It gets better. I know from experience. When I was but a wee foal, the other young reindeer bullied me mercilessly about my nose. It was not the coal black of theirs, but waxed and waned from a dull red to a glowing, vibrant crimson, depending on my mood. The worst part of it was that the more the others teased me, the redder it got, until I lit up entire snowbanks and caused the elves to pull down the shades in their nearby workshop. Even the adult deer were no help, shooing their offspring away from me as if their younglings, too, might suddenly sprout scarlet orbs if they came too near.
I expect you've heard the song or seen the movie, however, so you know what happened. The blizzard of a lifetime blew in one year, bringing such poor visibility that the big guy despaired of taking his annual journey. He was afraid he'd be brought down someplace like northern Canada or Siberia, where even his intrepid sleigh team might risk injury or worse. His clever thinking, though, and willingness to see my difference as a strength, saved the day.
Now I still proudly lead the team every year and everyone knows who I am. Some of the new foals even sneak into the elves' workshop and dip their noses into buckets of red paint, hoping to emulate me. Their parents lick it off, of course, but I am flattered.
My story first came to public notice in 1939, and has been retold many times over the years. In perhaps the most famous rendition, a 1964 stop-motion television special, the writers even included my friend Hermey, an elf who was harassed at his workplace for wanting to be a dentist rather than a toymaker. (And there has been plenty of speculation about his sexual orientation over the years—but that's his story to tell, not mine.) I'm pleased to report it got better for him, too. He now checks all of our teeth every six months, and he's even gotten the boss to floss. (Which reminds me: I must write to that fellow Chris Colfer, who plays Kurt on Glee—yes, there's a television in the stable here at the Pole—and ask if he might want to play Hermey in a live-action version sometime. I think he'd be a great fit.)
As I reflect upon our tale, however, I begin to have doubts. My story has been heard by millions of children and their parents over the last 70 years, and the moral is not difficult to detect. It's okay to be different. Bullying is bad. And if you ostracize members of your community simply because they are different, you might just find that you are getting rid of valuable talents. Yet people are still struggling to convey that to their children, as the many recent reports of brutal and repeated bullying attest. Hermey and I have managed to lead happy lives, but have things really gotten better overall?
The It Gets Better project, launched in 2010, is a good thing, as is the work of GLSEN, Groundspark, PFLAG, The Trevor Project, HRC's Welcoming Schools, and every other organization working to create safe schools and combat bullying. It is also heartening to see so many pop stars today taking action to help bullied youth. The classic song about my life, however, was first heard commercially in 1948. The movie has been around for nearly 50 years. Will it take another 50 or 60 years for today's messages to sink in?
Songs and movies may not be the whole answer. I've seen enough of the world now to know rules and laws are needed, too. But if I had one holiday wish this year, it would be for every parent and teacher who watches my movie or sings my song with their children to take a moment and discuss with them what it means. How does it apply to them and their own community? If enough people do that, in conjunction with all of the other current anti-bullying efforts, then perhaps some year soon we reindeer won't have to carry around such a large sack of coal along with all the toys.
And then things will indeed have gotten better—for all of us.
A note from the writer: I first published a variation of this piece a couple of years ago over at Change.org, but it seems seasonal, so I'm posting it again, slightly revised. My last name is the same as that of the famous reindeer. I also have red hair—which meant I was the target of quite a number of "Rudolph the Red-Haired Person" jabs when I was a kid. It wasn't bullying, but it was annoying, until I learned to embrace the difference and just lord it over the other kids that I had an "in" with the big guy up at the Pole. (They seemed not to remember that my family is Jewish.)
The classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer movie has thus become a holiday tradition around our house (although I have not yet gotten around to setting up eight plastic reindeer and Rudolph in menorah formation on our front lawn).
How fortunate, then, that Rudolph happened to share with us a copy of his letter. Happy holidays to you and your families.
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