As we sat around the dinner table Sandy asked the kids how their first day of school went. Pearl casually mentioned that there were two new students in her class and one of them was Chinese and he didn’t speak any Italian. Hearing this Isaiah fixed his eyes on his little sister and, compared to his usual dinnertime conversation, he became uncharacteristically sober. “Pearl,” he said, “do you have any idea how that little boy must feel?”
Sandy had homeschooled Isaiah until he entered Italian public school four years ago as a 4th grader. It was difficult, especially for my wife, to see our son engulfed in the crowd of students as they swarmed into a school in the south of Rome – a Midwest American boy new in a foreign culture, unable to speak Italian, his first time in public school and the lessons to be taught in a foreign language.
We were relieved he was his cheerful self at the end of that school day. Although at the time he confessed it was difficult, he had never expressed the emotions he held deep within and what he felt that first year until he related to his sister through the eyes of a scared and nervous Chinese boy entering the 2nd grade in Verona.
Isaiah continued, “Imagine how he feels standing by himself with no friends, feeling all alone, hoping someone will ask him to play; being nervous that they’ll laugh at him if he does something that is normal for his culture but different from their own. Then when kids do start to talk to him, he wonders if they’re saying things to make fun of him because they know that he doesn’t understand a word.”
As Isaiah spoke Sandy and I glanced at one another as we heard our son tenderly empathize with a boy he had never met. He continued, “You might not understand but you can see by the other kids’ expressions what they’re thinking. You feel like you’re on exhibit as kids stare, some whisper as they look at you from the corner of their eye, and others point and laugh. You feel stupid as you spend all night on homework that you know wouldn’t take five minutes in your own language.” Then as the big brother he added sternly, “You better be nice to him Pearl.”
As a parent you never want to see your child experience pain, whether physical or emotional. However, we understand the axiom that strength comes through adversity as the poet has eloquently penned:
“The tree that never had to fight, For sun and sky and air and light,
But stood out on the open plain, And always got its share of rain,
Never became a forest king, But lives and dies a scrawny thing…
Good timber does not grow in ease, The stronger the wind, the stronger the trees.”
Certainly my kids have a tremendous example of an empathetic person in their mother and we teach them to be sympathetic and kind to others but the struggles that Isaiah has faced as a kid growing up in a foreign country is a lesson in character that he could have never learned from a textbook.