Several years ago I was working as dean of students in an all-boys boarding school called Oaklawn Academy in rural Wisconsin. I was in charge of a group of 45 seventh and eighth graders from Latin American and Europe who were there studying English. It was an excellent group of kids: good hearted, smart, and more or less well behaved. As the year was winding down, however, around the beginning of April, we had a problem. Of course there are always problems when dealing with 13 and 14 year olds, but this one was, for me anyway, serious.
At the beginning of the year, the kids were mostly strangers. By the end of the year, they were like brothers to me. In spite of ethnic, personality and national differences, they had all grown very close: a big, happy family of 44 kids. But there were 45 in the group. The problem was Hubert. Don’t laugh; Hubert was his real name, though, to his displeasure, everyone called him “Huey”. After almost a full year, he was not fitting in. Tall and awkward, introverted, bright, but slow to pick up on what was going on around him, he did not have the qualities which help make a thirteen year old kid popular. To make maters worse, his defense mechanism in socially awkward situations was to tease the other boys for what he considered their inferior intelligence.
I was able to motivate some of the kinder jocks to not pound Hubert, which kept the atmosphere civil, if cold. I tried to give Hubert some coaching in social graces, to little avail. In vain I motivated the lads as a group to be universal, to make new friends, to not exclude anyone. Hubert was alone on the bus, alone during recess, alone on the weekly fieldtrips. He was miserable.
In my position, there was little I could do. I could encourage. I could punish anyone who was extraordinarily cruel to Hubert, but I could not give Hubert friends. You cannot force charity. You cannot coerce warmth and mutual respect.
I challenged a small group of popular but conscientious boys to invite “you know who” to hang out with them on occasion. They gave me pained and guilty looks and said “Brother, I feel sorry for Huey, I tried once to invite him, but my friends wouldn’t let me…” It sounds stupid to us grown ups, but think back to when you were thirteen. There is nothing harder for a kid that age than to go against his friends. Some of the cool kids could not bear to risk of contaminating themselves by association with Hubert. In Biblical times lepers hung bells around their necks and shouted “unclean, unclean” to keep others from coming too close and contracting their disease. Poor Hubert’s awkwardness and prickly personality were similar to such bells. He may as well have been shouting “un-cool, un-cool”. The quarantine effect was the same.
In justice, I cannot make the cool clique into the bad guys here. They were all good kids. Most of them were on my side. Even the worst excluders had their moments of clarity, knew their attitudes were wrong, felt bad about it, but wavered and succumbed in the moment of temptation, because coolness, as we all know, is not the same as character.
The problem was clear. So was the solution. We needed someone who would decide to do the right thing, to do what had to be done, in spite of the overwhelming resistance of adolescent group psychology. We needed a leader.
One Saturday night, after a day playing in the park, my 45 seventh and eighth graders merrily descended on a burger joint, with one weary chaperon, me. My weariness got a lot heavier when I saw Hubert, once again alone, watching his french-fries get cold at a big table in the middle of the restaurant. I stopped by, chatted a bit to cheer him up, knowing it was useless, and went on my way, resisting the temptation to join him. Sitting alone with the chaperone would only have made him feel like a bigger looser. I said a prayer for my kids and sat down with my coke in sight of a TV to catch some of the Redwings game.
Looking up during the commercial, I saw that my prayer had been answered. Another kid, Pablo, was asking Hubert if he could sit with him. The kids at the cool table that Pablo had abandoned were staring with gaping jaws. One actually dribbled his milkshake. Hubert accepted, and the two had dinner together.
Pablo was in many ways the anti-Hubert. He was loaded with the talents other kids admired: by far the best soccer player of the section, proficient in roller hockey and baseball, confident, good looking and good at making friends. Even Hubert could not sniff at his intellectual achievements: Pablo had a 98 average, was a voracious reader, and spoke English about as well as I do. One thing he did have in common with Hubert was a quiet streak: he was reserved, reflective, and liked to be alone from time to time. Perhaps it was those latter qualities that let him break away from the oppressive demands of coolness that tyrannized jock, nerd, and social butterfly alike. We ought not to exaggerate, however, the role of personal temperament in making leadership decisions. Our innate qualities can make us blow a decision just as easily as they can help us make them. Someone who is a thinker, reflective, may see quite clearly the need for action, and then think too much about it, over analyze, and miss the opportunity.
The truth is making friends with Hubert took a decision: to break away from the crowd, to break away from his own preferences, to invest time in a person who was not always pleasant. It could not have been easy to take the first step, but once he took it, Pablo did not look back. He stuck with Hubert for the rest of the year, made friends with him, and invited others to do the same. Hubert for his part relaxed, had some fun, and was often seen smiling. The effect went beyond the life of one boy. It spread to others. The atmosphere among the kids had changed definitively those last couple of months. The fickle dynamics of coolness ceased to exercise such terror. Everyone, from the most to the least cool, could be a little more himself. Things were not perfect, they never are, but they were certainly better, thanks to one boy’s decision to exercise quiet, but real, leadership.
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