A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker


To tell you the truth, I don't remember all of the reasons why Ernesto came to live with us. As I recall, my brother, who was living in Chile at the time, told us Ernesto needed a place to stay in the United States. Inviting him to stay with us seemed like the right thing to do. And for a while, things worked out really well. Ernesto was a gracious guest. It was fun teaching him American customs and helping him expand his English vocabulary and grammar. He had a pleasant personality, and his Latin good looks and charm were . . . well . . . charming.

Then the teasing started. At first, it was occasional, and playful. But gradually it became his way of communicating with my sister and I, and it became hurtful. Kathy was going through a gawky, insecure stage, and Ernesto was relentless in pointing out what he thought were personality and figure flaws. I, on the other hand, was a chunky child, and was painfully aware of how much larger I was than the other kids my age. I didn't know it at the time, but I had started into the first stages of bulimia. I would skip lunch at school because I was embarrassed to eat in front of people, and then I would take my lunch money to 7-11 to buy and eat as much junk food as I could get. It wasn't much of a diet, especially since all of those empty calories only made me heavier. To their everlasting credit, my friends didn't say much about my weight, and even when a thoughtless comment slipped out I tended to laugh it off. But Ernesto wouldn't let it go.

"Hey, Gordo," he would say, replacing my name with the Spanish word for fat. "When are you going to start sleeping with the rest of the pigs?" Then he would grab the layer of fat around my middle and pinch - hard - until I started to cry, as much from the humiliation as from the pain.

"Pobre cito," he would say in mock sympathy. "Pobre bebé gordito." My parents asked him to stop teasing us - several times, as I recall. But he didn't stop; he was just more careful about when he did it. Dad asked us to try to be forgiving.

"Maybe this is how people show affection in Chile," he reasoned. "We just need to be patient until he understands that hurting people isn't acceptable here."

But Ernesto saw our attempts at tolerance as weakness, which prompted him to press his advantage, threatening to make things even worse for us if we told Mom or Dad.

One night when I was taking a bath Mom inadvertently walked in on me. For the first time she saw the purplish bruises on my sides. "How did you do that?" she asked.

"That's where Ernesto pinches me," I said.

By the time I got home from school the next day Ernesto was gone, and I don't remember ever seeing him again. It was some time before I asked my Dad about what happened. "Well," he said carefully, "things just didn't work out."

"Yeah," I said. "I guess it wasn't such a good idea to have him come and live with us."

"No," Dad said, "it was a good idea. It was the right thing to do. It just didn't work out. Maybe it was his fault; maybe it was ours. Probably we all could have handled things better."

Then he taught me an important lesson: "Sometimes we do the right thing and it turns out wrong," he said. "Maybe somebody makes a mistake or handles something poorly, or maybe things just don't work out like we thought they should. That doesn't mean it was wrong. It just means that you tried to do what's right, and you did the best you could."

And that's the right thing to do - no matter how it turns out.

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--- © Joseph Walker


Look for Joe's book, "How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through and