I had been in the first grade only days when I found out about health hazard that surrounded not only my elementary school but every other elementary school in the country and across the world. It went by different names in different places but the outbreak was total and complete. In many places the plague was called “cooties” but at my school it was called “Mona Germs.”
There was little girl who attended my school named Mona and for some reason it’d been decided that she had germs. This meant every day when you went to school you had to be careful where you stood. The first person Mona touched in the morning was the one who started the day with “Mona Germs.” They would have those germs until they were able to touch someone else and pass off the dreaded disease to someone else.
As bad as it was to have “Mona Germs” during the day, what nobody wanted was to be the one that had to go home “diseased” because they were last touched. Mona reacted the way most would. She became angry and frustrated.
After a year or so Mona moved away and as I grew older I began to realize how I must’ve made this little girl feel. Now I wasn’t the one who came up with the game, but I didn’t stand up to end it either. I simply went along with the rest, spreading “Mona Germs,” never thinking of the ramifications; never thinking of how it would make Mona feel. Disappointed at how I had acted I tried hard to remember to treat people better.
When I was about 11 years old I met a man who is a great example to me of treating people better. His name was Charlie. Charlie and his wife were a younger couple that lived nearby.
I loved Charlie. I used to ride my bike over to his house and laugh and joke with him as he would always have some story to entertain me with. Sometimes he would pick me up and take me to get an ice cream at the local drive-thru. Charlie took a special interest in me and there wasn’t much I wasn’t willing to do in return.
A few months into building this relationship with Charlie he asked me if I would do them a favor. I answered yes before I even knew what he needed. I couldn’t think of something he would ask of me that I wouldn’t be willing to do.
He told me that his daughter from a previous marriage was coming into town and wondered if I’d be willing to show her around. When you’re 11 years old showing someone around town means taking them to the arcade and for a Slurpee at the local 7-Eleven. But this was Charlie and if his daughter was coming to town I would do my best to show her a good time–even if it meant fronting her some quarters to play Asteroids.
He told me when she would be in town and mentioned how grateful he was for my help. Things had been little difficult for his daughter when she was little because of the family dynamic and a great experience in Boise could make a big impact.
I was excited for this opportunity to help and over the next couple of weeks thought of any way I could make Charlies daughter’s experience in my hometown a memorable one. I wanted to see if I could make his daughter feel is good as Charlie had made me feel.
A day or so before she came to town Charlie stopped by to make sure I was still on to help out. I told him I was and that in fact I had been thinking about it since he first brought it up. He turned to me and said, “Great! I know you and Mona will have a great time.”
My heart stopped. As my brain worked to put two and two together I realized that Mona from the first grade and my friend Charlie had the same last name. Mona of “Mona Germs” was Charlie’s daughter. My face flushed beet read. I was so embarrassed of the way I had treated my friend’s daughter.
Luckily, when Mona arrived she had no memory of me. I worked the entire weekend to pay off the horrible things I had said as a first grader. I learned that day of the cost of treating someone poorly. I learned that day that everyone is somebody’s someone.
Conversely, I spent the week directly before I broke my neck at football camp at BYU. In that July of 1986 I had preceded my family to Utah by a week. I was to spend that week at Camp and at its end my family would drive down from Boise, pick me up and we would head to Lake Powell for week of waterskiing.
In the first hours of my football camp I met Roger French. Coach French was over the offensive linemen at BYU and so as an offensive lineman I fell under his direction at Camp. That summer my friends and I had decided to get real live Naval “high and tight” flat top haircuts. I suppose it was a natural extension for him to nickname me “Navy.”
From the first day it was as if he saw something special in me. Although I was only just finished with the ninth grade he regularly placed me against young men much older than I, saying they could prove their toughness by going against “Navy.” He told the group of players there to hustle like “Navy,” and on the second to last day of camp had me go head-to-head with a senior who had already committed to play center at BYU. I went up against him three times. The first two, I found myself placed squarely on my back end. But with Coach French cheering me on, the third try I found a way to bend but not break and push the larger boy back.
On Friday, the last day of camp, Coach French awarded me the Most Improved Player of the entire group. On Saturday, my parents picked me up and took me to Lake Powell. On Sunday, I became paralyzed from the waist down. I would never play football again.
Coach French didn’t know that this was to be my last experience playing football. He had no way of knowing that my week at BYU would be the final memory I ever had of playing the sport I loved so much. But, because of the way he chose to treat me he made that week on the gridiron extra special. Even just seeing the word Navy reminds me of the feeling I had pushing the larger center out of the way that week in 1986.
As we interact with those around us we get to choose what kind of feeling or lasting impression we will make. Will we spread “Mona Germs” and make others to feel small, angry and frustrated? Or, will we give people that “Navy” experience causing them to believe that they can overcome any obstacle no matter how big.
It is critical that we remember that everyone is somebody’s daughter, someone’s son ,or someone’s friend. We must be careful with our words, for contrary to popular belief they are sticks and stones–sticks and stones that can be used to tear down and destroy or reinforce and shore up.
PS I hope to be able to post on Wednesday but am going in for minor surgery on my hand, and so it may be Thursday or Friday before I’m able to post again. Thanks for your continued support.