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.