, Newburyport, MA


October 15, 2013

Save your put-downs for arm-wrestling

It is no exaggeration to confess that my elementary school class, both individually and collectively, spent eight years putting down Sam in a very cruel and personal way.

Virtually every morning in the classroom, Sam was greeted with the words: “Hi, pig face!”

And when we saw Sam outside at recess: “Hi, pig face!”

And even at church school, where we were learning to become such good Christians: “Hi, pig face!”

Most of us knew only three things about classmate Sam: that his father owned a taxicab service; that he was the second of nine children; and that his chunky face had a nose that was both large and flat, as if he had walked into a wall.

We chose to focus on the third!

Today, Sam’s parents most likely would find a way to access plastic surgery, but in those days and in my neighborhood, who could afford it?

I don’t recall whether any staff or any classmate ever called Sam aside to assure him that the issue wasn’t so much the shape of his nose as the pigheadedness of his classmates.

And I don’t ever recall staff or classmate calling me or anyone else aside, challenging us to get beyond Sam’s nose to Sam’s heart.

As I look back, Sam had many fine qualities. He had great shoulders for football; he was gifted in art; he was a terrific math student. But we ignored all of that. It was so much easier to focus on the one deformity rather than on the several talents.

If just one kid (especially a popular kid) had said: “Leave him alone,” might it have stopped us all dead in our tracks?

After graduation from grade 8, I lost track of most classmates as I headed for a private school. However, I learned through the grapevine that Sam was receiving, in high school, the same verbal abuse and bullying that had haunted him in elementary.

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