After very satisfying swim laps, I stopped by at a store to buy a couple of mini containers to put my post-swimming moisturiser in. There were several kinds on display on bottom shelves so I squatted down and examined one by one to see which one fits the best for the texture. A woman next to me asked me to confirm whether the product she was holding was mascara. I said it was, thinking the Korean text description might be too small for some people to read, as my mum often asks me to read things written on products. Then I heard noises from the cashier counter. Something that always bothered me; open-mouth eating noise. The more I tried to focus on my product choosing, the more I got obsessed with the worst pet peeve of mine. A guy was having a trivial conversation with either his wife or mum with his mouth open stuffed with food. I couldn’t stand it any longer so I picked one and took it to the cashier. My eyes automatically turned to the origin of the noise and there I saw him! Familiar face from my middle school days back in 2000s. I didn’t look twice as I feared he might recognise me. I greeted kindly to the cashier and got out.
Seeing classmates from middle/high school is not pleasant. I left everything behind because I think those times and the people are oblivious and meaningless. But it was especially so to see him because he triggered my deep down obliviousness when I thought I knew all my ignorance. It was in middle school that I saw him. He had presumably some mild down syndrome(I can’t confirm it since no one “declared” his diagnosis). In a nutshell, I used to make fun of him. It was never immoral in our little teenager world to make fun of him because we considered it as playing with him. Even though most students including myself weren’t good friends of him, we weren’t mean as typical bully kind. That’s because we all knew that being mean to someone considered minority is really really mean. We often made fun of him because it gave him attention that he doesn’t get otherwise. But it’s worse what we did. We treated him differently. We patronised him. I believe I learned this especially from primary school.
Back in my primary school, I believe it was the first day of the new term. We students were sitting and our teacher was talking about how things would go from then on. She also told us that we need to be kind and take care of one of our classmates who had down syndrome. Holding his hand and helping him was the example she offered us to be kind children. The next morning, I still clearly remember, I met him on the way to school and walked down the street holding his hand, just like my teacher said. I continued for two or three days until others found it so funny they jokingly said he was my boyfriend. I was confused. But before I got confused, I was embarrassed to be made fun of. I stopped holding his hand and I didn’t think about being a kind child ever since.
Here’s what’s wrong. The examples she gave us were actually wrong. Holding random classmate’s hand isn’t polite nor kind. Secondly, my teacher taught us not-so-realistic method. Generously assume holding someone’s hand is a kind action. But if that is the fault in real world, a child can’t think of how to deal with it when the connections got crushed all of a sudden. Kind of like telling people that sex is bad and they should not do it. But what happens when they find out it’s actually good? If the whole belief was based on the fact that ‘sex is bad,’ then there’s no belief anymore.
For the sake of kindness, I wish my teacher taught us to help him when he needs for help. I wish she taught us about how similar we were than being different. I certainly wouldn’t hold any boy’s hand especially in public places but I held his hand because I was told that he was not like a “normal” boy without thinking twice. I didn’t know how to be kind and what kindness engendered. More importantly, I didn’t know why I had to be kind and I just did what adults told me to do. Kindness is not an intention. It’s an action. It’s the process. How it will turn out relies on the empathy we put in but has nothing to do with the intention. It’s not about me.
Photograph: Patrick Tomasso