Two weeks into my freshman year at George Washington University, I found myself sitting Indian-style on the floor of a dorm room listening to a sales pitch from a peculiar guy. Let’s call him Tom. Surrounded by other students from the third floor, our first-floor meeting was just beginning. Tom was late to the meeting. He walked up with a noticeable hunch and a slight limp. He was already speaking and smiling before he entered the narrow hallway leading into the room. He announced himself in a rather unorthodox way, cradling a few bottles of Eastern medicine in one distinctively frail hand, babbling about the benefits of medicine manufactured across the Atlantic that wasn’t FDA approved. “I’m Tom, by the way,” he said, before continuing on with his speech.
Some kids smirked and laughed. One girl whispered something into the ear of her friend. A mean commotion took over the room, but by the look on Tom’s face, everything seemed fine.
“A wheel is turning in here,” I thought. This is a mean wheel, and it’d be a good idea to hop off before it goes full circle. Because once it goes full circle the meanness will be done and you’ll have done nothing to stop it. Freshmen entering college for the first time have trouble getting off the wheel when the spinning kicks up. You could get vertigo after a while on that wheel and not even know it. I bet this guy had a pill for that too.
Without reacting to the laughter, Tom told us his father used to sell Eastern medicine, even providing it to family members, including Tom, who needed medications for various illnesses. Tom said he treated the degenerative condition responsible for his limp with yellow tablets from China. Taking some out of his pants pocket, he handed them out like candy on Halloween. He said they treated all types of things, that we could try them out for free, but that the next batch would cost a small amount. As he began to pass around the yellow tablets, some kids mockingly thanked him. Others caustically pressed for details about the medicine. “I’ve got this massive rash on my balls,” one kid said. “These things are going to do wonders for me. They work like rhinoplasty, too?”
“Come on man, what’s that?” Tom laughed.
I had four or five of the yellow pills in my hands. I eyed them wondering what to make of the unusual atmosphere in the room. I wanted to tell this group of naïve freshman to quit poking at Tom like a bunch of cavemen who just discovered fire. Yet I let them have it. But you know what’s more disgusting than the ignorance? This circus performance. Throwing ignorance through a hoop and applauding every time something unusual happened. There was no reason to make Tom do tricks. He wasn’t a freak show. He was handicapped, and there shouldn’t be any pleasure in it. I sensed that being in D.C. made us all a little too assured about our ideas. I swear this wheel of arrogance is a damn contagion that freshmen are susceptible to.
Soon, it was evident that Tom had succeeded in gathering attention to his cure-all tablets. The energy in the room was at an unprecedented high for the usually boring floor meeting. Tom, however, had been left off the group’s frequency. Remaining unfazed by the rising commotion, he responded genuinely to all the underhanded comments. Everyone smiled. Yet Tom’s smile was a different kind of smile. It was a toddler’s smile, the type that puts up no fight because it detects no confrontation.
“Hey, you should totally visit again, Tom. We loved you,” someone said. Others next to him motioned for him to shut his mouth, knowing Tom wouldn’t pick up on the sarcasm.
“I’m sure I’ll see all of you around,” Tom said, flashing that innocent smile before leaving the room. After he left, Tom remained the subject of discussion. People threw his yellow tablets at each other and joked about his odd personality. Some called him names. They were amused by what they saw. They were happy spectators.
Of course, I didn’t prevent my floor meeting from turning into a circus show. I was a spectator too, even more arrogant for hopping off that mean wheel without saying anything about it to the others. I could’ve stopped that wheel. I should’ve stopped the wheel. Later that year I learned Tom dropped out of school before his first semester was over.
On a campus where political incorrectness and microaggressions are combated like the plague, we treated Tom like a novel freak with no inner dignity. Unfortunately, my little epiphany isn’t of any service to Tom. But there will be more Toms. I relaxed a little knowing I could possibly try to fix this wrong in the future. I must’ve been spinning on that wheel a long time before Tom came along. And now I’m finally off it.