Thinking back to grade school, the kids who stand out in my mind, are not the popular or good looking ones whose faces I have long since forgotten, but the ones who were different. Even in memory, I can see them clearly. Back then, I felt their pain and even imagined that I could feel their awkwardness and aloneness.

My sense of fair play demanded that I do something about it. I decided to befriend each of them in turns. I got permission from my mother to walk home with Gail to play for about an hour and then walk back home.

My parents were poor by most standards. At the time, we lived in an upstairs apartment over my grandmother’s home. My dad didn’t own a car. Each day, he walked to and from the Caterpillar Tractor store where he repaired and maintained rental machinery. In our small town, income levels were low, and most people lived simply.

Gail, on the other hand, had a house and a yard with a swing in it. Dirty gray stucco that hadn’t been painted in years gave the house a somber look. There were no flowers or shrubs. When we finally made our way inside, I was shocked at the barren rooms.

We looked through the cupboards for something to eat, but the shelves were bare. A dry piece of cake with mildew sat on the counter top. Gail’s parents were not at home and the house gave off an empty lonely vibe. There were no toys to play with except the swing outside so we ended up playing outdoors.

When I got back home our small apartment seemed like a castle. Cheerful colors welcomed me and the sound of my mother's singing while she cooked made me smile. The simple soup and bread we had for supper seemed like a feast after the barren offerings of Gail’s existence.

The contrast between our homes re-defined the word “poor” for me. Gail's home expressed a poverty of spirit and a shortage of amenities. I would never again view myself or my family as lacking in anything.

Over the next few weeks I went home with Alice, a student who had a visible disability. She was a polio victim as a toddler; as a result, her left arm and leg were shorter. Alice limped in a funny hop bounce way that made her arms bob with each step. Everyone made fun of her, except me.

She had six other brothers and sisters. It was obvious from the moment I stepped inside their large old fashioned home that she was loved. There were games, giggles, and a relaxed easy-going ambiance that made time fly. Alice’s life was already full. No wonder she was able to handle the nasty remarks from her peers. The wisecracks didn't shake her world.

Lorraine was a bed wetter who sometimes had accidents in class, especially when she was listening to a story. In the silence of the room her accidents sounded like raindrops on our wooden floor. The janitor was quietly invited to our room and mopped up without noise or distraction. The teacher (my grandfather), continued the story without dropping a beat. The intrusion went unnoticed.

Lorraine was embarrassed, of course, but she never said a word. If she could have stopped wetting her pants, she would have. Most of her classmates felt sorry for her. A few twittered and teased, but most accepted her as she was.

Diane was taller than most girls her age which made her feel ugly and conspicuous. She hunched her shoulders in a grotesque slump to make herself appear shorter. Eventually her posture became permanently cemented for life.

Diane was funny, friendly and likable. It was easy to overlook her rounded shoulders once you got to know her. I was posture conscious. My grandfather had encouraged his granddaughters to walk with books on their heads and their backs straight so Diane’s rounded stance was a constant irritant to me. Her mother never said a word about it knowing it would make her feel even more self-conscious. Her unsightly hump made me want to stand even straighter.

When you are different from others life can be cruel. My heart goes out to those children who are bullied or made fun of because they stand out.

In a painting, contrast defines and highlights the center of interest. The differences in shape, value and color makes the objects jump out at you: dark against light, round against rectangular, bright against dull. A composition becomes interesting or impressionable because of these contrasts.

It’s too bad we don’t view people in the same way. The ones who catch our eye, or are unique would be seen as beautiful rather than nonconforming or odd. The differences would be viewed in a new way; much like a highlight or an unusual shape catches our attention and pulls us into a painting.

"Raccoons at Sunrise" (the last drink before bedtime), 20 x 16 acrylic on canvas