Teaching Tolerance

On Thursday afternoons, my Aunt Sue and Ryan have a tradition. After Ryan does his homework, Sue takes him to Starbucks for a treat. Some days they read together, and other days they just talk. But every Thursday, Ryan will take a picture and post it on Instagram, with a comment about how much fun he had. The Starbucks staff knows him and are always very kind to him. It’s one of his favorite places.

Yesterday went a little differently. When Sue and Ryan walked into Starbucks, three middle school age girls were sitting at the front table. When they saw Ryan, they began whispering, pointing and laughing. Sue immediately was aware they were making fun of him. She bought Ryan his treat and sat at a table on the other side of the room, watching as the girls took out their laptops, looked at something, then looked back at Ryan continued to laugh. Sue was fighting back tears by this point and wondering how aware Ryan was of what was going on. He can be pretty perceptive. She asked him if the girls went to his school, and he said yes.

When Sue went to throw out their trash, she passed by the girls’ table and felt compelled to say something.

“Hi,” Sue said. The girls looked up, curious. “What grade are you in?” 

Two of the girls said seventh and one said eight (Ryan’s grade).

“I’m a teacher,” Sue continued. “And one of the things I teach students is tolerance. Do you know what that is?” 

The girls nodded and affirmed they did, exchanging glances and looking a little scared.

“Good,” said Sue, pointedly turning her head to look at Ryan. “Then remember to always be tolerant.” 

And with that, she and Ryan left. (Way to go, Sue!)

When I saw them a little later, Sue relayed the story quietly to Jordan (Ryan’s twin brother) and I. I asked Ryan afterwards if he knew the name of the eight grader at Starbucks. When he told us, Jordan and I were shocked, as this was a girl who was at Jordan’s Bar Mitzvah last year. Who sat there and heard him talk about inclusion and sacrifice – including the sacrifices Ryan makes to adjust to what can sometimes be a loud and unpredictable world. Although Jordan does not see her as much this year, we couldn’t imagine her making fun of anyone.

Jordan and I agreed if he had been with them at Starbucks (once in awhile Jordan joins Sue and Ryan) the whole situation never would have happened. No one would dare make fun of Ryan in front of Jordan. He is very protective of Ryan and he thinks the kids know he would not let them get away with it.

Our district does a lot to promote anti-bullying and many students at Ryan’s school have known him since kindergarten. The vast majority are either kind and inclusive or don’t really pay attention to him. I know there are also those who make fun of Ryan – or anyone who is a little different – behind their backs. I never thought there are others who would blatantly laugh in his face. At his special place.

It made me very sad. I know some kids are immature or insecure and may be completely different people when they grow up. It’s just too bad they don’t have good role models now to help them get there. Role models like my friend’s daughter, who recently defended a boy with autism at her new school against bullies, “Because,” she said, “What if that were Ryan? It would break my heart to see Ryan picked on like that.” Or like my other friend’s daughter, who defended Ryan in gym class a few years ago when another boy was whispering about him. Or like Jordan, who has written a book and many songs in support of kids with autism.

I guess we just have to take comfort in the fact that there are more good and tolerant young people in the world than intolerant ones. And hope they can stand up for the kids who need them to.

Every Thursday, Ryan posts a picture of his time at Starbucks on Instagram with a comment about how much fun he had. I believe even if he didn’t express it or answer our questions about it, Ryan knew to some degree what those girls were doing yesterday. Because it was the first Thursday he did not post a thing.

14 thoughts on “Teaching Tolerance

  1. This is beautifully written! I’m glad that I was able to say something to the girls. I wish I could have done more! As I teach my own students, “Stand up and speak up!” I guess that’s what I did!

    1. You did exactly the right thing. I am so glad you were there and are such a big advocate for Ryan! I hope more teachers are sharing your message with their students.

  2. I am in tears…. go Sue!!!! If only people took the time to get to know those who are different from them, they’d learn how truly amazing they are. Ryan is truly amazing!! Thanks for sharing your stories.

    1. Thank you Crystal! So glad Ryan has you in his life. Completely agree people should take the time to get to know others who are different and try to be a friend to them.

  3. You’re powerful story pulls at my heart strings as every day I work children like Ryan, and there’s nothing better than recognizing their strengths, watching them learn about the world, and putting a smile on their faces each day. Unfortunately, not all of them have the wealth of support Ryan has and sometimes school is their comfort place. Ryan’s so fortunate he has a strong connection with family and friends who are tolerant, caring, and continue to speak up for and promote recognition of differences.

    1. Thanks Nichola! I am really thankful Ryan has such a strong support system! Your students are lucky to have you there supporting them, helping them grow and advocating for them!

  4. It seems to me that those who need to bully or “make fun of” children or adults with disabilities, have very low self-esteem. They need to do this to make themselves feel superior, but they really don’t feel good about themselves. Thankfully, Ryan has many who love, encourage, and support him. So, hopefully, that will outweigh any ignorant, hurtful comments he may encounter. Kudos to anyone who stands up against this type of behavior.

  5. I will probably come back later regretting that I didn’t calm down before posting this but I am seriously sitting here seething. I am a teacher, father, and man of faith but my Caramel Macchiato would have been tossed and dripping down the faces of the three middle schoolers while I pointed and laughed.

    I want to believe it was just by happenstance that Ryan didn’t post on Instagram this past Thursday, however, if not perhaps a snapshot of these three childish pre-teens giggling at the expense of others should be taken and sent to their parents.

    Hey, Ryan, our next get-together Starbucks is on me.

    1. Thanks, Jason! I understand and felt your rage and yes, it would have been wonderful if their parents could have seen how they were acting!

  6. While we know that intolerance is unfortunately very common, it is sad to see it when it does rear its ugly head on each occurrence. Speaking up on an individual basis each time we do experience/ witness it is very important as was shown by the incident related in this blog entry.

    1. Completely agree! The more we speak up, the more we will (hopefully) educate ignorant people.

  7. Jodi-what an incredible story. Kudos to Aunt Sue, but it makes me so sad because we have so much to do where education is concerned regarding tolerance and sensitivity with our young children. It makes me wonder- do these kids “learn” this behavior at home? Is it the parents that also need the education? I would take this issue to Deb Wheeler, it must be incorporated into the curriculum in our schools.

    1. Jill, I completely agree kids who make fun of others either learn this at home or if they are taught it at home may succumb to peer pressure when their friends demonstrate this behavior. Schools can definitely help, as well, by teaching inclusion and tolerance early on and continuing to teach it as students get older.

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