It only takes a spark: how a Happy Meal can lead to bullying

Sometimes, I’m embarrassed to be human.

It was a Saturday night, and I had the opportunity to take the kids to McDonald’s for supper. I know. We live an exciting life when a trip to McDonald’s for dinner is a high point.

Anyway, it’s not something we do often, and something I rarely consider doing by myself. But we had been just busy enough that day and I was too tired to cook that it worked out.

So, there we sat in McDonald’s — me, a 2-year-old and a 3 1/2-year-old, –eating hamburgers, a chicken sandwich and french fries when a couple of tweens or early teens walked in to order. I watched them casually because they kept running from the restaurant to the car to ask a question about the order. Eventually, a mom and a young boy came in to pick up the order and raise a stink about something.

I couldn’t hear what the problem was, but the mom was definitely upset about something. I know because I’ve been there. I’m not a directly confrontational person, but if something doesn’t go the way I think, I’ll make a snide comment or mutter under my breath. That’s what this mom was doing. Then, she gathered their food — four Happy Meals — and the kids and hightailed it out of the restaurant, knocking over a display in the vestibule as they went.

I should mention that this mom was short and, shall we say, stout. I don’t make a habit of pointing out people’s body imperfections because I’d hate to have someone point out mine. (They’re painfully obvious to me, so I don’t need a second-party reminder.) But her appearance is important to the story.

At the booth next to us sat an older couple and their granddaughters, who were probably teen-aged and elementary-aged. As soon as the miffed mom left the restaurant, the quartet next to us started making fun of her.

“Looks like she’s had a few too many Happy Meals.”

I would have expected it from the teenager, maybe, but this comment came from the grandfather. And it didn’t stop there.

“I guess she hasn’t been counting calories.” He said this because before the Happy Meal episode, the four of them had been looking at the calorie counts of their  food.

All four of them laughed at his jokes.

I wanted to cry.

I don’t know what officially constitutes “bullying” or how you define it, but this group’s behavior made me uncomfortable. I wondered what the grandchildren were learning from this? That it’s okay to poke fun at someone’s weight if they’re behaving impolitely? That some people are better than others? That some people have more worth than others?

Maybe I’m making too much of it, but regardless of how you define it, isn’t this where bullying starts?

I write those words with a heavy heart because I know that I have failed in the same ways. I have been bullied and I have bullied, though at the time, no one thought to call it that. It wasn’t violent, physical bullying but emotional, verbal bullying, the latter of which can be the worst kind of all.

I remember being afraid to sit in the aisle seat on the bus because the boy who sat in the seat behind me would snap my bra strap. (I was already self-conscious about needing to wear a bra. His acknowledgement of my, ahem, development, only pushed me into further self-consciousness.) I remember the sting of jeers about my weight. (I wasn’t skinny, but I was chubby in my awkward adolescent years.)

And I remember putting other people down to make myself feel better. In one particularly painful memory, I loudly declared I already had the game a classmate had given me as a gift at my birthday party. She was not a popular student. (Nor was I.) Years later, she was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It eventually took her life.

What I also remember about the birthday party incident is my mom pulling me aside and telling me that it wasn’t nice of me to make the girl feel bad. She told me what to say and made me apologize to the girl. I’m sure the damage had been done, but I’ve never forgotten the lesson.

I guess that’s what I wanted to see in the booth beside us. Adults being adults and instructing the next generation that it’s wrong to make fun of people just because they look different, even if they might “deserve” it at the time.

A day after the McDonald’s incident, an elementary student told me about a girl at her school who used to be her friend but decided one day that their friendship was over.

“She wrote a ‘p’ on my hand and said it meant I was ‘poo.’ Sometimes, I don’t want to go to school because of her.”

Her words haunt me, and even though she comes from the type of family who has probably talked about this, I’m resolving to tell her mom about it. Just in case.

No doubt as Black Friday approaches, we’ll hear stories of people trampling other people for the sake of a deal. I hope not. Those stories make me sick. It may not be bullying, but it’s definitely not right.

I’ll leave you, now, with this. I’d heard the song before this week but I really heard the words the last time it was on the radio.

Maybe if we start to look at each other through eyes of love, we can restore people’s sense of worth. And end the senselessness of kids and adults alike killing or prostituting themselves (or anything else) because of bullying.