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Jewish World Review June 18, 2001 / 28 Sivan, 5761

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

A father's gift that will
last long past his 'Day' -- PEOPLE who write for newspapers get telephone calls all the time. The nature of the business dictates that a lot of the calls deal with the more unhappy sides of life.

So when the newspaperman in a small Midwestern town got a phone call from a schoolteacher this year, saying that she wanted to tell him about something that had happened to a child on the playground, he suspected the worst.

With all the incidents of bullying and cruelty in the news lately, he figured that's what this was about -- especially when the teacher started the story by describing a boy who suffered from severe physical disabilities, who was new to the school, who had few friends, and who was painfully shy and lacking in self-confidence.

During a lunch break, the teacher said, most of the 8th-graders were gathered in groups, talking and laughing and playing around. The one boy was off by himself, as usual. He was looking down toward the ground, the way he often did.

The teacher noticed another boy -- one of the most popular in the school, a great athlete, good-looking -- leave a group of popular boys and girls and walk over toward the lone child.

This set off alarm bells in her, she told the newspaperman. The solitary boy was routinely ostracized at school -- she didn't know what was about to happen, but it worried her.

She made it her business to ease her way over, so that she could hear what was about to go on.

A lot of the boys on the playground were throwing footballs around. The popular boy -- the fine athlete -- asked the lone child if he'd like to play catch.

The lone child seemed surprised. He said that no one liked him to play with them; he said that he was afraid he would "mess up," and that the others would laugh at him. He wore extremely thick glasses because of badly impaired vision -- he said he would barely be able to see the ball.

The popular boy assured him it would be all right. He said, "It's OK to mess up once in a while. We all do."

The two boys began to play catch. Some of the other students, seeing that the great athlete had included the other boy, came over to join in and play. They were careful to be certain that the lone boy was able to catch their tosses; they made him a part of the group all during the lunch break.

"It was the kindest thing I've witnessed in 28 years as a teacher," the schoolteacher told the newspaperman. "The [popular] boy who left the group had to know he was taking a chance on what the others might say."

The newspaperman wasn't certain why the teacher was telling him this story. There was no headline in it; no front-page material.

And then she said: "The popular boy who walked out of the group to play with the handicapped boy . . . was your son."

The newspaperman had to fight back tears as he heard those words. He tried to respond to the teacher, but the words would not come.

He knew that whatever good might happen to him in his career -- awards, job advancements, professional recognition -- nothing would ever top this. It was the proudest moment of his life.

We all go through the world wondering if we are doing all right, if we are measuring up, if we are making a difference in the proper kind of way. We're never sure; we hope we are, but we're never sure.

And then, out of nowhere, sometimes we find out.

The teacher says now that what happened that day on the playground set the tone for the disabled boy's entire school year. He has an extremely difficult set of circumstances to deal with every day. But because of what the other boy decided to do that lunchtime, the school year just past became a little more bearable for him. The generosity lasted; the boy was treated with decency and friendship most of the time.

Father's Day came early for the newspaperman.

It came in the form of a teacher's voice over a telephone line.

The boy who had walked over to help the solitary child . . .

". . . was your son."

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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