Ever since I was young, I’ve always felt that I was somehow a little different from others my age. I was shy and withdrawn growing up, never quite fitting in with others—and I still have a tendency to be that way, even some decades later as an adult.
By all outward appearances, I was a typical tow-headed, spindly-legged kid. What made me stand out the most however, were the rather obvious facts that my mom cut my hair herself and that I was dressed quite a bit differently than anyone else. While most kids my age were sporting t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers, I had to wear more conservative button-down shirts, slacks, and leather dress shoes with brass buckles. Unfortunately, these differences and my quiet nature seemed to make me the perfect target for bullies.
Since both my parents needed to work to make ends meet, I grew up as a “latch-key kid” in a working-class neighborhood in San Francisco. Often left to manage on my own, I’d walk the several blocks to and from our 1920’s brick apartment building to school. Most afternoons after school let out, I’d let myself into our empty apartment using a key my parents had hidden near the back kitchen stairs. Unfortunately, my daily travels took me past a smaller stucco duplex where a classmate named “Raymond” lived. Raymond and I had been friends in kindergarten, but somehow the passage of the next grade or two found us bitter enemies. As the result of some undoubtedly childish disagreement—the details of which completely escape me now, Raymond apparently made it his personal mission to taunt and threaten me any time he could. Most days, I would try to avoid crossing paths with him by racing out of school as quickly as I could or by unpredictably changing my route home.
Sometimes however, these efforts didn’t work—and on those days, Raymond and his friends would follow me home from school, shouting insults and even throwing things at me the entire way. Then, when I was almost home, they would quickly surround me like a pack of snarling wolves. Raymond, who was a full head shorter than me, had small scars on his face from previous altercations with others. He’d ball up his fists and glare contemptuously at me. “Come on, pussy!” He’d shout angrily. “Come on…do something! Fight me! You know you want to!”
Rumors around school were that Raymond and his friends carried pocket knives, so I had no desire whatsoever to be involved with any of them. And, truth be told, I was terrified. Most of the time, they would simply knock my textbooks out of my hands and laugh as they walked away. Sometimes they would push me down and jostle each other roughly as I picked myself and my books up and ran home in tears. And, if things weren’t bad enough, it was even more humiliating when there were other kids (especially girls) around.
I couldn’t understand what I had done to deserve the kind of treatment I received and, to make matters even worse, my own household wasn’t immune to discord either. I remember many nights, lying in my closet-like bedroom with my hands over my ears, crying myself to sleep because my parents were screaming at each other on the other side of our thin apartment walls.
In the end, my parents’ temporary “cease-fire” and the city’s new policies on mandatory interschool busing (where troubled kids were sent to different schools in an effort to curb school violence) forced my parents to move. They bought a comfortable home in the suburbs, where things were much better. I still had trouble fitting in as “the new kid”, but at least the kids in my new school were a bit more tolerant of those who were different—that and the fact that I’d finally had enough of being a victim. When I finally began standing up for myself, the few bruises and black eyes I received thereafter were but a small price to pay for the peace I eventually found in knowing I that would be left alone.
In recent years as I’ve looked back on these experiences, I’ve come to understand and see things a bit differently. One of the things I now recall was that Raymond had come from a troubled home himself. With an abusive father and older brother, he had learned to fight—not just for survival, but for his own self-esteem. And, in being bullied himself, he had learned to become a bully. Another personal revelation was the discovery that these episodes were important catalysts for my eventual growth. While I would not want to relive them, nor would I wish these kinds of situations upon anyone else, I’m nonetheless grateful for their bitter lessons.
Through these and other new understandings, I’ve been able to find forgiveness for Raymond—and indeed, for all the others who seemed to find pleasure in my pain. And I take great satisfaction in knowing that I’ve done everything I can to stop the ripples of conflict, hatred, and retribution that such violence often perpetuates. I’m quite thankful that I’ve been able to let these kinds of behavior stop with me.
It struck me as being rather strange, but as I was writing the last few lines of this post I suddenly remembered a song I learned for a holiday performance in the 4th or 5th grade. The song, written by Jill Jackson Miller and Sy Miller and popular in the early 1970’s, was called, “Let There Be Peace on Earth”. It begins and ends with the words, “Let there be Peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.” These are important words, for if we were all to live them, no more children would have to run home in fear—and no more mothers or fathers would have to bury a child killed in violence or war.
So why don’t we all agree to take a stand for Peace? Right now—and in every new moment, let it begin with us.
I had an unusual dream last night and, while I hadn’t intended to publish this for a week or two, something about the dream prompted me to post it today instead. In my dream, it seemed as if the world had descended into utter chaos. Parts of the city were burning around me and large numbers of people were fighting one another in the streets. Others, terrified, were fleeing the violence and their homes.
In the midst of all this destruction, one person stopped. He stood in the middle of the street and looked about with tears in his eyes. Quietly at first, but with growing strength and compassion for those around him, he began to sing the words of the song mentioned above. Soon, his powerful voice was carried with the wind—and others, touched and inspired by his courage, stopped to join him. The wave of emotion from their heartfelt song drifted through the urban canyons, soared to the heavens, and gently touched the hearts of all could hear.
And then, something wonderful happened.
Those engaged in violent struggle stopped. They dropped their weapons and fists, suddenly overcome by feelings of sadness and shame. Those in headlong flight no longer felt afraid, so they stopped running. In that brief moment, everyone finally understood that what they did to another human being, they ultimately did to themselves. In that brief moment, all their hate, anger and fear faded away. And instead of fighting and hurting one another, they began helping one another. They treated each others’ wounds. They shared food, clothing, and shelter. They helped put out fires and began to rebuild.
In my dream, all it took was one small miracle—in the form of one person and a song, to change the world. And things would never quite be the same again.
For those who don’t know the song, a wonderful version sung by Vince Gill may be found here:
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