Small Girl Learns a Big Lesson

Small Girl Learns a Big Lesson

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Create Your Best Future

Small Girl Learns a Big Lesson

The test of courage comes when we are in the minority. The test of tolerance comes when we are in the majority.

~Ralph W. Sockman

Auden, my dear grandmother, passed away in 1992. I was only five years old, too young to remember enough about her. But one important life lesson she taught me remains unforgettable.

When Auden was a high school senior in 1940s Chicago, there was a “must-go-to” party after the prom. My grandmother was invited and was eagerly anticipating the big event. That is, until a few days later when she found out that Jennifer, one of her best friends, hadn’t received an invitation. Auden’s excitement quickly turned to anger when she discovered the reason for the exclusion.

Jennifer wasn’t invited because she was Jewish.

Understand, this wasn’t just a big party, it was the party of this senior class’s high school lives.

No matter. My grandmother didn’t take this sitting down.

“I didn’t want Jennifer, or anyone, to feel left out,” Auden said. If Jennifer wasn’t welcome, then Auden wouldn’t go either. Instead, she invited Jennifer over for their own small party. A two-person party… that turned out to be the party of the Class of 1940s young lives as more and more classmates decided to do the right thing.

“Injustice,” I remember Auden telling me more than once, “is everyone’s battle.”

I was only a kindergartner, but I listened, I learned and I remembered.

As I have grown up, racism is something I have read about in history textbooks, something that happens to other people, in other times, in other places. Certainly I never thought I would witness something so ugly in my small hometown in Southern California. My middle school was largely white, but with a healthy minority mix of Hispanic, Asian and a few African-American students. I have been brought up to notice skin color only the way I might notice someone’s red hair or freckles or dimples. I just see people. Human beings. My classmates. My friends.

But one morning I arrived at school to find out my friend Damien had been suspended for getting into a fight with another student. I was shocked. Damien was a kindhearted, gentle person, an honors student, even voted “friendliest” by his eighth-grade classmates. He always smiled and said “hello” when you passed him in the hallways. He was popular with the cool kids and also with the less-cool kids because he was nice to everybody. Damien was the last person I would suspect of being suspended.

Throughout the day, the details of Damien’s suspension leaked out. At first I was shocked, then perplexed, then, as I gradually pieced together the whole story, furious.

This is what happened. Damien was waiting for his ride home after school when the school troublemaker, a white kid who had already been suspended numerous times and was just a few missteps away from juvenile hall, sauntered up to him, sneered a racial slur (Damien, I should mention, is African-American) and began to push him around. Damien first tried to walk away, then tried to defend himself. When an administrator finally noticed the scuffle and rushed over to tear them apart, it looked as if both boys had been involved in the fight. Both were suspended immediately. Even when the few witnesses said that Damien was just defending himself, school administrators remained firm. Damien had been involved in a fight with another student, and therefore he was suspended.

“Zero tolerance,” they said, unaware of the irony. “No ifs, ands or buts about it.”

Not only did Damien have to miss school for a few days, as a student who had been suspended he was also barred from any of the remaining school functions: dances, the end-of-the-year field trip to the beach, even the eighth-grade graduation ceremony. To me, this seemed unbearably unfair, especially since Damien had merely been defending himself.

I talked to the principal. She remained steadfast in her stance. I passed around a petition at school and drummed up support from more than 400 students, nearly the entire eighth-grade class. The administration remained stubbornly firm behind the suspension.

On the day of graduation, Damien sat in the audience instead of onstage with the other graduates. As class president, I was allowed to give a speech at the ceremony. I stood at the podium, tears welling up in my eyes at the sight of Damien sitting amid the crowd of parents instead of onstage with his classmates and friends.

I cleared my throat.

“When I was very young,” I began, “an incredibly wise lady, my grandmother Auden, taught me a valuable lesson. ‘Injustice is everyone’s battle,’ she used to say. And I say that it is an injustice that Damien is not up here onstage with us today…”

I wish I could tell you that our principal was affected by the ovation Damien received and invited him up with us. But she didn’t. This battle against injustice was lost.

Or maybe not. The smile on Damien’s face told me he didn’t feel completely left out.

It is now four years later. When I see Damien in the high school halls, he still sometimes thanks me for what I did.

In truth, he should thank my Grandma Auden.

~Dallas Woodburn

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