Don’t Be Mean Just Because He’s Colorful
As a former “fat kid” in physicality growing up and current “fat kid” at heart (while still attempting to grow up) I had an opportunity not too many in my position often get a few weeks ago. It was an experience that I longed for like a slow burning ember stashed away in my heart walls that I had no idea even resided there until a good friend asked if I’d be willing to do it nearly a year ago. As one of the coordinators of Windsor Middle School’s annual school year “Spartan Stampede 3K,” a fundraiser for the PTA that doubles as a much needed chance to spark today’s youth into being active in the process, Hillary Miller was wondering if I’d come in as a guest speaker for the kids to get them fired up for what had apparently become an “oh, this again? Ugh…” sort of mentality amongst the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.
I couldn’t answer “absolutely” fast enough.
For many, going back to their old middle school would be a tangible nightmare. It’s been my observation that most people are either apathetic or bitter at revisiting their old grade school in any capacity, let alone actually getting up in front of the whole school and saying “hey y’all! I used to go here before any of you were even born yet! Here I am again!” To me though… that was the very moment I was unexpectedly craving until the situation serendipitously presented itself.
Here it was… a chance to go back and reach out to the kids with a message that I wished upon many a star for someone to come and give to me when I was their age. A moment to draw them in and even if just for a brief moment in time let them know that no matter how hard things get they are not alone and that everything gets better, you’ve just got to work for it. A shot at giving the gift of self-affirmation that has personally taken me a literal lifetime thus far to gain myself. Not redemption, but rather paying it forward; taking everything I’ve come to learn the hard way to this point and hopefully saving some of the hardship for others so they can focus on all the other guaranteed stresses they’re going through that have nothing to do with self-worth, anxiety, seclusion, and self-esteem.
Life is hard enough. There is absolutely zero point in being your own worst enemy.
Beyond just speaking to the kids, I was hoping to be a representation of hope. An embodiment that the words I’m saying are actually true and that I’m not just some weirdo adult (emphasis on the words “not just”) coming in and spouting off a bunch of words that I think they want to hear but rather someone who truly knows the hardships of being overweight, dealing with an eating disorder, battling self-mutilation, and getting bullied to the point of tears daily while redundantly asking “why me?” yet not having quite the mental fortitude to realize it ISN’T you… it’s them. I didn’t want to just come in and say things get better… I wanted to show them!
The date of the assembly was May 8th, a Thursday. I showed up on campus strapped with a Rebel shirt on my back and a shovel in the backseat just begging to be hoisted. It felt surreal since I hadn’t been there in who knows how many years but my shaky nerves told me I was ready. All good things carry nerves behind them so I took it as a sign the Universe was watching and waiting.
This is the point of the story where the tide shifts and I’m no longer the magic maker but instead the recipient of something so personally profound that there will never be enough words to explain how much powerful beauty resided in one simple statement from the mouth of a 6th grader.
I want to be very clear… I have no disillusions about the confusingly flamboyant and “out there” caricature I can be with my shaggy hair, brightly spray painted shirts, knee high socks, crazy bandanas, all accented with the energy of a hummingbird/silverback gorilla lovechild. Add a shovel painted up like a watermelon into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for a lot of funny looks and murmurs. Not only do I completely understand but from time to time will even let out an “I know, right?!” to the onlookers and whisperers (mostly because it’s fun to catch people off guard but trust me… you’d be surprised at how quickly someone’s perspective on you changes when you acknowledge it rather than fight it).
As I stepped through the gates and onto the actual campus itself the gawking, giggling, and subtle cat-calls immediately started in. Totally ok with me though… Since the last time I was there I’ve had quite a bit of practice at dealing with this scenario. With my chest puffed out like a Spartan shield and my sword drawn in the form of a toothy grin you couldn’t knock off my face no matter how hard you tried, I walked around campus in a “soak it in!” manner while mentally preparing for the task at hand. One boy even gazed up at me in bemused bewilderment and asked “Who are you?”
“You’ll find out soon enough, young buck!” was all I said as I high fived him and kept on movin’.
Near the multipurpose room doors was a planter box with benches on all sides of it that happened to be occupied with quite a few 7th and 8th graders who seemed to be the “ring leaders” in terms of making fun of the “weird guy.” I made sure to look them all in the eye… Not in a vengeful manner but instead stating without words “I see you and I’m unaffected by your taunts” before high fiving the boy nearest me and saying “how you doin’ man?!” His reply was a snicker followed by a “good…” I asked a couple other kids close by the same question and they all gave essentially the same answer.
It was as I was walking away when I heard the words that will stick with me forever.
With my back turned to the planter box as I walked to my inevitable destination merely a few feet away I heard a girl’s tiny, feisty voice cut through the schoolyard clutter clear as day:
“DON’T BE MEAN JUST ‘CAUSE HE’S COLORFUL!”
I stopped abruptly and did an about face before it even dawned on me I was doing it. I searched for the body that the voice belonged to but to no avail. I was in disbelief at what I had just experienced… In a cage full of lions rose a single, solitary voice fully intent on taming those beasts. She had no reason to… She could have kept quiet, ignored what was happening, and moved on like everyone else. She COULD have, but didn’t. I’d made it very apparent I needed no fending for, yet she spoke up anyway. She had no idea who I was, but it didn’t matter to her. I was a person. Not young, not old, not fat, not fit, not anything but a colorful human being that she decided to take into her own hands to speak up for when nobody else would.
It’s hard enough for damned ADULTS to do that, but a little girl?! She surely wasn’t going to make any friends by making such a defiant statement in a schoolyard shark pit that thrives on the first scent of “blood.”
When I made it into the assembly room I thought to myself “something just happened that completely changes everything I’m going to talk to these kids about…” I was still awestruck by what had just happened when I decided to walk around the campus for a bit before the Circus got started. Shovel in hand I set off towards the playground, my mind racing with the change in circumstances.
As I was rounding the building I walked past a few girls making their way towards their classroom before the final bell rung. One of them says “Hey, what’s your name?”
I knew that voice…
“Josh, nice to meet you! Hey, were you the one who yelled out ‘don’t be mean just because he’s colorful!’?” I asked hopefully.
“Yeah!” she said as her and her friends giggled at the recognition.
“That was AWESOME! What’s your name? What made you say that?” I pondered to her, excited at what her sage-like reply might be.
“I dunno… People shouldn’t be mean. Oh, and I’m Erin” She nonchalantly said back before more excitedly wondering “What are you doing here?!”
“I’m here to fire y’all up for the Spartan Stampede next week!” I shared as the final bell rung, they sped up their pace, and we exchanged our “see ya laters.”
This is where I’ll leave it. Not because that was the end of noteworthy events that I was blessed to be in the presence of that day… but because this tiny voice of love cutting through the deafening voice of judgment deserves to stand alone. It deserves to be highlighted, shared, celebrated, and emulated. It deserves to be downloaded into your mental data banks for those moments when you need a little bit of Erin’s courage to make a brave stand in any dire situation you may find yourself in.
The morning started as an eager opportunity to showcase hope but ended with me detailing a wonderful point in time in which hope was already present. The “Erins” of the world deserve the moon and stars for the beacon they shine. They flicker their light and chip away at the darkness so that all the other love warriors around who maybe aren’t “there yet” have not a reason to stand up… but instead a person to stand up with. Linked arms will ALWAYS be stronger than malicious ones.
Erin, I will always and forever take a stand with you.
Who’s with us?