One night when I was in the first grade and shared a bed in the basement with my 8-year-old sister Wendy, we were startled awake at two in the morning. My mom yanked back our covers and dragged us up the basement stairs in our pajamas. She tugged us outside in the cold and shoved us into the backseat of our rusted-out Ford Escort. We accelerated into the darkness.
When I peaked out the side window I could see beat-up cars along crumbling curbs and dilapidated houses on dirt lots littered with trash. Suddenly my mom screeched to a halt next to a busted-out street lamp and barked at us to get out of the car. She then yanked us up a decaying staircase and into a rundown, two-story Victorian house.
A smoky haze floated out as my mom opened the front door and we stepped inside. The house was quiet and dark except for the moonlight reaching through the broken windows. People were passed out on the floor with haphazard piles of half-eaten food and garbage around them. There was no furniture, no lamps or beds except for a dirty mattress in one corner. My mom pulled us down a hallway that led to the back of the house as our footsteps creaked on the floorboards.
We passed a man slumped against the wall just before reaching an old wooden door. The hinge creaked as my mom pulled the door open.
The room was cold and the air was grayed with cigarette smoke. You could just make out a door at the opposite end. We stepped inside and my mom pressed Wendy and me to the floor and motioned for us to stay put. She continued toward the other door as Wendy and I crawled into the nearest corner.
Wendy’s body trembled as she pulled me close. That’s when we noticed the longhaired man sitting guard by the other door. He allowed my mom to pass and then locked his gaze on us. His face was sharp and he wore leather boots, skintight jeans and a tie-dyed shirt. The snub nose of a silver handgun pressed against his chin.
Wendy brought her quivering lips to my ear and told me to stay still and quiet and that everything would be okay. Quietly and as still as two children could be, we spent the next hour pressed together, praying that our mom would return and take us home.
We waited. And waited. After nearly two hours, the door behind the armed man creaked and opened slowly. My mom appeared. Having had her fix of crack, she was smiling. I jumped up and ran to her side, hugging one of her legs. She led us out of the house and back into the car.
Once home, Wendy and I scurried down the basement stairs and climbed back under our covers. She rubbed my forehead and sang songs to me so I could fall asleep. I’ll never forget watching her reach over my body to set the alarm clock for school.
Two hours later, the alarm sounded. Wendy helped me get dressed in the same clothes I’d worn the day before. I did my best to tame my bed head. Our mom was passed out so we walked to the kitchen where we fixed our own cereal and packed our backpacks before heading out the front door. Then we walked to the bus stop where we stood with the other kids in the neighborhood and tried to act like everything was fine.
I was only six at the time that happened but very little changed as I grew older. I was surrounded by the horrors of addiction, neglect, and abuse my entire childhood. But I was not alone. There were other kids like me back then—some of them in worse circumstances than mine. The same is true today.
Next time you notice a schoolmate wearing the same clothes or looking rundown or acting withdrawn, don’t assume you know what they’ve been through. Like me or many others like me, they may be suffering through circumstances brought on by parents or caregivers who abuse drugs and alcohol, or them—circumstances that aren’t their fault and are outside their control.
If you want to be a leader, a difference-maker, an extraordinary person in life, you must be someone who seeks to empathize with others, and then treat them the way you would want to be treated if you were in their shoes. Compassion is the truest measure of strength.