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All the wrong words.

Today Justin and I will be designing a poster on tolerance and equality. We’re in the home stretch of the school year, but we have one more packet of work to complete. This packet includes loads of unfamiliar words for him (for example, tolerance and equality). Sentiment that is familiar, but the words themselves are completely foreign.

For a few days I’ve been thinking about how we’re going to approach this assignment. How can I illustrate concepts that are so dear to me in a way that will matter to this developing 14-year old? I’m struck by my own poverty of language to describe the range of nuance related to inequality. It’s not a binary discussion, but one filled to the brim with history, perception, misunderstanding, and a whole lotta emotion regardless the more specific inequality we decide to explore.

Last week, I helped a very nice man find a bike. He’s in his 70s, has a wallop of health issues, and weighs a little over 400 pounds. He desperately wants to be well and was game to give cycling a try. I was so excited to help. We worked through a couple of options and I held him up so that he could keep his balance as he pedaled forward for the first time in 35 years. Finally, we found the “one” and as a favor, I delivered the bike to him. I showed him how to shift gears, running alongside just in case he needed a quick hand to keep him upright. He was excited and I was excited that he was excited. And if you know me, that means my heart was vibrating at an extraordinary frequency that I could hardly contain. One more person pedaling toward adventure and health! Score!

And then the scoreboard was erased. The following day, he dropped in to pick up some additional items as well as a lesson on how to change a flat tire. He concluded the lesson with, “Well, that’s so easy...even a girl can do it.”

Ten words. Ten crushing words that shouldn’t have crushed my spirit, but did. He couldn’t possibly know their weight. They are just words that have been thrown around for decades with little consideration for what they could possibly mean. He didn’t mean to be cruel. He is after all a kind man. Sadly, neither my ability to physically hold him up nor the quick wit of my kind retort will change how he perceives women. So I did what I always do when presented with these moments: flipped the switch in my heart and my brain that tells me that I crush mountains for breakfast, that I love with all my being, and that I will raise the next generation with so much f’ng compassion that one day we will put a dent in this ridiculous inequitable cycle.

We are our experiences. Even though we may not have a richness of language to convey nuance, the perceptions of these experiences live deep within us. At the root of today’s lesson with Justin, we will explore empathy. Life is messy and we won’t always have the right words. We may call one another names. Some we mean more than others. But at the core of this messy life, we need to reserve a space to think, putting ourselves in the shoes of another. Those shoes don’t need to fit--sometimes the healthiest growth comes from a god awful fit.

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