The Standing Ovation: empathy and compassion for kids

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“Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.” The quote, from R.J. Palacio’s extraordinary novel Wonder, seems to me the best way to start the true story that follows. A story of greatness and of empathy; a story that reminds us of JM Barrie’s life rule (to paraphrase): “let us try to always be a little kinder than necessary, because everyone you meet is fighting their own battle.” I’ve illustrated the story with further quotes from Wonder (a book which has transformed the way I see childhood illness and paints the campers at Over The Wall in a brilliant new light). And so the story starts…

20131110-152242.jpgThe Three Compares had planned this night ever since the last day of camp the year before. It was The Big Finale for them; Talent Night at their last ever Over The Wall camp, now that they’d turned 17 and would next year be too old to return as campers again. The boys had met on their first camp together five years before, and Talent Night had always been their favourite night of the year. A chance to get up in front of the rest of camp to sing, rap, dance and crack jokes to an adoring audience of campers and volunteers. These three boys were particularly entertaining each year and rumours had spread all week of the grand finale they had been secretly planning via Facebook and Skype for much of the past year.

The camp they are on is Over The Wall, and is one of many SeriousFun camps around the world. It’s a place where every camper is celebrated, cheered and adored for a full week; a week free from the childhood illnesses that have a hold on them in their day-to-day lives. Impromptu performances, sudden acts of bravery or simply moments of hilarity are commonplace around camp, and boy are the campers praised for such moments. At the sister camp in Ireland, called Barretstown, the campers all enter the dining hall via a red carpet lined with applauding volunteers. For one week a year, kids affected by serious illness can be the superstars they have always dreamed of being. One of tonight’s compares once told me that camp was the one week of the year that kept him fighting; the one week he lived for.
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Before The Three Compares’ Secret Finale, the audience were in for a whole evening of performances from every camper, which turned out to be, as ever, superb and filled each volunteer with pride again and again. But then came a dip in the show. A 14-year-old boy, who we shall call Mark, had just settled himself at the piano ready to play us a tune which he had written himself. I was nervous for Mark, not only because he was visibly shaking, but because I, along with a handful of other volunteers nearby, remembered last year’s Talent Night where a small, barely noticeable mistake had caused Mark to cut short his performance and spend the rest of the night crying outside the theatre with his team leader. I held my breath as he started his performance. All was going well, and then, almost imperceptibly (the advantage of playing one’s own composition), Mark stumbled, froze up and then ran out in tears. I was heartbroken. His team leader followed Mark, as did the camp director. The Three Compares smoothly dispersed the anxiety in the room with a few kind words and carried on with the show, building to their Big Finale.

Towards the end of the next act I noticed Mark had returned the the theatre with his team leader and the camp director. Both adults with him had a way with words, and kids, which I wish I could emulate. Returning to watch the remainder of the night was a huge achievement for Mark after the previous year and I was glad he would get to see the rest of his friends perform, as now it was time for The Big Finale. But there was an unexpected pause, whilst The Three Compares – so far tonight slick and cool as anything, having prepared for this all year – whispered amongst themselves, their backs to the audience. As one, they turned to face us. “I know you were all expecting The Big Finale, but we think we’ve got something even better for you…”
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What happened next was truly wonderous. The Three Compares sacrificed their Big Finale to welcome Mark back to the stage, to take his seat once again at the piano, and play us out with his composition. Mark was hesitant at first but the incredible cheer from the crowd practically carried him to the piano, where he gave a flawless performance, despite his shaking hands. The instant he played the final note his hands flew up to his face in shock, tears flooding from his already-reddened eyes. Barely able to see through my own tears, I looked around to see the whole audience of campers and volunteers on their feet; clapping, jumping and cheering for Mark. I realised I too had risen to my feet, as if lifted subconsciously by the pure elation that had filled the auditorium. Mark’s team leader was across the aisle, sobbing harder than I’ve ever seen anyone sob before, her pride immeasurable. The Three Compares were hugging mark and exuberantly patting him on the back. My mind flashed back to the lyrics from the opening act: the youngest camper present (8 years old) singing Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’ on his guitar. “Tears stream/Down your face/And I will try to fix you.”

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It’s true to say that empathy, even in adults, is very difficult to teach. But it is certainly true that it can be inspired, as demonstrated by The Three Compares at Talent Night this year. They were kinder than was necessary and the result was unforgettable for all, and especially for one. We never did find out what The Big Finale would have been either. It reminded me of the Secret Play pulled off by a school American Football team that changed the life of one of their classmates forever, linked in the video below. As adults, we should look to learn from kids, who can teach us to be more than we can be by ourselves. The main character in Wonder is called August, and much like JM Barrie, he too had a new rule for life: “Everyone should get a standing ovation at least once in their life, for they survive the world.”

The Secret Play: http://youtu.be/0Ejh_hb15Fc

If you know a child in need of a standing ovation, or would like to volunteer at camp, please take a look at http://www.otw.org.uk

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