Tuesday, November 24, 2009


“If you ever meet a girl at our school named Kim,” my third grade son Dane whispers in the living room, “you should stay away from her.”

I’m in the hallway and I stop in my tracks before I’m seen or heard. Dane’s talking to his sister, my second grade daughter, Aubrey, and I want to hear this conversation. As someone who grew up an only child, I yearned for someone to show me the ropes, impart a little extra wisdom, watch my back. When these two look out for each other, I usually can’t help but revel in how lucky they are. Just the other day, Aubrey came home sick from school, and when she didn’t show up for the after-school pottery class, Dane checked her classroom coat hook, walked the school, and then phoned home to find out where she was. When he learned she was safe, he asked her what colors she’d like him to paint her projects so they could go in the kiln with everyone else’s for the next week.

“Oh,” Aubrey whispers now. “Why should I stay away from her?”

From the hallway, I edge closer. Perhaps this Kim girl is really mean. Or maybe she knows things – bad words or sexual things – beyond her years. I wonder what sort of threat she could be.

Dane continues, “Well, she goes into peoples’ houses at night and steals their things…”

Whoa. Back up. Seriously? No, seriously!

“Wait a minute…” I hear myself say, coming out of the shadows of the hallway, cutting the scene short like the director in a shoot gone wrong. “How do you know this?” I ask.

“Well, it’s what everybody says…” Dane says, his statement sounding more like a question as he bows his head and looks up from under his mop of bangs.

“Have you ever met this girl, Dane?”

“Um, no.”

“Have any of your friends ever met this girl?

“Um, no… but that’s what everybody says.”

My God, I think to myself. Poor Kim.

“Okay, guys, I want you to think hard about this,” I say, calling them over to stand in front of me as I take a seat on a dining room chair. I’m about to get cliché on them and come down a little heavy-handed, but I want them to grasp the danger of gossip.

“How would you feel if you heard people were saying, ‘You know Dane, that yellow-haired third-grader? Well, stay away from him – he sneaks into peoples’ houses at night and chops them up into little pieces.’”

Dane gets sheepish and says, “Um, not very good…”

He sees what I mean. So does Aubrey, with a nod of her head.

I decide to soften the blow a little bit, tell them something from my own experience. But instead of going to the day in fourth grade when two popular girls ostracized me by telling all of the other girls not to play with me because I was stuck up, which hurt so bad I still feel the sting, I breathe life into old Bruce Caldwell, the stinkiest kid in school. And this story has less to do about gossip than it has to do about kindness.

“I have to tell you about a really important time in my life, when I chose to ignore bad things everybody thought about a boy in my class – and how it taught me an important lesson.”

I told them about skating with Bruce Caldwell.

Bruce Caldwell had been at my school since kindergarten. And every day since that first day in Miss Shahan’s class, Bruce came to school smelling like he’d pooped his pants.

He was a cute enough kid with squinty brown eyes, short mouse-brown hair, freckles across the bridge of his nose, and a tentative smile. He looked a lot like the other boys, except that his brown Toughskins always looked like he’d just dropped a load – and smelled just as bad. He probably had a medical condition, or was neglected at home, but nobody in 1976 really had the savvy to help him meet this head on.

At recess, few kids would play with him. In fact, bad boys like Trent and Jon and Delmar taunted him relentlessly when they weren’t off picking teams for soccer or throwing gravel at the girls on the monkey bars. So Bruce usually played alone – even when he tried to brave up and join in.

As far as I can remember, it was like that for every day of Bruce Caldwell’s school life, onto first grade, second grade, third grade, fourth grade.

In fourth grade, the long-awaited quarterly skating parties started. Skate parties were the perfect chance to listen to Journey, Air Supply, AC/DC and Neil Diamond all in one afternoon under the disco balls and padded walls of a roller rink. We got to shoot-the-duck, skate crazy trios (flinging the outside person wide and squealing), and, most importantly, we got to skate “couples.”

The best – and worst – part of couples skate was that electric tension that could course through your body as you wondered if Matt or Kevin or even a bully like Jon or Delmar or Trent would ask you to skate. Because, when they did, you got to hold their sweaty (Matt), calloused (Kevin), or skinny (Jon) hand while you both tried to smile or not smile, talk or not talk, and laugh or not laugh while Steve Perry sang about the smell of wine and cheap perfume, something of which you maybe only knew half about.

To get asked to skate was dreamy – or at least it was if you were included. To not get asked to skate, though, was heartbreaking, as you sat leaning over the side of the shag carpeted rink wall either staring wistfully off at the DJ, or trying to look nonchalant as you waved and laughed and smiled at all the couples who rolled by, smiling and talking and laughing. Or not, as it were.

One such day, after I’d had the attention of at least one male roller skater (maybe sweaty-palmed Matt?), Bruce Caldwell rolled over to me. His hands were stuffed deep in his brown pockets, his brown eyes squinting. With his shoulders kind of hunched, he shrugged with each word of his question: “Hey Anjie, you wanna skate with me?”

I’m not sure I’d ever seen Bruce skate with anybody.

I saw Trent and Jon roll past us with their partners, pointing and yelling, “Hey Poopy Brucey!” I saw Tara and Rhonda next to me at the rink wall, giggling and whispering to each other with furtive glances at me. I saw Bruce sigh, and then lift his shoulders again with some sort of extra resolve.

In that moment, I knew that to say no would be one of the meanest things I could do; I knew that saying yes was just plain right. So I decided to go the brave and honorable route: I smiled and said, “Sure, Bruce.” I took a shallow breath and followed him to the rink. Once there, he shrugged again, smiled tentatively, and held out his hand.

Bruce’s hand had a little bit of dryness to it, which was nice since he smelled like poop, and it was warm, which could be nice or not, depending on how you look at it. He didn’t hold too tightly, but he didn’t let it get loose either. And so we skated. And kindness won the day without hurting anybody.

And that’s where I ended my story for my kids, because the story is about kindness, and my point is that kindness feels good.

But here’s what I didn’t tell them: I failed.

After ten feet in the rink, I became acutely aware of our classmates looking at us, staring across the rink, passing us, glancing over their shoulders from in front of us – and I hate to admit it, but I freaked.

What had I gotten myself into? Was everyone going to think I was Bruce’s girlfriend? Were they going to think we were “going” together? Was Bruce going to ask me to “go” with him? Was I going to start stinking too?

And before we’d gone one complete revolution round the rink, I’d decided I wanted out. I couldn’t hack the pressure.

And so it was that I’d held Bruce Caldwell’s hand in all likelihood for twenty seconds when I said, “I’m sorry, Bruce, I just can’t do this anymore,” and I skated off the floor in shame.

I skated off to the booth where Rhonda and Tara were sitting. I had a hard time looking either of them in the eye, I was blushing, and I couldn’t answer their awful questions: What was that like? Why’d you do that? Was it gross?

I looked across the floor to see that Bruce had skated off to the arcade, and was staring at the screen in front of him, pressing buttons madly like he was playing a game. He probably hadn’t even put a quarter in the machine.

The shame was awful, and even then I knew it wasn’t the shame of having skated with Bruce, it was the shame of having not skated with Bruce. I knew his life sucked. And I was ashamed I couldn’t hack for one revolution what it took to be Bruce Caldwell for life.

So, sitting on the dining room chair, telling my kids they ought to give this girl Kim a chance, that they should never make a judgment about a person without at least having spoken to them personally, that they should practice kindness every chance they get, I’m actually crying.

I’m crying because I couldn’t give Bruce a full skate – and I wish I would have been kinder.

Someday I’ll tell my children the whole story. After all, I’m not afraid to tell them my vulnerabilities – they know of other mistakes I’ve made – but for now I make the choice to stop at simply having said yes to skating with Bruce. For now, this is a lesson in kindness; it’s the kindness pep talk.

I want my kids to feel the courage to practice kindness, to try to give some future Bruce the full skate. Because maybe, just maybe, where I once failed, they’ll succeed. And that would be the greater kindness. For everybody.


KUrlie said...

Oh my gosh. I just hate those moments when you try to step up, you know you should, and your courage fails. And isn't weird how those moments really never leave you? They make for good life lessons because they always come back to remind you. This is a great story Anj - I'm interested to see where you can take it and where you might be able to shop it...


Danigirl said...

Well, I googled Bruce Caldwell... just wondered where he might be today. Have no idea if I found him, but it might be worth a call and an apology (poopy smell reference omitted, of course). You never know how it might make you both feel. :)

anjie said...

I know! I've looked him up too! I actually changed his name for this blog - to protect his identity from the masses who read this ;) I emailed a FB childhood friend to see if she knows where he is, too. I'll let you know if I ever find him.

Danigirl said...

Looking forward to an update one of these days... :)

Natalie N said...

I absolutely loved this post. As always, your writing had me at the edge of my seat. I felt like I was in the hallway with you listening to your kids, and I felt like I was at the skating rink with you feeling the shag carpet along the side of the roller rink wall. You are such a descriptive and wonderful writer.

I also loved the lessons with this story. Heaven knows we all have those regrets and have had our own moments of weaknesses. Good for you for sharing this lesson of kindness with your kids. I think you were wise to stop the story there. I am sure Dane & Aubrey will think twice before gossiping about others, and I trust they will have the courage to do the right thing and be kind to others as well. Keep up the great work! You are such a sweet mother!

John said...

Anjie I must say that I was quite moved by this little story. I really enjoy reading your blog.