It’s that time of year when we give our loved ones gifts. But what happens if we were to give a gift to someone we can’t stand?
I found out the answer to this when I was in sixth grade at Cuyahoga Heights school in Ohio. Back then, I was tormented by a girl I’ll call Marla, whose mission was to make my life miserable. She needed someone to pick on, and, unfortunately, I was the subject of her abuse.
She made a point to sit behind me in English class. As I listened to the teacher, I’d suddenly feel a hard yank on my hair. I didn’t want the teacher to get mad at me for disturbing the class, so I smothered the Ouch!
A few minutes later, just as I recovered from the first hair-pull, Marla yanked my hair again. This time, I turned around and gave her an angry look, wanting to wipe the smirk right off her face.
Throughout sixth grade she found ways to torment me. Once, I turned away from my locker for a couple of minutes to talk to another student, and when I turned back my books were gone. Marla grinned at me as she walked past. I didn’t see her actually carrying the books, but I knew by the look on her face she was the guilty one.
One day, in early December, I came home crying over something Marla had said or done.
“I hate her!” I told my mother.
My mother nodded. She held me while I cried. Then she said, “Why don’t you give her a Christmas gift?”
“A gift?” I looked at her like she was crazy. “Why would I want to give her a gift?”
“Because sometimes people like that are miserable inside and are just crying out for some love.”
Still not convinced, I helped my mother wrap a chocolate torte from Swiss Colony in shiny Christmas wrapping paper. The next day, still thinking this was a stupid idea, thinking that Marla would open the torte and probably smash it in my face, I brought the gift to school. With a nervous stomach, I approached Marla before English class started as she sat in her usual seat. I held out the gift and said, “Merry Christmas.”
She looked stunned for a moment, then took the box, unwrapped it and smiled. This time not the smirky smile of someone who had accomplished her usual bullying, but rather a genuine smile of thanks.
From that moment on Marla stopped pulling my hair. In fact, she ceased all her tormenting.
Decades later, when I went to the wedding of a childhood friend, I asked her, “Whatever happened to Marla?” Since my family moved to Florida while I was in seventh grade, I didn’t graduate from Cuyahoga Heights and had no idea what had happened to many of my former Ohio classmates.
I was shocked when my friend said, “Marla died of a drug overdose in her car in the parking lot at school. She never graduated.”
I recalled the words of my mother. Sometimes people are just crying out for some love. I felt sad as I pondered her fate.
With all the bullying that’s in the news these days, I wonder what would happen if the kids who are being bullied handed the people who are bullying them a gift? Would the bullier’s behavior change like Marla’s did all those years ago?
I wrote a book about how couples can stop stress from affecting their relationships, and thinking about the story of Marla, it occurred to me how the people we encounter throughout our day can affect our relationships when we come home in the evening. The Marlas of the working world, our negative co-workers, or even a cranky cashier at our favorite store can taint our mood when we walk in the door in the evening. Yet, it’s important to never bring that stress home with us. It’s much better to remember that those negative people we encounter are crying out for some love, to give them a gift (whether it’s a holiday gift or no special occasion), and to come home feeling at peace with ourselves and the world.