“I am going to need to speak with you in my office,” the doctor said, and I thought nothing of it. I was so thrilled to see my baby kicking around during the ultrasound that I didn’t foresee that something might be the matter.
“Your baby’s brain and all major organs are fine,” he leaned forward in his chair and cleared his throat, and that was when I realized that he was about to say the word “but. . .”
“But, it is clear to me that your baby does not have a left hand.”
I will never forget laying eyes on my firstborn son, three months after that ultrasound. I had pushed for over two hours and was afraid that I wouldn’t have the strength to hold him. When the midwife held him up to me, my first thought was that he was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen. His head was covered in a mass of dark hair. I held him and comforted his newborn cries. He settled on my chest and looked up with a piercing stare. There was an air about him that exuded confidence even as a newborn. He didn’t know that the average baby had two hands. He was just fine, thank you very much.
A seasoned nurse in her fifties cared for us that night. She bathed my baby, and her voice was sweet and calm like a mother when she reassured me:
“Just wait and see all of the things you will do now with one hand as a new mom. This boy is going to be fine.”
My heart warmed as worry fled. “Thank you very much.”
As he grew up, he continually surprised us by conquering anything he set out to do. A natural athlete, musician, and exceptional student with a charismatic personality that draws people to him, my son thrived with many strong friendships. Having only one hand didn’t seem to hold him back at all…until he was 14 and our family moved to England.
A new high school in a new country was a different story. He worked hard to figure out how things worked in this new place. We continually asked him if everything was all right, and he assured us it was. It was February of his first school year in England when he confessed something was wrong. He was being bullied at school because of his missing hand. He didn’t want to tell us he was struggling, but it was devastating for him to continue holding it inside.
“Mom, I don’t think that I can go on the geography field trip next week,” he approached me one day after school.
This wasn’t like him at all. “Why not?” I asked.
“The kids in that class are really awful to me. The teacher had us pick groups for the trip today, and no one wanted me in their group. Can I please stay home that day?” he begged.
The taunting was so emotionally difficult, my son ate his lunch in the bathroom. Depression was lurking at the door of his heart and mind. My husband and I wanted to talk to the school administration and implore them to help.
“Talking with the school won’t do any good, Mom,” my son told me, looking hopeless.
“Do you know the names of the kids who are giving you a hard time?” I asked.
“There are so many, Mom. I don’t know most of them. They are younger than me and older than me. It is like the whole school is out to make me feel horrible about myself,” he confided.
As we talked with him, I sensed a plug had been pulled from his heart and the lifetime of love and confidence that we had poured into him was draining out before our eyes. I have never felt so desperate as a mother.
Prior to this, I had heard of kids being bullied but never contemplated the soul-wrenching tension a young person wades through when they face that kind of degradation. Victims fear that if they report the misconduct and the bullies are given consequences, then the bullies could make life miserable when no one is looking because that is what bullies do. This particular school had a culture of bullying, and we felt helpless.
Eventually, my husband and I arranged to meet with the teacher leading our son’s year group to tell her we were considering finding a new school due to the bullying problem our son was facing. My desire was to help the school work through their problem so my son would be the last one who experienced this. I was hoping for the chance to explain to them how their methods had fostered this atmosphere to exist.
When we sat down, the teacher immediately began singing our son’s praises. His academic accomplishments and musical contributions were impressive. She had comments from other teachers to share with us about what a great kid he is. Despite all her praise, we tried to open up about the way his peers were treating him, and she immediately went cold.
“I don’t believe that is really happening,” she had the gall to say.
“What reason would we have to make this up?” my husband asked.
“You said he was eating lunch in the bathroom. I don’t believe it. We lock doors so students can’t do that,” was her response. (“When you are desperate, you find out which doors are open,” my son later informed us.)
That meeting quickly came to an end and we informed her we would be removing our son from the school. As we drove away, my blood boiled and my heart broke. The lack of empathy our son was being shown was shocking. Later that week, I wrote a long letter to the headteacher explaining how certain systems within the school were making it possible for kids to get away with bullying. I received no response. Not only had we not been heard, but bullying could persist and affect other students because the school wasn’t interested in taking an introspective look into or correcting their widespread problem.
I started making phone calls trying to find another school. Changing schools in England is not easy. Most of my inquiries were simply met with, “We do not have space in his year group.” However, there was one woman who brought tears to my eyes with her warm response.
“We do not have space in his year group, but I am so sad to hear what he has experienced. That should never have been allowed to happen. I can’t promise you anything, but please send in an application to my attention, and I will personally present your case to the headteacher.” Those kind words filled me with hope. She gave the gift of empathy by allowing her heart to connect to our plight even though she might not be able to offer a solution.
“Thank you very much,” was all I could say in a shaky voice and I hung up.
Fortunately, this school was willing to make a spot, and my son is now thriving there. The new school prioritizes the needs of every student and it is evident across the board. Their approach to everything shows their desire to care for their students as individuals. It is a safe place.
Empathy is not my strong suit. My wiring lends itself more to problem solving and perseverance than feeling. When I encounter a person with a problem I cannot personally relate to, or I do not see a solution for, I shut down emotionally and can be dismissive and distant. Standing against bullying with my son has taught me an important lesson about the value of empathy. Galatians 6:2 urges us to “Bear one another’s burdens,” it doesn’t say we are to solve everyone’s problems. Some problems are complicated and feel unsolvable, but as I come alongside and help bear the weight when life gets heavy, I lighten another’s load by letting them know they are seen and not alone. I have learned to put myself in someone else’s shoes and imagine what they are feeling as they walk their road, and in so doing, I have seen life-giving connections form. The solidarity we form through empathy is a source of hope we all need.
Amy Mullens and her husband are church planters in England as well as parents to four children (17, 14, 12, and 5). She is addicted to seeing Jesus change lives and loves to walk people through God’s Word in small groups, through her writing or over a cup of coffee. Exploring the English countryside, getting lost in a book, or catching up with an old friend are among her favorite things.