If there’s anything the public school system has taught my sixth-grade daughter Jane, it’s to name the predicament described in this 1939 Christmas poem.
Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer had a very shiny nose / And if you ever saw it, you would even say it glows / All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names / They never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games
Clearly, Rudolph was bullied.
In fact, Jane has become so hypersensitive to the issue of bullying and has heard so many horror stories (there is some ungodly hybrid of Heather Has Two Mommies and The Laramie Project going around) that she burst into tears in social studies when the teacher merely mentioned the word. Unfortunately, the public education approach to anything, whether it’s drug addiction or the periodic table of elements, is sometimes so ham-handed it becomes a form of harassment in itself.
Weep no more for Rudolph, Jane. Like almost all of the more than 30,000 people who have posted videos on itgetsbetter.org, he made it out the other side. Just picture him in his YouTube clip, eyes moist, nose bright, antlers graying a bit by now, the dark red wall of the barn behind him. I grew up in a pen at the North Pole…at first I couldn’t understand why no one liked me…working his way through the teasing and taunting to the glorious, foggy eve when his incandescent proboscis made him a hero, a beacon, metaphorically and literally, a hottie, like the kids on “Glee.” (Santa is played by Matthew Morrison here.) Then how the reindeer loved him! Those fickle, fickle reindeer.
The reindeer were teenagers, I imagine — who else could bound through the sky like that, who else would be so unabashedly mean? Immersed in that moment when our twinned potentials for empathy and cruelty are first sounded to their shocking depths. The moment when we begin to understand how much we can feel for others, yet how brutally cold we can be. I, who spent much of junior high writing suicide poems, experienced a brief period of popularity when I co-authored a puppet show making fun of everyone else in the class.
And the red nose? Whether you read it as an LGBT orientation, a handicap, a weight problem, social awkwardness, whether Rudolph was a stutterer, a nerd or an ethnic minority, suffered from alopecia, amblyopia, or an actual red nose, perhaps from rosacea or a secret drinking habit or hours of crying in his lonely stall, depressed and isolated — in any case, there should be a cheery anthem and an “It Gets Better” video for all those things. Or It Gets Worse, But Then It Gets Better. And possibly It Gets a Little Worse Again, But Now You Are Older and Less of a Drama Queen.
It takes years to understand that the color of your nose is also the color of your parachute — that what first appears as one’s greatest burden is often one’s saving grace, one’s ticket out of Dodge, one’s high-flying freak flag and membership card in the club. And, as in so many other areas of life, we all need to copy the gay people and reach out a hand to those suffering younger versions of ourselves. Overweight teens with obsessive crushes, giant noses, and frightening, unfillable needs for attention — I am here for you! For you, I tell and retell my inspiring story of true love, exercise and rhinoplasty!
According to Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker in his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, the world is becoming a more peaceful place. There are fewer killings, fewer rapes, less child abuse. This, he says, is because the human race is actually, measurably getting a little smarter. And, I extrapolate, because we slightly smarter people are shining flashlights into the dark corners, making “It Gets Better” videos and teaching kids about bullying as the red-nosed reindeer flies above us, snout ablaze.
This is the North Pole and we are the only elves there are, complicit and innocent, wronged and wrong, stumbling as best we can through this cruelest and most hopeful of all possible worlds.
Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.