The night before Halloween, I painted my fingernails orange with a black crackle finish. They looked awesome, and spooky. Earlier at the dinner table, I told the kids about seeing the equally cool nail polish on the younger brother of the boy I tutor - his mom had painted his nails black with orange dots on one hand, orange with black dots on the other. It seemed that everyone was getting into the holiday spirit.
On Saturday, Aidan asked me to paint his nails the same as mine, and I did. They looked awesome, because you can't put black crackle on something and have it look not awesome.
But then on Monday evening, Aidan was angry and lashing out at us. He listed minor complaints and aggravations about his day, but it wasn't until I fussed at him about something that he broke down in tears and finally got out what was really bothering him - kids at school had made fun of him for his painted nails. Not just kids, but friends - and that's what made it hurt more. As I held him close to me, as I hugged away the hurt and the anger, I puzzled over my reaction to his tears: I felt an odd mix of sadness and satisfaction. His pain immediately becomes my own, and yet I felt pleased and proud with his decision; he doesn't realize it yet, but he laid the groundwork among his friends for acceptance in his decision to be different.
Wiping away his tears, we talked through what they had said, how he felt. "It's like the time I got made fun of for wearing a pink shirt," he said.
"But different this time, right? Because you still wear that pink shirt all the time, but you don't usually have your nails painted."
"Yeah. Because I love that pink shirt, No one teases me anymore. But this just made me so MAD!" he said.
"Well, how did you respond?" I asked.
"The same way as with the pink shirt. I ignored them."
"Aidan, if you like the nail polish just the way it is, keep it on. Wear it, and enjoy it. But if you're tired of looking at it, I can easily remove it. The thing that is so important, though, is that only YOU get to decide what to do. Your friends do not get to make that decision for you. And remember what this feels like. Decide now how you will respond when you notice something that is different about another person."
Tucking Aidan into bed that night, I revisited the topic, helping him to identify with an extraordinary literary character named Auggie (from the book Wonder). Aidan's whole face lit up with the comparison, instantly connecting to Auggie. We talked about Aidan and Auggie are alike in how they were teased, and the hurt that they both felt. We talked about how they were different, in that Aidan can easily change out of a pink shirt or remove his nail polish, but Auggie cannot alter his facial deformity. Aidan's own face softened in understanding and in compassion, connecting Auggie to many other real-life kids who have endured relentless teasing for being different. In the end, he asked me to remove the nail polish on his fingers.... except for one thumb. He wanted to keep the thumb painted exactly as it was.
How easily we can remove the polish, change the shirt - yet how imperative it is that we make these choices for ourselves.
How important it is that we continue to find ways in which to be different, to stick out, to challenge the norms and beliefs and biases of those we encounter.
How essential it is that we continue to see past these differences to discover how much the same we really are. Aidan? Auggie? My 12-year old self, dressed in a painter's suit? We share the same hurt of being made fun of.
And we share the same desire to be loved and accepted, exactly as we are made to be, exactly as we've chosen to be. In our diversity, let us seek, let us find, let us celebrate that which is common....
...beginning with younger brothers who insist on "the same kind of nails as Aidan has on."