From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul on Love & Friendship


Keep true, never be ashamed of doing right; decide on what you think is right and stick to it.

George Eliot

He looked full-grown compared to the other children, and his arms and hands were constantly moving, as if he had no control over them. He talked curiously, in a language my second-grade ears could not decipher. He laughed like the rest of us, though perhaps a little louder and sometimes when there was nothing to laugh about. Other children called him “slow” and “retarded” and “stupid”—words I was only beginning to understand, and that made me uncomfortable, like toes trapped in shoes that are too small.

I have a stark memory of him that took place during the innocent time of day every student longed for, when the bell rang and herds of children stampeded out the door of the large, brick building called Central School and scattered like sheep on the playground to expend excess energy on swings or monkey bars, teeter-totters or sandboxes. I chose the swings that day, for I liked the way the wind lifted my hair like an opening umbrella, cooling my face and neck on my way up to the treetops, where I challenged myself to swing high enough to kick the leaves on the branches.

From my vantage point, I observed a large crowd of children gathering around the “stupid” boy, holding hands as they orbited around him, chanting something I could not make out from a distance.

Something about the scene was bothersome to me, and I jumped from the swing still in motion, stumbling to my knees in my haste to get to the scene in question. As I neared the crowd, I could see the large, clumsy boy in the center of the whirling children, laughing, drool spilling from his chin, his arms flopping up and down as he pranced on his tiptoes. The group was chanting “Gravy Train, Gravy Train.” Someone invited me to join in the “fun,” but the display paralyzed me as I looked on through eyes suddenly blurred by tears. The “retarded” boy didn’t have the capacity to realize he was being made fun of, thinking instead that he was taking part in a game, making the taste of salty tears in my mouth all the more repulsive.

I silently vowed that day never to take part in making fun of others because they were “different.”

I have seen the boy repeatedly over the years in the bodies of many people with cruel labels attached to their names—the brunts of hurtful jokes, the misfits, the nerds, the deformed, the shy, the helpless, the ugly, the friendless—and I have also experienced the humiliation of being the lonely one inside the circle of chanting “children.”

I wish I could say I remained true to my vow and boast complete innocence to indifference and bigotry, but I have done my share of gossiping in the cafeteria behind the back of one who could not even defend herself. I have laughed at demeaning jokes and scoffed at someone’s choice of clothing. I even feared for my safety because of the color of someone’s skin. But more often than not, I quickly regretted it, haunted by the memory of a retarded boy, alone inside a moving circle of taunting children chanting “Gravy Train,” and I am the one too “stupid” to not laugh.

Marjee Berry-Wellman

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