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My heart broke that day, again. It was a beautiful June afternoon, graduation day from middle school and parents were invited to the school lawn to take pictures before the ceremony. My stomach tightened as soon as my son and I approached. His classmates were arriving in packs, laughing, jostling, self-conscious in their formal suits and shyly proud, too, as they strutted in front of groups of girls giggling and wobbling in heels and party dresses. My son hung back in his Gap khakis and shirt. He wouldn’t have known what the implicit “dress code” was, wouldn’t have known how to venture into a world of typical adolescent boyhood, let alone be part of its unspoken club. He turned and asked me to call my husband to bring him a tie. My son is on the autism spectrum, high functioning enough to attend a mainstream school and yet on the fringes and acutely aware of his status. That sunny afternoon, I became acutely aware of it, too.
From the moment he was born, his shining eyes and easy smile melted our hearts. And as the baby who sailed ahead of every milestone halted as a toddler, his joy and puppy-like enthusiasm remained intact, charming every therapist we met, and there have been more than a few. But like all children on the spectrum, social relationships with kids his age have always required effort and skills he is still developing. With peers, there is no guarantee someone will lead the conversation, no guarantee of kindness to celebrate that he tries so hard, even when the overtures are awkward. How awkward became more obvious when he returned to his neighbourhood school after years of private specialized education. He was ready we felt, for the “real” world, ready to try to fit in, as we anxiously tracked his entry from the sidelines. And there were beautiful moments. In Grade 6, a group of classmates decorated his locker with his favourite video characters for his birthday. He was beaming for days. But over the next couple of years, as the same kids seemed to torpedo into adolescence, he trailed behind, his innocence even more stark in comparison. He became a target of the type of exclusion, of insidious bullying, that brings me back to graduation day on the school lawn. Now proudly wearing one his dad’s ties, my son eagerly jumped in to join a group photo and was promptly shoved out. The boy who did it only used one arm, keeping the other draped on a friend’s shoulder. He never broke his smiling gaze at the camera.
Now in high school, those same kids who we so hoped would become a community of friends in middle school, graduated to different forms of ridicule. They pretend not to hear him when my son says hello, tell him their lunches contain deadly allergens so he better not sit with them in the cafeteria and sometimes even yell obscenities at him when he walks home. We had no idea for weeks and when he finally confided in me, he was as confused as he was hurt. In his often simplistic perspective of the world, those boys had been friendly once, so that means they are his friends right? So, how come they did that?
I called the principal, his homeroom teacher and the conversations sounded canned and downright infuriating. “Boys will be boys,” “high school is tough” a social hierarchy that by definition, needs a bottom tier where my son was firmly and painfully planted. But what if, I thought, what if we just stop buying into those lines of reasoning? What if we made it cool to be kind? I could see the hashtag already.
The idea attracted like-minded souls and within a couple of weeks I had joined forces with two incredible mothers, one whose son was brutally beaten up on his way home from school a few weeks into the new year. We met with the school administrators to pitch a kindness campaign, challenging all kids in all grades to perform three acts of kindness every day. Sit with someone eating alone. Say a kind word to someone who seems lost. Look someone in the eye and smile. Each act could be posted on a shared student Instagram account run by the school, where it would all be on display. Every single good act. Every day. Celebrate. Cheer it on. Create a shift in culture, one act at a time. As a journalist, I have reported on the science of happiness, the transformative power of kindness, it has a proven contagion effect and I had the research to back it up.
The school agreed a great way to kick the campaign off would be by inviting youth speaker Josh Yandt to launch it. The Ontario teen made the life-altering decision to hold doors open for his fellow students. Every morning. Between every class. And every day after school. That simple act of kindness transformed his life. Josh became hugely popular and is now a regular speaker at schools around the world.
Josh came to my son’s school. He shared his story and for the most part, the students were transfixed.
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As for the kindness campaign that our tiny group of fierce moms was so excited about, it’s still very much a work in progress sputtering under the inertia of school administrators who seem to think their job is done, as opposed to just getting started. I would love to say my son’s life at school has improved. In some ways it has. The bullying has diminished, but maybe that’s because he has learned to avoid it. The truth is every day my son eats lunch alone in the hallway, safest in his solitude.
Kindness may not be innate in hormonal teenagers vying for their own social status. But it can be taught. Like all meaningful change, it has to be done on purpose. Again and again until the rule becomes the instinct. Until then, my sweet, awkward boy navigates the turmoil of high school largely alone and, while it breaks my heart every single day, in his own incredible way, he’s content. That’s the kicker and the lesson in it. He still truly believes in the best in people, simply because it doesn’t occur to him to believe anything else.
Ioanna Roumeliotis lives in Toronto.