Gracie Johnson and Matthew Hart

Gracie Johnson and Matthew Hart

We didn’t have Character Education in school when I was growing up. Oh, we had some characters. We had boys in 11th grade who had been held back so many times, they were drawing their pension. We had another kid who specialized in making odd noises behind the teacher’s back: the sound of a coffee percolator, a cat, or certain bodily functions. None of the boys, including the guilty party, would own up to it, so we all got paddled. Lesson learned: life isn’t fair.

Still, our authority figures were able to convey the basics of good behavior. They would later become the traits that make up the character education curriculum: kindness, responsibility, respect, honesty, fairness, and caring.

Generally speaking, if we were disrespectful, dishonest, unfair, or just downright mean, there were consequences. The system was not flawless, but it worked more often than not.

As a result of those lessons, we could leave our doors unlocked, and the windows open. We could even shake hands with a bank teller. Now the bank keeps us at bay with glass that is 6 inches thick, and a slot that is barely big enough to slide through a check. That tells you all you need to know about our collective character.

When I see trash along our roadsides, I think about those character education lessons. Toss out one fast food bag from your car window, and you have broken all those rules in a single gesture. “No big deal,” some will say. “Prisoners will pick it up. It gives them something to do.” I guess that’s the price they pay for failing at honesty.

I could rant on about people who are rude in public, who are inconsiderate while driving, and who leave public bathrooms in far worse condition than when they entered. Each are valid targets. But if their family members and teachers couldn’t get their attention, I can’t either. So instead, I will shift my focus to someone who “gets it.”

I just met a sixth-grade girl in Dunlap, Tennessee, who exemplifies good character. Gracie Johnson attends Sequatchie County Middle School, and she has never needed a teacher to explain kindness and caring. Those traits are part of Gracie’s DNA.

When she was in first grade, she met a little boy named Matthew Hart. Even then, Gracie knew Matthew wasn’t like the others. He was very talkative, overly active, and he didn’t always say or do the right thing. That made him the target of bullying. Back then, his condition had not been diagnosed. We now know it is autism.

Gracie took an interest in Matthew. “I wanted to be his friend,” she said. He would get upset, and she would tell him, “Don’t worry, you belong here. Everybody loves you. And then he would hug me.”

Ever since then, she has been his shield. “I’ve had to step in a few times when other kids pick on him,” she said. She eats lunch with him. “He’s my friend and I love him,” Gracie says. “He seems relaxed when I’m around.”

Recently, Gracie learned she made the homecoming court. Now, this is a big deal. She must get her hair done. She must find a dress, with the right shoes. Oh, and one more thing. She must have an escort.

The homecoming attendants are usually escorted by “A” students, or some guy from the cool crowd. Gracie had other ideas. “I wanted Matthew,” she said. “I didn’t care that he had autism. I didn’t want him to miss out on this.”

Some of the grown-ups were skeptical. Matthew’s behavior could be unpredictable, and he was not comfortable in crowds. Would he act up? Would he back out at the last minute? Homecoming is supposed to be perfect. There are lots of pictures, and people are watching your every move. “Do you REALLY want to take a chance with Matthew?” Gracie was asked. “Absolutely,” she replied. “It’s in God’s hands. He’ll let Matthew do what he needs to do.”

The big night came. Gracie was beautiful, Matthew was handsome, and in a true fairytale ending, when the homecoming princess was announced, Gracie’s name was called. “I was shocked,” she said. Matthew jumped up and down. “You won, you won!” he exclaimed to Gracie.

In the best example of good character, Gracie was more excited for Matthew than for herself. “I think he was even happier than I was!” she said.

Gracie and Matthew are rock stars at their school. Other students spontaneously applaud when they enter the cafeteria. She hopes their friendship inspires others, even adults. “People with autism stand out, they’re different,” she said. “I like having a friend who doesn’t think the same way as everyone else.”

No matter your age, if you want to be one of the cool kids, be like Gracie.

David Carroll, a Chattanooga news anchor, is the author of “Volunteer Bama Dawg,” a collection of his best columns. You may contact him at 900 Whitehall Road, Chattanooga, TN 37405 or 3dc@epbfi.com.

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