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Sticks and Stones

We all know the nursery rhyme, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But we’ve all been hurt by things that are said to us. The little bruises and scars teach us lessons and help shape our perspective. But some bruises run very deep, and remain sensitive decades later. And sometimes your bruise reminds me of my own.

I was sitting in my third office, Dunkin Donuts (home is first, Starbucks second, and DD third), when three young boys came into the store with two adult women. The boys sat at their own table, and attacked a box of Munchkins (donut holes, for the uninitiated), like only a group of eight or nine-year-olds can. There was so much energy at the table, I couldn’t help but watch them.

One of the boys started to slide back in his chair just as a woman was walking past. The back of his chair hit her in the thigh and sent her coffee cup flying. Some of the coffee spilled on the boy’s shirt, and the rest splattered on the floor. The boy apologized profusely and the woman – to her credit – huffed around for a few seconds, and then returned to the counter for a replacement.

Sticks and StonesThe two moms were oblivious. But the two friends were beside themselves. They pointed. They giggled. They yelled at their friend.

“You’re so stupid!”

The little boy scrambled to clean up the floor with napkins and shot a nervous smile at his friends. But they were unrelenting.

“You’re such an idiot!”

He had that embarrassed, not-sure-what-to-do, not-sure-what-to-say, here-we-go-again, look. I knew that look. My stomach started to clench and suddenly I was hit with memories that I hadn’t thought about in decades.

When I was eight years old we had the extend family over to our house for the evening. I got to hang out with a cousin visiting from out of town. After dinner he and I went into the living room while the adults (parents, aunts, uncles, grown cousins) remained at the kitchen table having coffee.

My cousin pulled me aside. “Karl, I know Hawaiian sign language.”

I was impressed. “No way! Teach me something.”

He raised his middle finger. “This means “I love you.”


“Yeah, and if you really, really love someone, you tell them this…” He raised both middle fingers.

How cool was that? I could now talk Hawaiian – in sign language.

“Hey, Karl. When was the last time you told your mom you loved her?”

I blushed. “I don’t know. ”

I knew what I had to do. I hurried into the kitchen. All ten faces looked at me and I got stage fright. I cleared my throat. I started to stammer.

God bless her, my mom came to my rescue. We went around the corner where the others couldn’t see us. And then I let her have it. I extended my hands and gave my mother double barrels of the middle finger.

bullyingSomething was wrong. My mother shook her head and asked, “Where did you learn that?”

“Mom, it’s Hawaiian. It means I love you.”

“No, it doesn’t Karl, and we’ll talk about it later.”

She looked disappointed, but kissed me on the forehead and went back to her guests. Within minutes, I could hear her voice in the kitchen and then I heard all the adults laughing. Hysterically.

In the meantime, my cousin had witnessed my conversation with mom and he couldn’t stop laughing himself.

He pointed his finger at me, and said, “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. You’re so stupid!”

Forty-seven years ago and I can still feel the sting.

Several years later we were living in Cincinnati and the school bus was dropping us off after school. We walked to school and never rode the bus unless there was a field trip, so riding the bus was an adventure by itself. And this time I was sitting next to Mary Dunning. It may have been the first time in my life I ever sat next to a girl on the bus. Mary and I were friends, so it wasn’t a big deal.  Or so I tried to convey. A real live girl was sitting next to me. And she was cute.

I leaned my head against the window and awkwardly turned in my seat so I could talk to Mary. James Bond was never so cool.

When Mary got off the bus, a friend named Tom said, “What’s wrong with you, Karl? Were you afraid of Mary?”

I shook my head. “No.” At least I didn’t think so.

“The way you twisted around, you looked like an idiot.”

“He was just being cool, “said another friend.

Thank you. Yeah, that was it. Just being cool.

Tom laughed. “Cool? Sprague’s too stupid to be cool.”

The whole bus got quiet.

What did that mean?  The way I sat made me stupid? Were there other things I did that everybody thought were stupid? I didn’t know whether to argue with him, demand an explanation, or just turn around and punch him. I didn’t see how I came out ahead in any of those scenarios.

So I just sat there and looked out the window. The bus remained silent until we stopped in front of my house. As I stepped off the bus, I heard a few giggles escape, like air coming out of a balloon.

Forty-four years ago.  I remember what Mary’s jacket looked like (It was blue). My coat was green corduroy, with fake fur on the collar. I can keep going with the detail, but you get the picture. It is burned indelibly in my mind.

So now I’m sitting in a Dunkin Donuts watching two boys giggling and pointing at their friend.

Do I go all adult on them, walk over to their table, and lecture them on the value of friendships, and the power of positive reinforcement? They’d freak out. Or laugh. The crazy man at Dunkin Donuts.

Or do I go juvenile on them, fake like I tripped and spill hot coffee on the offending friends? No… they’d just remember the klutzy, crazy man at Dunkin Donuts.

Do I let the mothers know what was going on? No, if they cared, they’d already be paying attention.

Or do I do nothing, and let nature take its course? But then do I risk allowing a bruise or a scar?

As I wrestled with my response, the moms got up, and started cleaning up the boys’ table. As the boys scrambled towards the exit, I jumped out of my chair and hurried towards the door.

OK, the pressure is on. What do I say? How do I make a difference?

I looked at the faces of the boys. They seemed to be thinking, “Why is this man standing in our way?”

I looked at the moms. The seemed to be thinking, “Get out of our way or we’ll move you out of the way.”

I opened the door and held it for them.  I tried to catch the eye of the little boy with the coffee stain on the back of his white Dwyane Wade t-shirt, but he never looked over.

“I hope y’all have a fantastic day.” It was all I could think of.

I might have said something instructive. Offered life-changing perspective. But I might have creeped the kid out, or subjected him to even more ridicule. Instead I held the door open and sounded like a ticket-taker at Dollywood.

As they clambered into their SUV, I said a quick prayer. I prayed that God might use some spilled coffee and insensitive friends to help this boy see himself as God sees him, and to have his childhood bruises influence his future, but not define it. I prayed for little bruises, and ones that heal quickly.

I’d like to learn from this and be better prepared next time. What should I have said? What should I have done?

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Karl,

    This one really got me thinking. Unfortunately, this type of scenario is all too common. But the difference here is that you took the time to listen, observe and invest your emotional energy in trying to find a way to address it. It made me ask myself: How many times have I rushed past such encounters with a list of to-do’s swirling in my head, oblivious to seeing how people hurt other people, adults and children and worse yet, seeing it, walk away?

    I think you did exactly the right thing for you and for them. You modeled compassion and respect. You also showed them you noticed them. Lecturing would have been futile- telling is not teaching. Rather, you showed them in a very simple, yet powerful way a random act of kindness. And who knows what they’ll do with it? For sure you broke the cycle of bullying with your gesture, if only for a moment.

    Thank you, my friend, for this eloquent reminder that little things do matter.

    November 7, 2012
    • Karl Sprague #

      Kathy, you’ve given me way too much credit for my actions. But I agree with you, that the little things DO matter. I would have liked to have done something profound, but I find prayer to be a pretty good default mode. As usual, I love your perspective.

      November 7, 2012
  2. Karl, you make me laugh. You make me cry. And you always take me on a journey with your blog posts. This was no exception. Your unflinching candor despite the obvious urge to “airbrush” memories like this wins me over again and again. Not 100% certain I know what lesson you’re instructing here. Instead I walk away with questions, wonders, impetus to pause and reflect. Frankly stories that make me question trump stories with pat lessons every time. Life is complex. And beautiful. But often painful. Thanks for capturing it in all it’s diversity.

    November 15, 2012
    • Karl Sprague #

      George, as always, your words are encouraging. I had no lesson in mind. I fumbled an opportunity… I think. I’m a lifelong learner and hope others can help me better prepare to make an impact – next time. Some of us have to practice what comes so naturally to you, my friend!

      November 19, 2012

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