By Doug Woodall
When I was 10 years old, the Steele family moved into my neighborhood. They were poorer and had more children than anyone else. Instead of feeling sympathy, even compassion, everyone I knew condemned them. I didn’t think there was another way to see them. That is I didn’t think there was another way to see them until my brother Eldon showed me how to look at them through his eyes.
I knew Blaine Steele the best. He was closest to my age; therefore, he was in all my church classes. Because he was held back one year in school, I saw him at school, but I didn’t have any classes with him.
When I think of Blaine, the memory that comes to the forefront of my mind is he is the most verbally and physically abused person I’ve ever known. I do not believe he had a great home life, but I believe he was safe at home. Blaine met his worst abusers at church every Sunday. What they started at church, they continued at school.
Blaine’s worst abusers were three bullies our age. They called him names – berated and ridiculed him. They punched him and boxed his ears. They picked fights with him, knocked him to the ground, and screamed at him. They blamed Blaine for what they did to him. I didn’t think I could help Blaine.
Because my birthday’s in the summer, most of the kids in my church and school classes were older than me. I was always the shortest and smallest of the lot. My worst crime against Blaine is I didn’t care what happened to him.
When my brother Eldon was a senior in high school and Blaine and I were in junior high, Blaine and his younger brother Danny started coming to my house to ask Eldon if he could play. More times than not, Eldon stopped what he was doing and went outside to play with them. I was astounded and annoyed. I’m not sure where I got the idea, but I thought when you turned 12 you stopped playing. Then Eldon was super busy. He was a straight-A student, he worked part-time for a talented sculptor, he belonged to DECA and VICA, and he was an accomplished draftsman. Before he graduated high school, he drew plans for a house and the house was built. Also, he was a Sterling Scholar finalist.
About a month after Blaine and Danny came to my house the first time, I stayed late at school. When I got home, I found Eldon playing with the boys in our front yard. I didn’t say anything when I passed them, but when Eldon and I were alone, I confronted him.
“Why are you letting Blaine and Danny come to our house, and why are you playing with them?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you why,” Eldon said. “Those boys have no one in their lives who makes them feel good about themselves and builds their self-esteem. I will do whatever I can to help them.”
Eldon’s straightforward and heartfelt words were all it took for me to see Blaine and Danny through his eyes. From that day on, I stopped resenting Blaine and Danny for coming to the house to ask if Eldon could play. Because I saw Blaine more than I saw Danny, I did what I could to help him. In church, I sat by him. Whenever I saw him at school, I said hello and stopped to talk to him.
When Blaine was in 11th grade and I was in 12th grade, he went on a church youth activity to the local swimming pool. In those days, the people at the check-in desk gave swimmers a key to a locker. The key was attached to a small metal bar that had a safety pin embedded in it. That was so swimmers could pin their keys to their swimming suits. Two boys, who must be four years younger than Blaine, forced Blaine to give them his key. When they had the key, they made Blaine stand between them and try to catch his key while they tossed it to each other. After a time, one of them stepped to the deep end of the pool and dropped the key in and the two boys walked away. Blaine drowned trying to retrieve his key.
I didn’t go on the activity. My mother told me the news the next morning. At school, most people talked solemnly, even respectfully, about Blaine. That is they talked solemnly about him up to the lunch period. After lunch, a number of people said Blaine drowned on purpose to make us feel sorry for him.
Blaine’s death and the way my peers talked about him less than 24 hours afterward, cemented how Eldon saw Blaine, his brother Danny, and his family forever in my heart and mind. I cannot say I’m a perfect example of helping others to feel good about themselves, but I can say I try to meet all people as my equal and to do what I can to build them up. And yes, this is one of my life lessons, but I hope all who read my words can find a lesson they need to hear and they need to put into practice.
Gay Writes is a DiverseCity Series writing group, a program of SLCC’s Community Writing Center. The group meets the 2nd and 4th Mondays of each month, 6:30-8pm, 210 E. 400 South, Ste. 8, Salt Lake.