If time travel were possible, I would go back to the early 1960s and give Sylvia a hug.
Sylvia was a short, strange looking (to my young eyes) woman who would sit in the park across the street from the elementary school I attended. I now realize that she was mentally impaired, which I was incapable of understanding as a young lad in the second and third grades.
Sylvia was a sweet, gentle woman. She always smiled at us kids and said hello when our teachers brought us to the park for recess.
All that changed one day, when one of my classmates called Sylvia a "retard," laughing uproariously as he did so. Within seconds, the whole class joined in, tormenting this poor woman who had done us no wrong. Our teachers sat nearby, talking among themselves. They could clearly see and hear what we were doing, yet they made no move to stop us.
This went on for several days. Sylvia soon stopped coming to the park.
One day, as our teachers led us down Bay Parkway in Brooklyn towards the park, we spotted Sylvia across the street. "Look! It's the retard!" we shouted, laughing uproariously at our own childish ignorance. "Hey, Sylvia, you're a retard!"
For the first and only time, we got a reaction. "Drop dead!" Sylvia screamed as her eyes flooded with tears. "Leave me alone!" Our maniacal laughter reached a fever pitch, and still our teachers did nothing. I never saw Sylvia again.
Now, a half-century later, I can no longer remember what Sylvia looks like. I seem to recall that she was middle aged. I imagine that she's long dead by now. I barely gave her a second thought after that last time I saw her, or for many years thereafter--so what has me thinking about her now?
Today, in 2016, I am Sylvia. I'm a middle aged gay man who survived a childhood riddled with abuse from my own parents, which caused me to develop a fairly intense case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Over the years I've had severe manic episodes, nightmares, flashbacks, and blackouts which I can barely remember. Through it all I've endured public ridicule not from kids, but from adults. In 2010 I was nearly driven to suicide after a series of gay and lesbian bloggers inflamed anti-gay and anti-Semitic hate against me for nothing more than a cheap laugh. Gay advocacy groups called me an anti-gay bigot when I asked for their help in putting a stop to this.
Fifty years after we kids tormented Sylvia to the point of tears, nothing has changed.
Why didn't our teachers stop us? Why didn't they teach us the difference between right from wrong? Why, after all these years, do people still not know how to treat each other? Where is our compassion for each other? Where is our humanity?
I regret few things more than how we kids treated Sylvia on that blustery Brooklyn day those many years ago. My own eyes well up with tears as I recall the tears streaming down her cheeks. I can only hope that Sylvia had a good life after I last saw her.
Mostly, I hope that we as Americans, will one day take an honest look in the nearest mirror.