A class field trip is usually a welcome respite from the monotony of the rest of the school year, but for one junior high boy nicknamed Sonny it found him in an anxious and embarrassed state. Had it been optional he never would have put himself in this position, but it was a required activity. Something so carefree and fun for his classmates just confirmed to Sonny how much he didn’t belong among them.
The stressor? The school bus had disembarked at a highway hot dog stand on the way back home and he was flat broke. Not broke because he forgot his money at home or overspent it on souvenirs, but because Sonny was rarely afforded had the basic necessities of life. He had been evicted from home on more than one occasion. His clothing was ill-fitting and worn. He had already gone hungry on many occasions. This time it was different, though–suffering in private was one thing, but to be shown lacking in front of classmates would be truly humiliating.
Sonny shared a talent common to many troubled kids–the ability to make himself scarce to avoid awkward situations and questions. So he began to look for a way to quietly slip away from his classmates and the chaperones. He figured he could hide and kill some time until it was time to get back onto the bus. He had pulled this off in similar situations many times before, but this time something unexpected happened before he could make his break.
The school principal had been standing behind Sonny all along. He herded Sonny and a classmate towards the hot dog stand suggesting, “What do you say you let the principal treat two of his favorite students to supper tonight?” The classmate mildly protested that he could buy his own food, but the principal insisted on paying for both of them because it was a special occasion. Sonny remembered that dinner invitation for the rest of his life. It was an invitation that not only satisfied his physical hunger, but met his profoundly spiritual hunger for belonging among his school mates.
I never met this principal or even learned his name. However, I did know Sonny, although I never called him by that name. I always called him “Dad.” Often in my line of work I see how childhood abuse, trauma, and neglect can shape someone for life. I give thanks for this principal and other souls like him who treated my father with compassion and dignity when his family of origin could not or would not. Those graceful experiences gave him a different vision and aspiration for his life than the cruelty he often experienced.
The story I told you happened in the 1940s, but still today there are many “Sonnys” in our neighborhoods, schools, churches, and organizations. Hospitality is key. Never underestimate the power of a smile and warm welcome to the young people you see. Take steps and ensure all kids are included in activities. Like a pebble tossed in the water, the kind act you do today may ripple throughout a person’s lifetime.