October is Bullying Prevention Month. I share the following story in the spirit of acceptance and inclusion of others.
“Jimmy Kubash, Jimmy Kubash. Slower than a turtle in the fifty yard dash.” So went the taunting rhyme at recess when I was in second grade. Poor Jimmy Kubash. He was indeed a slow runner. But everything about Jimmy was protracted and methodical. He was a slow speaker, prone to drooling as words crawled and drawled out of his mouth. He was deliberate in putting on his coat before going outside. And, Jimmy was slow to pick up on reading, math, letter formation, coloring and even opening his milk at lunch. I can still see my second grade teacher, Mrs. Webber, walking over to his desk each day to help him gently force a yawn from his milk carton’s sealed mouth.
I remember his challenges because Mrs. Webber often asked me to read to Jimmy or help him complete other work. Imagine a kid feeling like he had to wear kid gloves while working with a peer. That is how I’m sure I felt while assisting Jimmy. I probably slowed down my own speech; spoke louder, and pathetically patronized my classmate thinking that his sloth-like demeanor warranted me stereotypically treating him like an outsider who has been on this planet for a very short time.
Jimmy’s family had moved to my hometown, Omaha, from somewhere in the Deep South. He arrived in my classroom with his Huck Finn accent and just-out-of-bed-hair sometime in the middle of the school year. The class’ quick acceptance of the new student quickly faded as we realized that he was an easy target for taunting and bullying. The aforementioned unkind chant probably started around the time we ran the fifty-yard relay race in P.E. The concept was easy. The class was divided into four teams. Each team was divided in two. The split groups were lined up fifty-yards apart so that team members faced each other. Each student dashed toward a teammate, passing a plastic, oversized, sausage-like baton to an eagerly awaiting hand, and cheered until a team had exhausted all its runners and someone ran the final fifty-yards. The idea was to not drop the baton while sprinting or you would have to retrieve it, which cost your team precious seconds.
Cue the Chariots of Fire soundtrack. The relay race begins. In my memory movie, everyone is running in slow motion, necks straining, cheeks flapping. The camera pans to Jimmy as he fumbles the baton. Jimmy slowly picks it up. He does not move. He remains static as runners move past him. Wait. Play the movie in real time. Ah, now Jimmy is moving—in slow motion! It seemed like Jimmy was always running on the proverbial achievement conveyer belt, the one where one moves his arms and legs and gets nowhere.
“Jimmy Kubash, Jimmy Kubash. Slower than a turtle in the fifty-yard dash.”
And so it went, whether Jimmy was chasing us during tag or “running” to become entrapped between someone’s hands during Red Rover. That is the picture of Jimmy Kubash that would have remained in my head had he not done the unimaginable one day and invited me over to his house to play.
I’m sure I asked my mom for permission, secretly hoping she would say no. What would my peers think of me hanging around the strange, snail-like kid? With her parental wisdom, she told me to accept Jimmy’s invitation and encouraged me to forge a friendship with him.
The Kubash residence was located just off the white, rocky road that I traversed each day to and from school. It was a very small, salmon-colored rambler with a giant oak tree in the front yard. I remember the tree because a tire hung from an extended branch and we pushed each other on the giant rubber doughnut during my visit. I can conjure up other scenes from that visit: We sit at a small kitchen table and play Mouse Trap while sipping orange soda. Jimmy’s dad sits watching. We view Superman on the family’s black and white television and marveled at the super hero’s strength and speed. Jimmy’s mother tells me her name is Kay. I wonder how anyone could have a name that sounds like a letter of the alphabet. It begins to pour when my mother picks me up in our blue Rambler.
It would not be my only visit. I returned shortly thereafter to celebrate Jimmy’s eighth birthday. It is a sunny day. We eat Neapolitan ice cream squares. We have gunny sack races. We throw rocks at tin cans that Jimmy’s dad has stacked on top of a cinderblock retaining wall. In my rush to avoid embarrassment, I miss each time. Others fare a bit better. Jimmy, in his slow, practiced manner is masterful at knocking over all the cans. He is crowned King Can.
In subsequent visits, I became better at knocking over the mountain of cans. Jimmy patiently taught me to plant my foot in the direction of the tin targets, to follow through with my throw, and to keep my eye on the prize.
Alas, I do not remember what became of Jimmy Kubash. I do know that he was not around for third grade. I do know that some other unfortunate kid picked up Jimmy’s “otherness” baton and became the target of name-calling. I do know that I think of Jimmy every time I hear of a bullying incident or see someone struggling in school. I do know how painful it is to be called a name based on a physical attribute or perceived weakness. I had to endure the nickname Chihuahua (I was incredibly small and all ears) until I went to Junior High. Some of us can laugh it off; others bear the pain more profoundly.
There is a Jimmy Kubash or two—or twenty-five—in every classroom. When you think about it, there is a little bit of Jimmy Kubash in each of us. Don’t ask me to change a tire in less than an hour.
The beauty of public schools is that it offers students the opportunity to interact with all kinds of children and adults. In doing so, students become empathetic to the human condition in all its glories and imperfections. They learn to stand up for themselves and others. They develop a sense of justice—and mercy. They learn to celebrate their strengths and accept their challenges. They learn that bullying, harassment and discrimination of others is unacceptable.
At Island Park, we have started to implement the school board-approved Second Step curriculum across all grades. Second Step teaches age-appropriate anti-bullying and social interaction skills to children through weekly lessons. Anti-bullying lessons focus on how to recognize bullying, engage in refusal strategies, and practice reporting tactics. Empathy skills include how to determine the emotional state of another, assume the perspective of someone else, and respond in respectful and emotionally appropriate ways to others. Finally, Second Step teaches skills for learning (listening, following directions, etc.), emotion management (calming down, dealing with disappointment, etc.), and problem solving (fair ways to play, etc.). Families should have received an introductory letter through kid mail or classroom newsletters describing the program in more detail. There are home-connection activities that accompany the curriculum that allow families to discuss concepts and share feelings. Look for key Second Step concepts on posters in classrooms, school hallways and in home communications.
I am grateful that I had the opportunity to meet, interact with and learn from a unique kid like Jimmy Kubash. He taught me to be more tolerant of others. Most importantly, thinking back to his party and our subsequent interactions, he taught me that in this race called life, the slow runner often finishes first.Respectfully,David HoffmanPrincipal