The Hand of Friendship

The Hand of Friendship

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Be The Best You Can Be

The Hand of Friendship

Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing.

Labels are not for people.

~Martina Navratilova

The third graders tumbled into the classroom for our after-school Bible study program, screeching metal chairs on the linoleum floor as they found places to sit. Chatter filled the room and the kids couldn’t help fiddling with the plastic caddies of supplies in the middle of the table — scissors, glue bottles, markers — for our project that day.

“What are we making, Mrs. Malone?” asked a girl with a green polka dot bow on the top of her head.

“Handprint butterflies,” I said, showing them my sample, a paper butterfly made from the outlines of my hands traced on cardstock and glued together at the bottom of each palm. It fluttered at the end of a piece of yarn. Some of the kids grasped at it as I fluttered it over their heads.

I passed out two pieces of cardstock for each of the kids. “As soon as you choose a marker to outline your hands, you can begin,” I said. Most were swirling a marker tip around their hands before I finished the sentence.

As the handprints morphed from blank canvasses into rainbow-winged creatures, I noticed one boy who hadn’t started yet. He tapped the table with the tip of his marker and held his left hand firmly in his lap.

“Why aren’t you working, Michael?” I asked.

He shrugged.

“I’d like everyone to at least try to do the project. Do you want me to help you trace your hand?”

“Mine won’t look like everyone else’s,” he said.

“No two people can make their butterflies exactly the same. That’s what makes each one special.”

He shook his head. “No. That’s not what I mean.”

Puzzled, I struggled to understand. Michael looked down, clearly upset. Why would a simple coloring project be so troublesome? Never before had he refused to do a craft. Across the table, his best friend Andy’s expression was just as grim as Michael’s.

I knelt down so Michael and I were eye to eye. “What’s bothering you, Michael?”

He sighed and laid his left hand, the one he’d been hiding on his lap, on the table. “My hand is different.”

I looked at his hand. For the first time in the four years I’d known him as a classmate of my daughter since kindergarten, I saw his missing fingers. There were only four fingers. Two of his four fingers were partial, pink nubs. He tapped them with the marker in his other hand. “My butterfly wings will look funny.”

At first, I didn’t know what to say. Here was a boy who was always smiling, surrounded by friends at school and out on the playground, a polite boy who talked easily to adults and who towered over others his age. Not once had I noticed his hand. How could I explain to an eight-year-old that the shape of his hand was not important to the people who mattered to him? At a loss for words, I looked to Andy for his reaction to Michael’s words. Then I noticed Andy’s picture.

Andy’s hand was splayed across the page as he finished tracing his second handprint. Only he had three fingers folded under his palm, creating the same outline Michael would have displayed had he traced his own hand, with its shorter fingers.

The gesture almost brought tears to my eyes. It was a perfect example of what I wanted to tell Michael but didn’t know how to put it into words.

“Look at Andy’s butterfly,” I said to Michael.

Michael looked sharply at Andy. “Why are you doing that?”

“Because we’re the same. We’re friends,” he said without hesitation.

Michael and Andy exchanged looks. Andy made a goofy face at his friend and then picked up an orange marker to color the wings.

I patted Michael’s left hand. “Your friends don’t care what your hand looks like. I didn’t even know about it until you showed me just now. I’ve known you only as someone who smiles a lot and makes his friends laugh. That is what’s important to Andy, too, and your other friends.”

Michael nodded. His mouth hinted at a smile. He wiggled his hand from underneath mine and flattened it on the paper. With the black marker, he finished tracing both hands by the time I got up from the floor.

As I walked between the tables, helping those who had finished coloring their handprints to glue them together, one of the adult assistants in the room pulled me aside.

“Whatever was bothering Michael before seems to be forgotten now,” she whispered. “What was the problem?”

“He was worried that his project would look different.”

“Whatever you said to him worked.”

“It wasn’t me,” I said.

“Andy made him feel better.”

True friends have that power.

~Dawn Malone

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