At the end of my junior year of high school I decided to run for Student Body Secretary. I doubted that I had much of a shot at winning because I was running against two of the most popular girls on campus. Nonetheless, I threw myself into the campaign process with the same abandon that I applied to everything I did. I made posters to hang all over the school, polished the speech that I would have to make to the entire student gathering, and created materials to hand to the students to let them know I was a contestant. It was a fun process that pulled me out of my shyness and taught me that taking risks was a good exercise.
One morning I was standing at the school entrance greeting students as they arrived and asking them to consider voting for me. I was a nervous wreck at first but I got better and better with each person who politely returned my smile even if they had no intention of voting for me. The tardy bell had rung and I was picking up my campaign materials when a straggler suddenly strode through the door. I grinned, held out my hand and gave him one of my flyers. His response was to stare at me with disdain, tear my offering into tiny pieces and toss them on the floor like confetti. Then he turned to me and said, “Nobody is going to vote for you. Nobody likes you. Save yourself the embarrassment.”
I was stunned by his anger but I remained calm, saying nothing in response. Once he had left I quietly picked up the pieces of paper on the floor wondering what might make someone feel the need to be so hurtful. I knew that what he had said was not true, but I was a bit shaken nonetheless. My confidence definitely took a silent hit that returned on the day I had to deliver my speech. I remember having to grip the podium where I stood because my legs became rubbery as I looked out on the sea of faces that I was addressing. I don’t know if my voice was as shaky as it seemed to be in my own ears but I somehow managed to say my piece and hurry back to my seat relatively unscathed.
I did not win the election but I had never really thought that I would. I was mostly proud of myself for pushing past my fears and trying something that was outside of my comfort zone. I was also quite happy that I had been able to mostly ignore the student who had been so despicable to me. Nonetheless, I thought of him often even after I had graduated from high school, not because he had somehow wormed his way into my psyche but because I worried about him. It seemed to me that someone with such a dark heart might have a difficult time forming loving relationships in life. I wondered what kind of abuse had made him feel the need to be so vile. I had always felt so much love in my life and it seemed to me that someone like him might have been lacking in the kind of affection that had helped me to grow into a happy person.
I eventually learned that my fellow student had died rather young, apparently in a car accident. I did not really know him, nor had I followed his progress after graduation but somehow I felt a profound sadness for him. I realized that he had needed to be a cruel bully to feel superior to me and it occurred to me that someone had taught him to be that way.
Our children do indeed learn from what they see us do and hear us say. My husband has always encouraged my independent spirit. He has not felt challenged by my quest for knowledge and learning. I have a competitive spirit that he supports. Somehow he is so very different from the young man who wanted to terrorize me. I know that it is because my husband’s family dynamic was grounded in love and respect that he saw every single day as a child.
My mother-in-law was indeed one of the most brilliant individuals that I have ever met. She was a woman of unwavering strength. My father-in-law was and still is the consummate gentleman. He cherished and cultivated my mother-in-law’s intellect and free spirit. My husband saw these things and so it became second nature to him to value both women and men without self righteous judgement. His parents were kind to him and to each other and so he is kind to everyone.
If children witness abuse in the form of words or fists they often begin to emulate such behaviors themselves. Some manage to escape and change, but far too many continue the ugly cycle of bullying. From one generation to the next it becomes an acceptable way of life and may even be viewed as a sign of strength. They push their way through life with intimidation and fear. They may even seem to be successful and happy but that is rarely the truth.
Teach your children how to be kind. It begins with how everyone is treated inside your home. How you behave is more important than what you say. If you not only accept, overlook and admire someone who is vile in the treatment of others, you send the message to your children that the pathway to success is found in power, rather than in respect. Be careful that you are not robbing your children of the gift of confidence that comes from healthy relationships. Teach your children well.