I first met Sarah in fifth grade. Sarah had Down Syndrome and big glasses and long, strawberry blond hair. She seemed eternally happy, at least to me. I wasn’t sure of her exact age, but I assumed she was within 3 or so years give or take of me. She was the only person at my school that had Down Syndrome.
At recess, my friends and I would occasionally play a game on one of the Apollo Lander-shaped jungle gyms. The rules were simple: You can’t touch the redwood bark-covered ground and you must avoid getting tagged by the person that is “it”. If you are tagged or touch the ground, you are “it”. If you are the designated tagger and YOU touch the ground, you have to then curl up your right arm and keep it tight against your chest and push your tongue between your lower lip and your lower teeth. This, in no uncertain terms, was a cruel, inaccurate imitation of Sarah. Now, my group of friends was not any crueler than any other 11 year-old kids, but this we did gleefully. My friend Andy was very funny when he did it. If it had been a wholly original creation, devoid of impersonation or ridicule, it was humorous in a juvenile way. But it was not devoid of ridicule. Even though we never in a million years would have made fun of Sarah to her face, we cowardly did so when we thought she wasn’t around. I never felt right about this, but I never said we should stop, either.
Early in 6 Grade, several of us were asked if we would volunteer to go next door to the Intermediate Special Needs Class and help one of the students in that class with their coursework twice a week. I immediately volunteered. As someone that has always rooted for the underdog, I knew immediately that I must do this. I was also motivated by the extreme guilt I felt for my part in making fun of Sarah, even if she herself didn’t know about it. To me, that didn’t matter. The students of the “Special Class” were not complete outcasts from the rest of the school, but they were definitely on the outside looking in. The “special kids” had attention problems, severe learning disabilities, extreme physical disabilities, but Sarah was the most different outwardly and practically than anyone else in school. As we entered the room, I headed straight toward her. She was sitting on the floor, bent over a book.
“Hi.” I croaked.
At the mention of my name, I had to immediately fight back tears and the urge to run. I had never really spoken to her, but she knew my name. Had she heard or seen the laughs we had at her expense? She knew my name. This was not what I was expecting.
“Can I read with you?” I asked.
“Yes! Do you want to read to me or do you want me to read to you?”
I have never in my life had to resist so violently the urge to cry. As I write this now, my eyes are welling up with emotion. I felt like a monster. I sat down next to her and said, “You read a page and then I’ll read a page.”
“I like your face,” she said. “You have a nice smile!”
“Thank you Sarah,” I said. “I think you’re pretty.”
So here it was. In that moment, on a patchwork quilt in the corner of a room in the D Building of Pioneer Elementary School in Davis, California, I said something because I meant it. I genuinely thought she was pretty. Big eyes, smiling, utterly lacking guile. And this isn’t because she had Down Syndrome. What I was learning this day was that she was kind not out of stupid ignorance but because she was a good person. But as soon as I said it, fear took hold of me. What if she thought I was just saying that to say it? Had I just made things worse? Maybe I really was a monster. This was my first lesson in how utterly you can wound a person in a well-intentioned but thoughtlessly executed attempt to show someone you care for them.
Sarah blushed and hit my hand. She smiled, said, “No.” and then started reading.
My friend Andy, who was so funny in his impersonation of her, sat on the other side of the room with his partner, staring at me, jaws gaping. Then he smiled at me.
We kept going over to the Special Needs class for the next few weeks, but were encouraged to help different kids each time. Neither Andy nor myself ever made fun of Sarah ever again, and we did not tolerate it amongst our friends. I would see Sarah at recess and say hello and try to include her in some games, which she always politely declined. But she would sometimes hug me fiercely and it hurt because I felt so unworthy of such a show of affection. I felt like I could never purge myself of the stain of my treachery. I had known it was wrong to make fun of anyone, especially someone that was at a disadvantage. My parents had drummed this into my consciousness from the beginning. I was glad that Sarah had never heard or seen our shameful behavior and I was glad that I no longer engaged in it or tolerated it, but I still felt a sense of tarnished ill ease.
In the spring of 6th grade, I was playing wiffleball with some neighborhood friends and one of them, a boy who is now a man I am friends with as an adult and for whom I have a deep affection, was antagonizing me. He and I had a history of confrontation and childhood rivalry. He was aggressive, but likeable, not unlike many young boys. He took advantage of my agreeable nature often, and then, it bothered me. As I look back on it now, I see it for what it was; boys figuring out who they are and who they will be as men. Even though this boy would sometimes tease and taunt me, he has since grown up to become a good man and husband who I care for and am proud to call a friend. But on this day, he was teasing me. I was an easy mark. I was always the tallest kid and I had the heart of a teddy bear.
Amongst his teasing, he began to say, “You love Sarah!”
“You love Sarah! You should marry her! Have you kissed her yet?”
With this, several things happened, and very quickly.
A little piece of my heart broke off and the part of my mind that was a normal, caring, fun-loving 11-year-old boy snapped off. I punched him in the face as hard as was possible. As he fell to the ground, I sat on his chest and just started pummeling him. I was screaming. Like an animal. At least, that’s what I was told later.
Inside me lies a rage. Purple, incandescent, white-hot, and stupidly brutal. As a child, the only thing that would set this rage off was the perception of inequality. It usually manifested when I didn’t get my own way, but over time, I tamed this rage and could keep it locked in its cage where it couldn’t hurt others or myself. But the cage had a weakness. This weakness arose when the helpless or disadvantaged were being hurt or threatened. It rarely happened, but when it did, I would have the experience of a jailer unlocking a cage so that a beast could unleash itself for good. It was very Hulk.
But, this day, it was much more complicated.
My jailer was unleashing the Beast on a boy who was, yes, being casually cruel, but it was an excuse. This poor kid was taunting me, but it was the accuracy of his taunt that had set me off. I did love Sarah. I didn’t want Sarah to be my girlfriend or anything like that, but in getting to know Sarah even in the limited way I did, I had come to love her. Love. Genuine love. And instead of being true to myself and simply saying, “Yeah, so what?” and facing my guilt at having been a party to her mockery, I snapped. The poor kid on the ground getting pummeled by me was not the real target. His words had been my words thrown back at me and I wanted nothing less than to destroy myself. I was disgusted by myself and I was making it worse by taking it out on this poor kid.
My friends finally got me off of him and I immediately slumped to the ground in a puddle of tears. The only thing I remember before my mother guided me to my room in our house was the look on the faces of my friends; they looked like they were gazing upon a car accident, or a tornado’s damage or a war zone. They looked genuinely frightened.
I apologize to my friend. We made up, and then got in more fights down the road. But nothing ever like that again. My other friends that were there were very sympathetic.
“He totally had that coming! “ they would say, or, “you were just sticking up for Sarah,” and I would respond by saying, “Shut up,” because I knew they were wrong. I had acted violently because of guilt and because what I was doing to others outside of myself was what I felt I deserved for myself. I have been guilty of this in varying degrees since, but, ever since that day, I have been aware of it. I try to tame that beast by feeding it smiles, affection, love, and kindness. It’s still there, but it now comes out mostly to help, to build, not to destroy. But I must give it due deference and cautious respect.
About two or three years ago, I saw Sarah outside a café on a visit to Davis. She was sitting at a table by herself and I was about to go over and say hello. I hadn’t seen her since the last day of 6th grade. As I walked over to her, her brother and parents sat down next to her and her amazing smile lit upon her face and I felt tears begin to well in my eyes and turned on my heals and walked in the other direction.
Some things we deal with better than others.