Early last week, I had a fantastic work errand. I work with an NGO, and some of the field staff was in New York for a big event, and some of us in the home office lead groups around the city for a day of sightseeing. So I was playing tour guide to a woman from Mozambique, someone from the DRC, and a pair of guys from Jordan, answering their fantastic and innocent questions (“how tall is that Christmas tree you say is in the city every year?” “Wait, the Statue of Liberty is in the middle of the harbor?”) and trying to warn them against some of New York’s hustles (“huh. Okay, guys, just so you know, those people dressed like Mickey Mouse in Times Square want you to tip them for that photo you just took…”)
After a while, I noticed that whenever a little kid came near us in the crowd, one of the guys from Jordan would almost instinctively pat them on the head or the back as they ran past. A few times he stepped away from us to check in with the home office on his cell, and even then he’d smile at any kid who came near us and pat their head or muss their hair. I thought about subtly taking him aside and saying that I know he meant well, but some mothers in this country could be very overprotective, and so maybe he should hang back…
Then I remembered what he did.
In Jordan, he’s in charge of the unaccompanied children who turn up at the refugee camps; the orphans, the kids who got separated from their parents. The buses get to the camps at night, so he starts work at midnight, jumping onto the buses before anyone gets off and keeping an eye out for the kids, winning their trust and playing “older brother” until he can find any of their relatives or helping them find a safe place to stay. He had a wonderful childlike manner himself – he had his iPad with him, and every five blocks he would use it to take selfies of all of us as we walked, an enormous grin nearly splitting his face. Whenever someone else was taking a picture of him, he would flash the same grin, both hands thrust out in dual thumbs-up. When we saw the costumed guys in Times Square, he was the very first to move towards them for a picture, giving that same grin to the costumed Mickey Mouse and Elmo.
And then I thought about my grade school principal, Mr. Haddad.
We all thought Mr. Haddad was a little scary at first – he was a tall, silver-haired stern-looking man with a huge, booming voice that commanded respect whenever he used it. Only rarely did he make any appearance out in the halls or in class assemblies, and usually it was when someone was about to get in trouble. But sometimes we caught a glimpse of his playful side; one day he came into the cafeteria on a day when we were being served some slightly unripe bananas, and we kids were all protesting. Somehow word got to him, and he came to the cafeteria and stood, sternly looking at us all and waiting for us all to stop talking, the way we always did when he gave us that look. “I have heard you are all wondering why the bananas in the cafeteria today are green,” he then said, in his deep booming voice. “The reason the bananas are green….is because we ran out of blue ones!” And then he walked back to his office without another word, and without cracking a smile – but with a bit of a twinkle in his eye.
Then when I was in fifth grade, I got sight of the depth of his compassion. I was a finalist in the multi-grade spelling bee, one of the last five contestants left standing – and then I made a dumb mistake spelling “checkers” and got called out. And I pretty much had a meltdown. My teacher tried to cheer me up as she lead the class back to our classroom, joking about the “new word” I’d spelled – but that just made it worse, and my tears and wailing got even louder, right as we were passing Mr. Haddad’s office. My teacher dropped the jokes, and focused on getting us all back to class and the rest of the class out and ready for recess.
I don’t really remember Mr. Haddad coming into the room after us, I don’t remember him talking to my teacher at all. All I remember was that, shortly after we got back to the class and while the rest of my class was at recess, Mr. Haddad was talking to me all alone, telling me about his daughter in college who had just failed a test. “She knew every single answer on that test,” he said. “We know she knew it. But sometimes people just make mistakes when they get nervous and their on a test. It doesn’t make them dumb. I am just as proud of my daughter as if she passed, and I am just as proud of you.” He kept telling me that over and over, telling me exactly what I needed to hear and just letting me cry everything out until I was calmed down.
I’ve told that story to people before, and they’ve always been moved. But there’s one detail I’ve usually left out – the fact that as he was talking to me, Mr. Haddadd had me seated on his lap and he was hugging me. And I’ve left that part out because I’m afraid people would get the wrong idea.
I remember absolutely everything about that moment and that conversation, and I know for an absolute fact that Mr. Haddad’s hug was completely and totally innocent; I also remember that it was exactly what I needed. I was a little girl who needed a kind word, but I also needed a hug, and that is exactly what I got. But what stops me from mentioning it is what probably stops teachers and principals from hugging kids today – the fear of an accusation of improper conduct.
And, honestly – I get why people are afraid. There are absolutely people who’ve preyed on the trust of children over the years, who’ve used that trust against them and hurt or abused them. And we are a lot more open about that now than we were when I was a child. But it’s also made us all a lot more suspicious – suspicious of teachers, suspicious of principals, suspicious of friendly neighbors and strangers. And the teachers and principals and friendly neighbors are much more likely to play it safe – and much less likely to hug a child or pat them on the head, especially if they are frightened or sad or scared.
I remember how much Mr. Haddad’s hug helped me, and I know exactly how much I’d have missed it if he hadn’t. And if I were a ten-year-old blowing a spelling bee today, and Mr. Haddad were trying to console me, he wouldn’t.
Our guest from Jordan was only going to be here for a couple days, and was then going to be going back to the camps, where he would be seeking out frightened children to help them.
I held my tongue, and let him keep patting kids’ heads. Someone should still be able to.