“The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”Zephaniah 3:17
Everyone reaches that phase of life when they have to decide what “doing the right thing” means to them. When all the rewards and commendations are stripped away, they have to decide why they are doing what they are doing. Personal satisfaction? Monetary gain? The answer is different for everyone. Mine, however, came to me on a “time-out” bench on the kindergarten playground.
Our class’s regular teacher Mrs. Campbell, was out of town, and a sour-faced, cross young woman was substituting as our teacher for that day. She did not seem to like children very much, or even the IDEA of children, which made the fact that she was working at a preschool rather odd. Nevertheless, everything was normal, if not a bit dull, until our class was let out onto the playground for our scheduled recess time. Of course, most of my classmates hung around the sandbox or jungle gym. Still, I was in a contemplative mood that day, as I often was at that wise old age of six or seven years old, and decided to spend my half-hour of recess in our cozy nature garden, smelling the flowers and watching the butterflies flutter around.
I was abruptly brought out of my whimsical daydream by a commotion from on top of the jungle gym in the center of the playground. A couple of the meaner-spirited boys in my class had somehow cornered a classmate and were taunting him and reaching out and hitting him. My mild concern transformed into intense fear when I realized that the classmate they were bullying was TJ, a big sweet boy with unspecified special needs and a tendency to lash out when emotional.
Suddenly, one of the boys reached out and slapped TJ across the back, hard. I flinched at the noise – it sounded like someone bringing their hand down on a hollow drum. I was confident that the poor kid would have a complete impression of a handprint across his back by the end of the day. TJ was angrily yelling “Stop!” but his cries fell on apathetic or distracted ears.
The subpar substitute teacher was nowhere in sight, but I did not have time to dwell on that problem. All I could think about was TJ’s cries, filled with genuine pain and hysterical rage. Before I realized what I was doing, my feet had carried me out of the tiny garden and up the steps of the jungle gym. I came up right behind one of the boys. They had cornered TJ on a bridge that connected one section of the jungle gym to another, effectively boxing him in like a caged animal.
In a split-second decision, I reached out, grabbed the boys shoulders, and forcefully yanked him backwards toward myself, stepping backwards as I pulled. I had no idea where I was going, I just knew I had to get at least one of these boys away from TJ.
The boy’s body went rigid with surprise, and he slowly turned around. He looked at me expectantly as if waiting for some sort of explanation for my actions. Maybe he thought I would apologize for my random physical aggressiveness, as I was not known for violent outbursts. I was also surprised by my actions, so I just stood there and stared back at him. Silently, he maneuvered around me, stepped off the jungle gym, and walked out of sight. The other boys stood in confusion for a few minutes before becoming bored or distracted and wandering off to do something else, leaving me and TJ standing there, alone.
In that moment, I felt great about myself. I had helped TJ, and no one had gotten hurt. As I climbed down from the jungle gym and started walking back towards the butterfly garden, I heard a stern voice from behind me.
I turned around and saw the substitute teacher with the boy I had pushed less than five minutes ago. With a sinking feeling, I realized where he had gone when he had abruptly left the jungle gym. To tattle.
I felt slightly amused at the irony, but my worry took over.
“Did you push him?” the substitute sternly asked, while the bully stood there with an infuriating smirk draped across his face.
“Well, I…” I trailed off. Technically, I had pushed him. But she would understand why I did it if I explained the situation to her, right? Surely, I could not be faulted for my actions since I had good intentions. And I had been taught never to lie, that was not even an option for me.
“Yes.” I finally admitted. I paused to continue, “The reason was…” but before I could finish my sentence, the substitute grabbed my arm in a viselike grip and dragged me to the benches for a dreaded ten-minute time-out. I sat on the bench, stunned. All of my life I had been taught that punishments only came when you did something wrong. What I did could not have been long. I was standing up for someone else.
I was accustomed to being rewarded for doing good deeds. That was what I was expecting for this good deed as well. Those ten minutes in time-out crawled by at a lazy snail’s pace. My face was flushed crimson with the embarrassment that tends to come with being publicly humiliated. However, sitting there on that wooden bench, I had one of the most significant realizations of my entire life. It did not matter to me if I got punished for doing something right, as long as I could confidently say that I did nothing wrong to all who would listen. It should not matter to me if I do not receive praise or recognition for my actions. The fact that I helped someone should be enough for me. I vowed from that day; whenever I did good deeds, it would be simply for the positive impact on others around me.
Honestly, I did not know TJ that well. I had my own group of friends that I would socialize with on a daily basis, and TJ seemed to enjoy being alone most of the time. I only remembered his name because he was the only kid in our class who went by his initials, and I thought that made him cool. He is the only classmate I remember from preschool. Although he will probably never know it, TJ was one of the people who made me the person I am today. I will always be grateful to him for that.
When I went home that day and told my mother about the day’s events as I usually did, I received the validation and confirmation that I had been looking for: I had done the right thing. And yes, sometimes in life, you are punished, instead of rewarded for such actions.
I do not remember the rest of recess that day. Or much of the kindergarten year, in fact. I do remember TJ. Seeing him there, tears in his eyes, surrounded and yet so utterly alone. And I remember the look of relief he had on his face when the bullies found something else to do. He did not thank me. He did not have to. All the reward I needed was the fact that he felt safe in that moment.
In years to come, I learned about disciples, missionaries, and martyrs—all people who suffered for showing God’s love and compassion to those around them. I felt connected to these individuals. Of course, my “martyr” moment was nowhere as severe as what many of these individuals suffered. Nevertheless, I thought that I had, to some extent, followed in these people’s footsteps. Doing what the Bible teaches is righteous, even when the rest of the world tells you to keep quiet and ignore those in need.
I think that many of you can think of similar moments in your life where you were punished for doing the right thing because people did not know the whole story. I bet there is still some residual frustration that bubbles up in you whenever you recount the incident. That is okay. It will eventually fade because the lessons you learned from the experience will always be a part of you and what you do.
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