Northwest NEWS

April 8, 2002

School

It's 'very cool to be kind' at Leota

By Bronwyn Wilson
   Senior Staff Reporter
   Debbie Walter sat knees-to-chest in the corner of the restroom at Bellevue Skate King. Tears rolled down her face in a steady stream. She had her skates on, but was frozen in a curled-up position. She knew everyone would stare if she skated back out. She had called her dad several times asking him to come and get her, but he refused. It was the early 1980s and Walter was 13 years old.
   Fast forward from that restroom scene to a scene in the gym at Leota Junior High (LJH) on March 20, 2002. Debbie Walter, now grown up, stands in front of the student body, a colorful collage of sweatshirts, notebooks and baseball caps packed into bleachers.
   Walter talks to the students about that very day at the skating rink. She tells them the events that led up to that day and what happened afterward and explains it was a pivotal change in her life.
   The students listen with rapt attention.
   "I grew up as a totally bald girl," she says. "From age 6 to 16, I didn't have any hair on my head. This opened up opportunities for name calling, but also kindness."
   She describes her childhood as a series of trips to doctors in search of answers for the reason her hair continued to fall out in clumps.
   "None of the doctors could figure out the cause," she says.
   She tried vitamins and creams, all to no avail. "By the time I was 13, I was completely bald. I was teased, tripped, spit on and called names, like 'Hey, freaky bald girl.'"
   Walter began wearing a wig, but the teasing didn't stop.
   One day she was with friends at the skating rink and discovered that David Lane, a tall, charismatic boy she knew from church, was there too. "He was a Babe," Walter remarks as the students begin chattering among themselves in recognition of the word "Babe" and its meaning. Walter continues, "He made my tummy do flip-flops, my heart pound out of my chest, my palms all sweaty." While at the rink, the DJ announced it was "whoopee time," a time when three people skate together, then change direction when "whoopee" is announced. David Lane spontaneously grabbed Walter's hand along with his sister's. Suddenly, Walter found herself skating with the man of her teenage dreams. Life couldn't have been better at that moment. "Whoopee," the DJ yelled.
   The set of three whipped around to skate in the opposite direction.
   But in the process, Walter collided with an out-of-control skater whose hands were flailing in the air. One hand bonked Walter in the head, brushing her wig totally off. It sailed in the air, then landed softly. "It looked like a dead animal on ice," she recalls to her audience. "I was completely mortified. I was paralyzed."
   One of her friends retrieved the wig and placed it back on her head.
   In her hurry, though, she placed it on backward. "Oh, what a hideous sight!" Walter says. She skated into the restroom, to stay forever. "I didn't want to see David Lane's expression of revulsion."
   She did, however, manage to make it to the pay phone to call her dad and ask him to pick her up immediately. But to her horror, her dad said that he wouldn't.
   Back in the restroom, Walter felt no one cared. "As I was sitting there on the bathroom floor with tears pouring down my face, guess who came in?" she asks the students.
   "David Lane!" the students shout with sporadic applause of cheer. Walter nods in agreement and says that Lane entered the restroom, knelt down and asked her to skate with him.
   Walter tells the students it was finally discovered that her hair loss was a result of an allergic reaction to hormones, called alopecia. A doctor told her that as she went through puberty, her hair would grow back in.
   And it did, just as the doctor said.
   Today, Walter has thick, waist-long hair. "Now people say I'm the lady with pretty hair," she says. But it's not her hair that changed her life. Instead, it was David Lane's kindness.
   In her talk she thanks him, though he's not among the LJH crowd. "Your rescue of a 13-year-old girl transformed a memory of a most embarrassing moment into a memory of kindness and love," she states. More applause, a few students whistle.
   Once quiet again, Walter asks the students why they think her dad had refused to rescue her that day. A student answers from the back. "Yes," Walter agrees, "He wanted me to face my fears."
   Her talk at Leota is one of 67 she'll present this year at school assemblies all over the state, from Bellingham to Snoqualmie Valley. Her speech to students on the power of kindness began after her story about the skating rink experience was published in "A Fourth Course of Chicken Soup for the Soul."
   At the encouragement of family members, she had written and submitted the story to the popular Chicken Soup series.
   After publication, a family friend read Walter's story. And, even though Walter hadn't been in contact with David Lane for over 20 years, the family friend had.
   "You're not going to believe it," the friend said to Lane. "I just read a book and you're in it." Lane, who is now married, contacted Walter's mother and expressed how amazed he was that a small gesture long ago would have such a powerful impact.
   The dean of students at the Chinook Middle School in Bellevue also read Walter's story. He invited her to the school to tell her message of kindness and Walter gladly accepted.
   Afterward, the dean and principal encouraged her to take the message to other schools. She remembers them telling her, "You've got to share this. You have a gift for telling stories and kids are hungry for a positive message on how they can make a difference in the world."
   Walter now travels to schools, discussing the value of kindness at student assemblies. She also talks about ways students can show kindness to others and asks the students to share their own experiences. "I'm constantly impressed by their stories," she says. "My whole message is reinforcing that positive behavior they've already done. It makes them realize how important those opportunities are."
   With bullying and teasing so prevalent in schools, Walter hopes her message will help students not only accept differences, but also embrace them. Before telling her story at LJH, Walter began by pointing out to students that people's actions affect one another every day. "Kindness is definitely contagious," she told them and then added, "It is very cool to be kind."
   Walter resides in Kirkland with husband Mike and daughter Alexandra. She writes a monthly column "Kindness Corner" for the Kirkland Courier.
   For further information on her motivational speeches, contact Walter at Debbie@powerofkindness.com or call (425) 822-0975.