. And you have chosen to become an empathetic adult.

    I tend to be a bit of a stigma fighter. All the little stigmas in place add up to poor mental health and terrible suicide rates.

    There really so many “little things” which become big things. We can always do better.

  2. Happy Hubby says:

    Given that I had a few of these “Tina’s” in my past, I have had to stop focusing on how bad my previous actions make me feel and turn that shame into resolve to better now and going forward.

    I do have to wonder if I had not had those situations in my past that I feel so bad about now, if I would be so resolved to be a better me? It makes me wonder if the “never once club” is good advice in all situations. Don’t we all need to get at least a little burn on the stove to realize what heat can do so we avoid walking into a bon fire? Are we not sent here to learn, grow, and be tested. It seems some want to focus on the testing part and forget that we need to learn.

  3. Emily U says:

    Thanks for writing this, Jess. It reminds me that while we can’t answer many problems, we can always be kind. I also agree with Amelia that you should forgive your childhood self. It’s who we are today and tomorrow that matters most.

  4. Chiaroscuro says:

    love maya angelou’s advice ‘when you know better, do better.’ i often find in reflecting on my past i have been the one who put my foot in my mouth or treated someone badly. i can only hope that in the future i will do better

  5. Thank you for sharing this powerful, albeit painful, lesson learned. This post reminded me of this one by Aly: http://www.the-exponent.com/is-shame-ever-helpful-mormons/ We all have memories we are not proud of. What matters most is what we do now with what we know in retrospect.

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