The energy level over the Christmas season escalated to such a frenetic pitch in the Madden family home that neighbors wondered whether my mom had laced our oatmeal with something. Surveying the laundry list of toys my 10-year-old heart desired, intense hyperactivity overtook my normal calm as I waited for the big day, not knowing that one gift would arrive early and change my life forever.
Dec. 1, 1962, I went to sleep a happy, well-adjusted fourth-grader. I had friends. I blended well with the other green-and-blue-plaid clones at St. Charles Catholic Grammar School. I was my own heroine in a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale and life was good. But an evil witch decided to sprinkle nerd dust over my blond head and I woke to find my status as socially acceptable wickedly transformed into that of a leper. Apparently, freckles, ponytails and pink-diamond-encrusted, winged-tipped glasses had become uncool overnight.
Bullying has been around since the beginning of time. Stronger students feeling the need to illustrate their alpha behavior carefully handpick their pack and collectively gather to attack the weak. During the 1960s, this type of aggression was looked upon as a rite of passage and something kids just had to endure, thus giving true meaning to survival of the fittest.
Seeking ways to hide from the jeers, teasing and physical trauma, I discovered that the best way to make it through the day was to become invisible. Performing the art of duck and cover, I’d conceal my body under my desk in hopes of staying in at recess. Dawdling at the end of the day, I made sure that I was the last excused. And hiding in bushes became my new safe haven as thoughts of running away overtook my imagination – the place where fantasy once flourished.
One day, after peeking around the corner to make sure the coast was clear, I ventured onto the playground. From out of nowhere, a tall, lanky girl ran toward me. Certain that she was about to pour more acid over the newly ripped-apart sores of the day, I ran.
“Jackie, wait,” she cried.
Quickly catching up, I slowed down and closed my eyes, prepared to take another verbal beating. Grabbing my hands, she placed herself in front and in a breathy tone asked, “Would you like to come over to my house today and play?”
Frozen in my tracks, Nan Coughlan’s brown, doe eyes melted the ice sculpture that had become my current home, and loneliness magically dissipated from the lining of my wounded soul. Astonished, I instantly understood that her kindness took great courage. By allowing me into her inner circle and befriending me, she had opened herself up to be the next target for criticism and ridicule.
I’ve often thought of that day and the impact her simple gesture made on the rest of my life. Nan’s kindness brought back lost hope and a feeling of belonging. It also taught me to stand tall and never allow myself to be victimized again.
While I’d like to say that I continued her legacy of compassion, I know, more often than not, that I’ve come up painfully short. The self-imposed ego has a way of blinding you to your surroundings, but it’s time for a change.
The holidays can be joyous, but they can also cause heartache. Not everyone is fortunate to have all they need. Perhaps there’s someone who could use a new friend, and all I’d have to do is open my eyes and reach for their hands. Maybe by simply being aware, I, too, could make a difference in someone’s life.