My dad has always served as a role model since I was very young. His sense of humor and infallible optimism have guided me through many challenges where I emerged as a stronger, self-assured person. One example was in fourth grade, when the awkward years of adolescence loomed and the bullying began. The other kids loved to pick on the skinny, exuberant, hyper Harmony. It didn’t bother me much, because I had friends who didn’t say mean things or judge me. Regardless, my dad always told me they were jealous, which wasn’t necessarily true, but it kept my self-confidence aflame and my weird flag high in the sky.
But my dad’s “they’re jealous” adage was not the true leadership skill I learned from him. The real lesson emerged when another girl took the bullying to the next level by writing something like “I’m stinky” on a piece of lined paper (I can’t remember what the paper really said, but it was some immature statement), covering it in glue, and slapping it across my back.
They had moved beyond words to physical harassment, and my teacher noticed. Really, to me, it wasn’t a big deal. The glue seeped through my shirt, but 8-year-old Harmony merely giggled with the rest of them, not understanding their intentions. But my teacher witnessed the whole shenanigan and immediately sent the culprit to the Principal’s Office, with me for testimony. Mrs. Smith (the principal), was frighteningly furious at the bully. She explained how spiteful the student’s actions had been, and punished my classmate with suspension (I think that’s what it was? I know she got in big trouble).
So for the rest of the day I played the part of victim, taking full advantage of my poor, bullied persona and getting attention and apology from everyone in class. Even though I hadn’t been particularly torn up about the now-punished girl’s gesture, I now acted like it pained me deeply. Oh what a world where people can glue things to other people’s backs!
When I got home, my parents repeated the usual slew of “you’re better than them”s and “you are so special”s. I was mostly excited about getting their extra attention, as the incident was already slowly fading from my memory.
In fact, I probably would have forgotten this entire fourth grade fiasco if my dad had not sat by me on the couch later that evening. He held my hand and explained the cruel nature of the world, something I had heard before. But then he began to discuss the other girl’s feelings. Her motivations. Her doubts. Her pressures. Though I had heard the jealousy speech countless times before, this time the concept finally reached my 4th grade psyche: empathy.
Dad explained that the girl had probably expected my friendship from the gesture. She thought it would be a funny prank and that we might laugh about it together. Where the school had seen cruel bullying, my dad saw a child’s joke. I should not see the punished girl as a mean, heartless attacker, but as a girl confused and lonely. From this discussion with my dad, I learned that even the most horrible should be understood in some sense. While I don’t sympathize with the worst people, murderers and rapists, I do understand now that they can have feelings and doubts, like any other human beings.
And, more importantly, people are not good or bad. It all depends on one’s perspective.
A leader tries to understand other people. A leader does not simply categorize others as smart, beautiful, helpful or polite. A leader gets to know people by listening to them and empathizing with their concerns.
While my dad is not the most empathetic person I know, he is a charming, dedicated and thoughtful father. After hearing his advice, I regretted my gloated sorrow from earlier in the day. From then on, I reacted with my own sense of understanding, rather than simply playing the part for others around me. The perspective he gave me after that simple bullying dilemma has stuck with me, and always will.