You can write them off if you want to... sometimes they make it incredibly easy. Teenagers of today pose an interesting challenge to those of us who are called upon to spend a good deal of time with them. We get to see, first hand, the handiwork of our generation: we have spoiled them, coddled them, made them feel that they are entitled... they are supremely easy to complain about.
But then there was the incident at the beginning of February. I watched approximately 700 of these young people heartily and sincerely cheer on the athletic endeavors of two very special athletes... two Special Olympic athletes that attend Mexico High School. The students gathered in the gym, busted out signs praising the two athletes, cheered them on and the whole time I swallowed back these huge, painful tears.
Today, as I hovered and hid backstage watching our students perform a play called The Jellybean Conspiracy, I couldn't hold back the tears... they came. The members of the readers theatre, along with some of our Special Education students performed the piece at district competition. The entire Student Council, probably 30 students, surprised them by showing up to support them. They all wore jellybean conspiracy t-shirts; they high-fived them and fist-pounded them all as they entered the backstage door to take the floor to compete.
I snuck in after the students had taken their places on the stage and watched from the side as they read the raw, forceful, painful and touching truth: words hurt, some actions are never forgotten, the things we say to hurt others only show our ignorance. I listened to their reading, some slow and pained, some clear as a bell and I wept because I couldn't think of any way to explain to those kids what it meant that they would perform something like that. Most people my age grew up in a very different time.
Back then, it wasn't about acceptance. It wasn't about understanding. There were very few people who understood or accepted, or even tried for that matter. I know because I witnessed it first hand. My brother was a different-colored jellybean... I remember my mother spending an entire summer worrying before he went to junior high, her strained sobs from the bedroom when she thought we were out of earshot. I knew what she was crying for; she was scared. And while my brother's junior high and high school years were not as bad as some, they were difficult. He was fortunate enough to have a handful of amazing young men and women who were jellybeans ahead of their time, so to speak.
But for me, it was hard to hear all of that acceptance that came way too late for my brother, to be reminded that I needed to forgive.
I went back to my classroom and floated through the next hour, thinking on the words I had heard as I hid behind that curtain. When my fourth hour class came in, they were chattering about how good the readers had done, how it had affected them. And so I started crying... and through my blubbering I explained it to them.
"I want you guys to know how much it means to me that you are so accepting of those who are different. My brother is autistic and mentally retarded. He should have been able to be surrounded by people like you. It should have always been like this. And I want you to know how much I admire and appreciate each and everyone of you for treating them with the same dignity and respect that you would anyone else. And I hope you never have to be put in a position to understand how much it means to be able to say that to a group of people who have been on the planet a third of the years that you have."
To the cast, the differently-abled but equally stellar cast of The Jellybean Conspiracy, thank you for reminding me that the most beautiful thing about people is their capacity for growth and change. Thank you for your voices, thank you for your dedication, thank you for finally giving me not only the permission, but the ability to move past anger and confusion and bitterness that has been wrapped around my heart like so much barbed wire. Thank you for letting me be a jellybean; thank you for letting me be a silent, changed player in your conspiracy of acceptance. You changed me today. I am in awe of you always.