There was a boy in foster care several years ago whose primary defensive tactic was grinning from ear to ear. It wasn't an insolent grin, he knew, but a way to disarm those he met and endear himself.
Yes, he often wept at the lack of family and the failures of his blood relatives. But he'd wipe the tears from his round face, smile when he was supposed to, and find a way to survive. He wondered about his place.
At the time, he may not have been able to fully form the concept, but he did know one truth that has not changed since the beginning of time. Value. Before anything worthwhile can happen, before any good kid can become a great adult, he must understand that he has value. This is the first step, the first stone placed on the path to adulthood and it is universal. As the boy proceeded to high school, he felt more and more inclined to explain his value.
Today, some folks are so willing to diminish each other's essence down to a simple avatar on a screen. Classified as Democrat or Republican, black or white, rich or poor, the battle lines get more pronounced, more solidified. Today, devaluation occurs when we fail to see or recognize that there is a whole person in front of us. This devaluation caused the Holocaust, racism in general, and a whole host of other sins.
Every single day, there are those who exist in the margins of society because we don't see them. Many times, we classify people in terms of those who can help us and those who can't.
The boy in foster care plodded his way through school. He was not a stellar student, though he electrified those around him with his kindness. Having every reason to be bitter, to lash out, he simply refused and took the opposite route. Goodness was his best attribute, he knew.
One day, he and several other boys in the foster care system found themselves standing under the bright lights in the school office. An administrator quietly explained to them that the widow of a well-respected architect brought all of the architect's clothes to the school to give to boys who needed them. As the administrator spoke, the boy looked around at the colorful piles of clothes in the office, shirts draped over chairs and pants folded neatly across tables.
The boys were hesitant as the administrator left them to pick through the piles. Then, the boy held up a shirt under the chin of one of the other boys and said, "This is your color, you should take this one."
Laughing, they dove in.
The boy neatly folded the clothes he liked into a stack that reached from his belt to his chin. He surveyed the others doing the same. Then he walked over to the administrator who was typing away at a computer.
It's all about time and energy when it comes to youth. They learn so quickly. They want to be challenged. They crave honesty and genuine assessments. They want to be seen by adults, by those whom they eventually will emulate.
Contrary to popular snipes, they do not want another meaningless trophy; they want to be valued in a world that applauds negatives and is silent when goodness prevails.
Remember that scene from the John Hughes '80s movie The Breakfast Club? Using the premise of caricature high school kids sentenced to Saturday detention hall, the movie includes a discussion of adult interaction. The jock laments that for him, it's always win, win, win! The brain complains that people expect too much of him. The thug complains that no one expects anything from him. The popular girl says she must act like a princess. And the quirky girl is silent. Later, the jock asks her, "Is it bad at home?"
"Yeah," she answers.
"Is it really bad?"
She hesitates. "Yeah."
The jock pauses a moment. "What do they do to you?"
The quirky girl swallows and quietly, impishly replies, "They ignore me."
Powerful. Ignoring our youth is among the greatest sins of omission. It happens in the form of stereotyping, marginalizing or, as George W. Bush said, when they are made the victims of "the soft bigotry of low expectations."
What a great line. George W. Bush is not among the usually quotable presidents, but this line embodies this challenge fully and completely.
The boy reached the desk of the administrator and gently put his stack of clothes down. He extended his hand. The administrator rose and shook it.
The boy said, "Thank you."
The administrator said, "I didn't do anything. But you need to know there are people in our community who care about you."
The boy nodded pensively and picked up his stack. He turned at the door and said, "Finally, I have clothes that match my insides."
The administrator, cocking his head, replied, "What do you mean?"
"They're beautiful. They're just beautiful."
Grinning, he walked out the door.
Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Editorial on 02/09/2019
Print Headline: STEVE STRAESSLE: Inestimable value