Christmas on Erie Street, or, Learning Compassion
This evening found a thirty-year old memory drifting through the air. It is always a curious thing to be granted a window – albeit murky – into events that shaped my world view.
When I was in second grade, I performed in a local production of a play, Christmas on Erie Street. I played the part of one of the newsboys, Tony.
I remember little about the casting or rehearsals or even the performance. I remember that my copy of the script was a little orange book and that over the course of a month it became tattered. I remember lots of soapy, white powder, and I remember being annoyed at being forced to wear make up so that my features wouldn’t be bleached out by the harsh stage lights.
Most everything is a blur.
What I do remember starkly is a conversation with my mother on the night of our dress rehearsal and a fragile understanding that dawned within me afterwards.
You see, our dress rehearsal was to be performed in front of an audience – a non-paying audience composed of the mentally ill, brought in a bus from a local hospital. I don’t remember exactly where, I may not have been told. I spied on them through the curtain as they came in, while the house lights were up.
They frightened me. They were different from me, from everyone I knew; alien in ways that my seven year old self had no experience with or frame of reference.
I told my mother that I couldn’t perform. That they scared me, and that I didn’t want them there.
I asked her, “Why do they have to be here?”
My mother stared into my eyes for a moment, composing her answer.
“Oh, Brandon,” she said. “Yes, they’re. . . different from you. But that shouldn’t change anything.”
“They deserve to enjoy things, too.”
I pondered. What she said felt innately fair and correct, a truism I had known my entire life and somehow forgotten. It was like discovering I had fingers.
Despite this lesson, I am still human. And as all humans, I composed my own share of petty cruelties, fears, and jealousies. I do not regret these. They, too, continued to shape me. However, that doesn’t mean that I cannot grieve for them as lost opportunities to have been a better person.