The Politics of Kindness
In my teaching career, I taught every elementary grade but kindergarten. I spent the last few years teaching first grade. It was my favorite. So for those years, my students were six-year-olds. It’s very difficult to explain to small children why they should be helpful to others. They mostly don’t understand. They have their own issues.
One day I got a new student named Jimmy. Jimmy was yet to be diagnosed with a condition that made learning really hard for him. He was confused and frightened, as new children almost always are, and some of the children shunned him. His speech was difficult to understand. He didn’t look at people. His body sometimes twitched in an unexpected way.
Chris–who wasn’t new to my classroom–looked very much like the rest of the class. He was cute and dressed like the other children. He was well-liked and even had a good sense of humor, often making a comment that made everyone laugh. It’s surprising, but some six-year-olds are great comedians. The thing I remember the most about Chris, though, was his kindness and his natural inclination to be helpful.
I remember it was rug time, the time of day when all the students would leave their desks and sit on the rug for a story and a talk with me. Sometimes we sang songs while I played the guitar, and sometimes I explained about things we were learning. On Jimmy’s first day, he didn’t want to come to the rug. Chris walked over to his desk and said, “It’s okay, Jimmy. You’re going to like it here. We’re going to be friends.” Then he put his thin little arm around the shoulders of the twitching little boy, who looked at no one, and led him to the rug.
All day, and for months after, Chris was Jimmy’s friend. “You can use my pencil, Jimmy. I have two,” or “I’ll help you find the page. You’re almost there.” Sometimes I heard Chris telling Jimmy what a good job he was doing or how he liked his picture. Sometimes, I heard him asking Jimmy questions about his likes and dislikes. Sometimes, Jimmy answered. The thing was, Chris was genuine, and Jimmy could feel it.
I don’t know why Chris was helpful and most of the other children were afraid of Jimmy that first week. I do know that because of Chris, many of the other children began to see being Jimmy’s friend as a privilege. They would ask me when it would be their turn to sit by Jimmy or help him with the things with which he struggled. They began to value his presence in the room. I too valued Jimmy more as a result of Chris’s behavior. His example fostered an atmosphere of greater cooperation and added to the general sense of community.
I think we sometimes miss the value of simple kindness and helpfulness. In Chris’s case, it wasn’t something done with an expectation of any reward. I believe he did it because it felt natural to him, and I imagine the kind of behavior he exhibited was modeled for him in his home. Chris valued Jimmy even if others didn’t.
I guess I want to ask why we don’t all feel natural being helpful? Why don’t we value others just for existing? Why don’t we see that everyone has something to contribute even if we think they are different from ourselves?
In the coming presidential election, Chris will be voting age. I wonder which candidate will get his vote.