Leading Through Kindness
The cicadas sang together, buzzing in a symphony of background noise. Countless trees led us down the road to the park. My legs thanked me for the exercise. The sidewalk brought us to the playground, and my children raced for the swings.
I set down my youngest so he could waddle around. Clouds streaked the fading blue sky. The sun began tucking itself under the rows of green, and a hint of pink hailed the sunset.
Summer wouldn’t last much longer, but I breathed in the earth air. A baseball game went on in the field next to us. The crack of the bat sounded and shouts echoed.
I followed the little one as he climbed up the equipment and tested my reflexes. Despite being the baby of the family he demanded independence. I did my best to stay close enough to spot him but far enough away to give him some freedom.
I glanced over at my daughters and found them talking with a new friend. His curly blonde hair sat over pink cheeks that puffed up over a grin as he laughed and spoke with them. My son cocked his head like a bird on the hunt. He climbed down and led me to them. Their new friend dangled from the swing like a gymnast.
“How’d you do that?” My eldest asked.
“I’ll show you.” He swung his feet up and hooked them around the chains.
“That’s awesome.” I smiled.
“Can I try?” My middle child bounced up and down refusing to be left out.
“Sure.” He flipped down and waved at me and my son.
‘Hi.” I waved back and put my youngest in the baby swing. “One, two, three, wheee,” I pushed and counted.
As they talked, our new friend grabbed onto the pole separating the baby swings and big kid swings. He pulled himself onto it and shimmied to the top as if he did it every day.
“Whoa, that’s amazing.” My eldest gaped.
“I want to try.” My middle child went to the pole on the end and did her best to mimic his movements, but she slid each time. “Mom, can you help me?”
“You’ll have to practice that yourself.” I laughed and encouraged her to try again. Pretty soon my eldest went to the other end and all three climbed ─ or tried to ─ while I swung the baby.
“That’s my baby brother,” my eldest said.
“I have a brother too.” The boy jumped to the ground.
“How old is he?” she asked.
“He held up a couple of fingers.”
“How old are you?” My eldest blinked.
The boy held up all his fingers on one hand. I glanced over, and my eyes felt funny. My daughters squinted. “How old?” my middle child asked.
It was here that I realized this boy’s hands were different. Not deformed or mutated, just wider. He counted on his fingers, “One, two, three, four, five, six.”
My daughters stared. “Wait, you have six fingers?”
He grimaced and looked away.
I closed my eyes. In that single moment I knew that my reaction would influence how they behaved toward this child. A child, who, other than having an extra working finger on each hand, was just like them. I took a breath and realized how silly it all was. I opened my eyes wide and said, “That is so cool!” because it was.
My daughter’s grinned and repeated my exclamation.
“I bet that helps you climb and do lots of things,” I said, eager to learn more.
He nodded and leapt back onto the pole. “It makes it easier to grip.” He climbed up with a smile as bright as the sunset that ascended over us. His fingers wrapped around the metal.
I thought of how I had heard rumors of people with six fingers being inbred and that the extra digit was useless, but this boy’s vocabulary and his communications skills matched his physical agility. His extra fingers worked almost like a thumb on the opposite end of each hand. He destroyed the few preconceived notions I had heard before meeting him.
“I wish I had six fingers.” My eldest giggled.
He laughed and shrugged.
My middle child asked if she could touch his hand. He held it out and she poked the extra finger. He stared up at me with a silly expression, and we all laughed. They went back to playing, and it didn’t matter if any of them had five, six, or four fingers.
The sun went down. The indigo sky reminded me of the time. “It’s almost dark; we’re going to have to go soon.”
The kids all whined. I gave them the usual, “Five more minutes,” and enjoyed watching them play as if time didn’t exist. Ten minutes later I finally got them ready to go. We said our good-byes and headed home.
During the walk back, I put the baby on my shoulders and wondered if my children would have been so kind if I hadn’t reacted the way I did. I knew I was raising them to be compassionate and empathetic, but they always looked to me as an example of how to do that. I could tell them to be nice to people all day long, but my behavior was what always guided them.
Whether a child had six fingers or not wasn’t an issue because I didn’t make it one. At the end of the day my children didn’t let a small difference become a huge divide, they were just happy to go to the park and make a new friend. It made me hope that more kids were just as kind.
Jessica Marie Baumgartner is the award-winning author of “Walk Your Path,” and two children’s books. Her work has been featured by: “The St. Louis Post Dispatch,” “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” “LitReactor,” and many more.