Empathy for Society's Child

06/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One of these days I'm gonna stop my listening,
Gonna raise my head up high.
One of these days I'm gonna raise up my glistening wings and fly.
But that day will have to wait for a while.
Baby I'm only society's child.

- Janis Ian

Janis Ian's songwriting broke ground in two crucial areas. "Society's Child" was about interracial dating in the 1960's. Her 1975 hit, "At Seventeen", reflected on the angst of unpopular high school kids.

Both songs are relevant to a celebration I attended.

My longtime friend, Bob Babbage, was recently inducted into Lexington Kentucky's Henry Clay High School Hall of Fame.

Bob had been elected to two of Kentucky's highest offices and is now the state's most successful lobbyist.

Like many adults who receive hall of fame awards, Bob was a geek in high school. He wasn't in the in-crowd and wasn't particularly cool. He was elected student council president and found his niche in politics.

Bob graduated in 1969, the year his all-white school merged with an all-black school. Bob talked about how that year influenced his decision to fight discrimination during his adult life.

The school honored another self-professed nerd, Billy Reed, class of 1961. One of Kentucky's most famous sportswriters, Billy had a long career writing for Sports Illustrated and several other publications.

Billy never played sports. He started covering them for the Lexington Herald in high school and still hasn't stopped.

There were only three African-American students in Billy's high school class. Before his induction, Billy attempted to track down all three to invite them to the dinner. One of the classmates had died and one had no desire to relive painful childhood memories.

The third was Nanine Neal Watson. She came to the dinner all the way from Oakland, California. She brought with her to the dinner several family members, including her nephew, former Pittsburgh Steeler All-Pro, Dermontti Dawson.

Ms. Watson talked about how high school was unpleasant and how she appreciated the effort that Reed made to reach out to her, 48 years later.

Ralph Keyes' book, Is There Life After High School?, is based on the premise that high school is the four most important years in shaping a person's life.

If you look at Reed and Babbage, that holds true. Each chose professions (sports writing and politics) spawned from his high school experiences. They both came away from high school understanding what it was like to be an underdog.

If Billy had been a high school sports star, instead of someone who wrote about sports, I wonder if he would have noticed or felt the pain of his three classmates. I doubt it.

Being excluded is one of those things you never get out of your system. For many of us, it gave us compassion for those who got the same treatment.

I played sports but was never a "cool kid" at any point in my life. As I grew up, I became an ardent adversary of discrimination. I am against any kind of discrimination, against any classifying of people, for any reason. It is a passion fueled by childhood experience.

Somewhere along the way, I took comfort in the idea that "the geeks would inherit the earth"

If you study the life of famous and successful people, very few were popular in high school. Of our recent presidents, I can only think of the elder George Bush as a potentially "cool" high school kid.

Although Barack Obama is the ultimate in adult cool, he notes in his book, Dreams of My Father, that it was not that way growing up. The product a bi-racial, single parent family, growing in the 1960's, Obama was the ultimate "Society's Child".

Thus, it wasn't a big surprise when Obama listed "empathy" as a qualification for his first pick to the Supreme Court.

Some right-wing pundits poke fun at the idea of "empathy" being a qualification. They suggest that Obama wants a justice who is wimpy and soft.

Obama is looking for is the same characteristic that Billy Reed and Bob Babbage showed at the banquet: The ability to feel what it is like to be on the outside.

I want someone on the United States Supreme Court who can look back at actions that were wrong, feel a sense of injustice and make amends, even if the act happened forty or fifty years ago.

Time doesn't heal wounds. People do.

Empathy has been part of world culture for centuries.

Many major religions require confession of sins or have days of atonement. 12 step programs require addicts to make amends to people they wronged.

It's a good process for the person apologizing and a good process for the person accepting the apology. .

Obama wants a Supreme Court Justice who can show the kind of empathy that some special people showed on a very special night.

For all of our sakes, I hope he finds one.

Don McNay, CLU, ChFC, MSFS, CSSC is the founder of McNay Settlement Group, a structured settlement consulting firm, in Richmond, Kentucky.

He is the author of Son of a Son of a Gambler: Winners, Losers and What to Do When You When The Lottery. You can write to Don at or read his award winning column at

McNay is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Round Table. Like his friend Bob Babbage, McNay is a member of the Eastern Kentucky University Hall of Distinguished Alumni.