Kyle's Secret - A Story About Words
I believe that everything happens for a reason. God sends people into our lives who teach us valuable lessons that we would not learn otherwise. That is why I believe Kyle was so special. But to understand the lesson he taught me, you will have to understand Kyle.
I met Kyle when I was nine years old. One day during fourth grade, the door opened and there he was—the new kid. During the first couple of days, we observed more about Kyle. But it was difficult to get to know him because Kyle was so shy. In fact, he was so quiet that we started wondering about him. We got the impression that Kyle was hiding something—nothing huge or especially exciting perhaps—but we were determined to figure him out.
One of the first things we noticed once Kyle had settled in was that he had a peculiar habit—one not typical of a fourth grader, and one for which he would pay severely. Kyle sucked his thumb. Of course that was a turnoff to all of us “cool” fourth graders who had broken that habit long ago. If we were going to maintain our elite reputations, we could not associate with a thumb-sucker. At least, that was my thought.
Kyle was very sensitive about his thumb-sucking. To him, it was a security issue; to us, it was a reason to make fun of him.
We found other reasons to make fun of him. Imagine this awkwardly tall and gangly nine-year-old boy, a slow runner with bad aim, making him a loner at recess when everyone else was playing soccer. If you were nine, you would laugh. If you were twenty nine, you might still laugh. Not only was he slow on the ball field, but he was also slow with his comebacks. We made fun of him; he walked away sucking his thumb.
Kyle’s appearance also targeted our comments. He wore flannel shirts with baggy jeans, brown braided belt tied tight around his waist to help hold them up. His tennis shoes were too big. His hair was never combed, and he had a cowlick right in the front of his blond hair. To add to that, he smelled like cigarette smoke every day.
So you understand, Kyle was the perfect object for all of our insults. Yet, that little boy kept his secret. He desperately tried to defend himself without exposing the thing that caused him more pain than we could ever inflict on him. Oh he tried to return the insults, but it just brought on more laughter. More than once I saw his blue eyes fill with tears. Many times, he directed his gaze at me because I was the one who had hurt him. He seemed to be begging for someone to help him. Sometimes, he broke down and cried. Sometimes, he kept it all in. That was Kyle.
I would like to tell you that I was the one who tried to befriend Kyle. I wish I could say that I was the one who stood up for him or to claim that Kyle and I became close friends and everyone lived happily ever after. But I was not his friend. I was part of the problem.
I recall my own insults, although I did not intend to hurt Kyle. I just wanted to fit in like all the other kids. I just wanted to be cool like I thought they were. But I also recall the looks that Kyle gave me that said everything. They seemed to ask why I needed to fit in, why I hurt others to make myself look better. I still ask myself those questions.
As things have a way of revealing themselves over time, so did Kyle’s secret.
As usual, the boys were making jokes at Kyle's expense. Kyle tried a comeback only to have a boy shout out, "Your mama!”—a harmless expression, or so we thought.
Suddenly, Kyle grew quiet. We all grew quiet. We all looked at Kyle expectantly, waiting for a comment—anything. Kyle looked up with tears in his eyes and said the words that explained so much. "I don't have a mama,” Kyle said. "My mom's dead."
We looked at each other, at Kyle, at the ground. We knew Kyle’s secret: Kyle was an orphan.
We found out later that his parents had been killed in a car wreck, and he was living with his grandparents who didn't know how to take care of him. Although they loved him and did not mean to be verbally or physically abusive, their discipline often was emotionally harmful to Kyle.
That was Kyle's secret.
As you can imagine, things changed between Kyle and the class. I apologized, for what it was worth, and we became friends. We tried to accept Kyle for who he was, and he even eventually stopped sucking his thumb.
But that is not the point.
The point is that a young boy was hurting, and no one cared. I did not care. I have never forgotten that.
The memory of Kyle's face has always lingered with me, partially out of guilt and partially because I do not ever want to forget what kind of pain words can cause. Because of that, my attitude towards others has changed since then as well. I still struggle, but I have made an effort to be conscious of what I am saying and how it might affect someone.
I have realized that my words and actions have more of an impact than I could ever imagine.
When I transferred schools in seventh grade, I was the new kid—the one that didn't fit in. I was the one that other people talked about behind my back, and I was painfully aware of it. They laughed at how I dressed (many of my clothes were hand-made for lack of money), how I acted (I was the nerdy, bookish type), and my attempts to be cool (I tried out for volleyball and sat the bench the whole season). You would have laughed too, and I wouldn’t have blamed you. But the tables turn faster than we expect sometimes.
I’ve spent all this time telling you about “my” Kyle, but the truth is, you did not need to hear my story because you probably could have written a similar one. You know the story well, because there was a “Kyle” in your class too. You laughed didn’t you? Or maybe you were a “Kyle.” Having been on both sides of the coin, I have learned something about that old cliché: sticks and stones can break your bones. Broken bones hurt, but they heal; words can hurt for a lifetime.