That summer, I was 16. I was emerging from horribly awkward phase and was finally (FINALLY) far less “little girl” and far more “young woman.”
That summer, he was 14. My little brother had spent the last two years in a blissfully unaware awkward phase, with no intention of leaving anytime soon. He habitually sung to himself, or made weird noises, and still regularly would yell gleefully as he ran out of the house that he was going outside to “play.”
And though our separate journeys through puberty were on completely different schedules, we found ourselves attending church camp that year in the same age group.
I was excited for camp that year. It was the same camp I had attended since I was eight years old, and I knew I’d see friends from years past, meet new boys, and, as an older camper fresh out of a training bra, finally be in the “cool kids” group.
I don’t know if Sam was excited to go or not, but go he did. Maybe he thought it’d simply be a week of going outside to play.
It didn’t take long, however, for him and his friend Silas to become the butt of jokes and laughter and bullying.
It’s already hard for a short, chubby, glasses-wearing kid, and a tall, painfully thin, buck-toothed kid with terrible social skills to fit in. Add the fact that they could usually be found building stick forts in the dirt while everyone else was flirting with each other, and it quickly turned from a fun week of playing outside, to six days of being bullied in the woods.
I remember at one point, we were all sitting around waiting for an activity to begin. I sat with my friends on a rough wooden bench, talking and laughing, when I saw Sam and Silas playing quietly off to the side in the dirt. They pretended to not hear the bigger boys behind them making fun of them, pointing, laughing, kicking dirt and stones in their direction.
I was torn. My heart went out to my dirty little brother, but I had also finally “made it” and felt like I was the teenager I had always wanted to be.
I didn’t know if intervening in my brother’s bullying would destroy that image. I was selfish, and a coward, but I still felt like I had to do something.
So I got up from my bench, told the bullies to cut it out, then crouched down with my brother and Silas in the dirt.
They wouldn’t look at me. In fact, they were in full-on self-preservation mode…”we are here, but we will pretend we--and you--are not.”
I started getting a little teary, and I did the only thing I could think of to do. “Try not to play in the dirt, you guys. They won’t make fun of you if you don’t play in the dirt.”
They both nodded, but continued drawing circles in the dust around them. I stayed crouched there for a few moments more, then sighed and got up. “Don’t play in the dirt, okay?” I said again.
I gave the bullies a stare, hoping that my new status in cool kid land would help to shut them up…that maybe realizing that my brother’s affiliation with me would make him off limits to continued taunts.
Of course, the bullying didn’t really stop…not until Amy came along.
She was one of those teenage girls who was blessed with real self-assuredness. She was pretty, but not conventionally so, and her clothing style was the type I’ve always admired in women: “I like it this way, so fuck off.” She had wild hair, an exuberant laugh, and an irrepressible spirit. She was all wind and energy and joy.
She truly could have been friends with anyone that week. Instead, she decided that Sam and Silas were her friends.
She did what I couldn’t: she was kind when I could only be nice.
She didn’t ask them to stop playing in the dirt…she stooped down and played with them. She didn’t get annoyed at Silas’ science puns…she laughed at them. She didn’t think Sam was weird…she thought he was unique and worthy of friendship and attention.
She bucked the teenage status quo in every way. I watched those two boys go from cowering self-preservation mode to having the time of their lives in just a few short days.
In fact, I think it’d be safe to say that Amy probably saw right through the cool kids. She saw us for what we were: a bunch of insecure children, trying to be adults, not really understanding the things that matter in life.
Being a teenager is hard. Everything is in flux. One minute, your body is doing terribly weird things, the next, your social circles are accepting you or casting you out.
Amy saw through the hardship to the things that really mattered. She saw that most of life is complete bullshit if you’re not willing to be kind instead of nice.
As I’ve worked over the last few years to truly surround myself with the type of people who I know can have a positive benefit on my life, kindness has pushed to the forefront of my search criteria in both my friendships and romantic relationships.
In college, my dad asked me what my current goals were. I told him that I really wanted people to think I was a nice person.
“Hm,” he said. “I think that is a good goal…but maybe you should hope, instead, to be known as someone who is kind.”
Now long past college, and long past the era when I thought being a nice person would mean that I was a more godly person, I still think about those words.
Lately, I’ve been thinking more and more about the difference between nice and kind and why I would seek a quality of kindness out in my relationships with others.
The nice person is overly-invested in the emotional pay-off they're hoping to achieve by pleasing and taking care of others. They're also unwilling to face how much hurt or anger they're carrying. They're resistant to changing their behaviour, despite the consequences of their compensatory addictions.
Kind people are happy people to begin with, and add to their happiness through acts of generosity and altruism. Nice people are needy people who inadvertently create more and more unhappiness for themselves.
In my camp experience, I didn’t make fun of my brother, or laugh with the bullies, or ignore him…but my actions didn’t address his need for acceptance.
I was so focused on being nice and on being perceived a certain way, that I couldn’t do for my own brother what a stranger did that week, and kindly embrace two boys who didn’t need me to be nice.
As that week continued, and I began to grow tired of the social politics of hanging with the cool kids, I remember a moment when we were participating in one of those full-camp games that involved things like flags and paint and water and faux-enthusiasm.
Amy came running through a group, Sam and Silas not far behind, their head-down demeanor replaced with the kind of happy relaxation that comes from the security of knowing love and acceptance.
I smiled at Amy and she smiled at me. Then I thanked her for being a friend to my brother.
I was being nice again.
But Amy said, kindly, “Oh! Not a problem! I think he’s awesome.”