present company included

In 3rd grade Kevin was the chubby kid whose pants didn’t fit right and he was an easy target.  He didn’t really have any friends except for the saving grace of elementary school where the whole classroom is mostly one friend group.  He lived with just his mom and we knew she worked at two different fast food restaurants and his house didn’t have a phone.  Kevin was always picked last in gym, was left out of every group project, and wandered alone at recess.  Our teacher was old and the kids’ feelings were not on her radar (because it was the 80s) so she did nothing to help Kevin.  We left him out and she didn’t care. 

When it was time for Student Council elections, where any student who wanted to run for class representative could make a speech to the class, half of the class signed up.  Everyone groaned when we saw Kevin’s name on the list.  Why would he even bother?  The speeches took the whole morning and while we were at lunch the teacher counted the votes.  She wrote all the names on the board and the number of votes each kid received.  (The 80s were not a time for self-esteem boosts.)  Nobody was surprised to see that lone tally mark by Kevin’s name.  Kevin wasn’t a trouble maker, he wasn’t a nerd, he wasn’t dumb, but he just blended in at best and was pushed aside at worst. 

On the first day of 4th grade I found myself in class with Kevin again.  Only this time we had a first year teacher. She knew all about cooperative learning and knew nothing about Kevin.  She called us all to the carpet and in true Kevin fashion, he wandered slowly because he knew if he sat down anywhere on the carpet he’d actually find that the spot was being saved for someone else.  Nobody saved Kevin spots.  We just expected him to sit off to the side or in the back.  But this new teacher didn’t know about Kevin and when she saw that there wasn’t a spot for him, she scooched the front row kids backward and asked them to make a space for Kevin.  Clearly she didn’t know how we did things, but the front row obliged.  Later that day when it was time to choose locker partners we again tried to leave Kevin out of the mix.  But this teacher just wasn’t catching on.  She assigned Kevin to be partners with 2 other boys who just shrugged and moved their stuff to make room for Kevin’s backpack. 

The first couple of weeks went on like this; the class leaving Kevin out and the teacher making space for Kevin.  When she saw he didn’t have a group for the science worksheet, she just fit him into one.  When he raised his hand, she called on him just as much as she did anyone else.  In the computer lab where we would normally not give Kevin a turn, she made him the team captain on Oregon Trail day.  When it was free time at the end of the day, she listened to Kevin’s stories with as much interest as she showed to everyone else.  The shift was slow at first, but the real telltale sign that things had changed was when Student Council elections came around.  Again, Kevin threw his hat in the ring, and again, he stood up and gave his speech just like everyone else.  By the narrowest of margins, Kevin was elected as the Student Council representative that year.    

The strange thing was that even though Kevin hadn’t changed, Kevin had changed.  Our teacher decided Kevin was one of us and he just became one of us.  She included him so we included him.  She talked to him and took an interest in him, so the rest of us in room 108 did too.  I don’t remember this being a big deal to me until middle school when Kevin outpaced me on the coolness scale.  As he became more popular my catty middle school brain thought, “Why him? Nobody even used to like him until 4th grade.”  That thought stuck with me when I became a teacher and realized my influence.

The only thing that changed for Kevin was how our teacher started to treat Kevin with the same care and respect that she showed all her students.  After that it was probably a combination of Kevin carrying himself as if he mattered and the rest of us treating Kevin like he mattered.  That teacher had influence and the way she regarded Kevin in 4th grade set him up for the rest of middle and high school.  That teacher saw worth in all of us and she wasn’t going to discount Kevin because he was quiet or chubby or smelled like French fries.  She saw a classroom full of kids who were all worth her time, who all deserved the best, and she approached each of us with that mindset.  She made sure that nobody was left out.  She did awkward in a way that made it acceptable – and even expected – for the rest of us to do the same.  Because of her I am keenly aware of the subtle influence we all have on others.  When we treat others in a way that shows they matter and we validate their worth, it changes how people see each other, which in turn affects how individuals see themselves. 

This is why I choose to do awkward.