He’s that kid.
You know exactly who I’m talking about.
Worn-out shoes a size too small, always untied. Maybe a pair of socks on a good day.
Messy bed-head hair or possibly just a buzz-cut so nobody has to bother with it in the morning.
He’s a bit rough around the edges, quick with a temper or a shove when things don’t go his way. His sullen manner doesn't match the excitement and playfulness of the other children on the playground, and you aren't sure why.
When you walk your child to his classroom each morning, Coach bag tethered to your shoulder and Starbucks White Chocolate Mocha firmly in hand, you see this kid.
And something about him makes you uneasy.
You make judgements on the spot about his family, his character, his obvious lack of bathing. You whisper comments in hushed tones to your mom friends, as if he is no more than an exhibit at the zoo.
He’s not the kind of kid you want your child to befriend. He’s trouble, always being sent to the office for this or that. He rarely smiles.
Or maybe she’s that little girl with crooked ponytails and a huge hole in her tights. She doesn't make eye contact with anyone as she stands at the edge of the playground, holding a death-grip on her wrinkled brown-paper lunch sack with no name written on it.
You heard from another mom that a classmate saw this girl digging around in the lunchroom trash one day.
As you walk by her, something makes you hold your daughter’s arm and steer her ever so slightly away, away from this girl whose very existence threatens you.
Because she’s different. And your firm grip, your unwillingness to acknowledge this child? They send an obvious message to your own child.
We're better than them. Those kind of people are invisible to us.
I see your stares, hear the gossip.
Have you ever thought about what it’s like to be that kid?
Some of these kids have already had a horrible day before the school bell rings at 8:30 am.
No fault of their own, really. Kids can’t pick their parents or their caregivers. They have little or no control over the adults in their lives, the crazy mixed-up shells of people who sometimes can’t even be bothered to bring them to school, to help them with their homework or even just to brush their hair.
The yelling, harsh tones, foul language, tears... all before the school day even begins.
Things that don’t belong in a child’s world.
And yet, these children soldier on.
Because for many of them, school is their respite from a chaotic, loud and unpredictable world. A world where kids are often expected to be little adults. Little people trying to keep their parent pulled together with nothing more than wishes whispered in a dark bedroom each night.
When I ran social skills groups at the elementary school so many of these children moved through my classroom each year. So many stories, so many broken hearts. And yet, still kids on the inside. My small gift to them was 30 minutes per week of my time. I always knew it was too little, but it was often better than what they had at home.
So the next time you feel yourself veering away from that kid consider offering a “Good Morning” instead.
Or simply a smile.
You might just be the one who makes a difference that day.
A version of this post was originally shared on Old Tweener