Being kind to strangers is a good start. But far more impactful is being kind to the people we know and see every day. In fact, if you were to ask someone who's been on the receiving end of unkindness, odds are it didn't come from a stranger. It came from a classmate, a coworker, or a friend. Just ask Scott Mautz.
Scott was born with Muscular Dystrophy, a degenerative disease that attacks the skeletal muscles. He also has a noticeable case of scoliosis, which is a curvature of his spine that isn't supposed to be there.
Now, today in his fifties, he still walks a little funny. He describes his gait as "looking like I've been riding a horse for two days." But as a child, it was a much more debilitating condition. He wore a full-body brace including a collar around his neck and thick spinal support down his back. His nickname at school was "Mr. Twister" because of the awkward gyrations he had to go through with every step.
Not surprisingly, he wasn't athletic enough to play varsity sports at his high school. But he still wanted to be part of the team. So he volunteered to be the team manager. That meant he got the towels, carried the water, and corralled the equipment. So he got to hang out with the athletes and the "cool kids" one way or another. That, combined with a good sense of humor, kept him in the good graces, and the company of, the popular crowd.
But teenagers can be cruel. And with his disability being so visible, his good luck was bound to run out. And eventually, it did. "One day at lunch," he said, "somebody decided it was uncool to be friends with me." Within a matter of minutes, everyone at the table turned on him. He said, "I was suddenly conscious that I was a bit of a freak, and that I wasn't welcome there anymore."
Now, Words are probably inadequate to describe the sobering moment Scott had to face next. He knew what he had to do. He said, "I had to stand up, pick up my tray, and leave." So, tray in hand, he desperately scanned the cafeteria for an empty seat and a welcoming gaze. He found only one – the one everyone else would know as the "nerd" table. There were no athletes there. Most were either overweight, or underweight, spent their time playing dungeons and dragons and had terrible acne.
But since sitting anywhere was more appealing than sitting alone, Scott started off in their direction. He felt every eye on him as he took the long walk of shame, "twisting" as he says, past all the boys he looked up to and the girls he had crushes on. The entire scene is seared in Scott's memory: the color of his tray, what he had for lunch, the look on the faces as he moved past to the only table that would accept him.
Scott remembers the awkwardness of having to sit down and make friends with the very people he had participated in teasing with his former friends until only moments before. One boy, in particular, her remembers openly mocking and teasing a few weeks earlier. He said, "But they accepted me. They never asked me why I was sitting there. Never said one word about it. They just took me in." Oh, and about the boy he teased? He told me, "I remember thinking, 'This is the coolest kid in school!'"
So, how did this humbling experience impact, Scott? He said, "It changed me forever. I was never that unkind to anyone again. And I'm sure it shaped much of who I am as an adult."
Now, As a child, or an adult, the lesson I take from Scott's story is this. Resolve to be kind to everyone you meet, because none of us is ever that far from the nerd table.
Also, it might help to know that at the end of our interview, I asked Scott if he'd ever shared that story with his daughter. He said, "No," "I'm waiting for her to do something mean like that, so I'll have an opportunity to use this story."
"Really," I said. "What are you waiting for? Do you want her to learn this lesson after she's already hurt, someone? Or before?" And I'd suggest the same thing for you. Don't wait till your child has already hurt someone. Share this story, and have a conversation about it. Here are some questions to get you started.
If you were a student at Scott's high school, at which of those tables would you likely sit?
Do you think Scott regretted teasing those other kids after he ended up turning to them for friendship?
Who are some of the people at your school that get teased and made fun of? How do you feel when you see that happen?
What should you do when you see other people making fun of someone?
Okay, in the next lesson, you'll learn a remarkable technique to help you like someone so that you're never tempted to be mean to them.