story stones

“Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness…

 

…You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.”

–Naomi Shihab Nye—excerpted from “Kindness”

 

Tonight I witnessed something so beautiful that it called this poem to mind immediately. In this world we talk so much about the importance of choosing to be kind, but in this poem, Nye speaks to the interwoven relationship that empathy and kindness share.

Lately, I have been helping a dear friend facilitate a book study at her church. The book? Rachel Held Evans’InspiredThis book is a gorgeous testament to one woman’s struggle with the difficulties and questions she found in reading and understanding the Bible as a part of her faith life. Evans reveals through her vulnerability,  her creativity, and her honesty the mystery and frustration brought about in wrestling with faith. Yet she also carries her reader to the other side of the struggle in smart and sensitive ways. This book came to me when I needed it and sharing with others has been the greatest gift.

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been working through a chapter on Deliverance Stories…stories of times in the wilderness…stories of struggle that end with physical, emotional, mental salvation…stories of striving to know ourselves all over again. In order to really dive into this material, we couldn’t convene in conversation about Evans’ text or about the Biblical texts she references. In order to truly realize the weight and depth of these stories, we needed to reveal the truth of our own time spent in the wilderness. We needed to be vulnerable and to trust each other. Our small community needed to believe that our stories would be cherished and held as sacred.

That kind of bond is tough to create 4 weeks into a once a week study.

Yet, somehow, it happened. Tonight, I watched the women of this group share their deliverance stories in an incredibly bold and courageously honest way. I sat in awe of their willingness to not simply narrate their stories loosely but to extend insight and emotion that allowed us to walk the path with them…into the dark and disorienting wilderness and then out to the other side. I walked away from that room not only knowing each member of this small group better, but knowing myself better too.

Stories have this effect, when we are available to listen and to be present, and when we are willing to share our own honestly with those around us…when we feel we can let others in. Shared lived experiences create a sense of empathy within us that allows us to live more deeply into our community, to keep kindness more readily available. We are more likely to live in love and act in kindness when we have access to the knowledge that there is always more to the story than what we think we see, what we think we know. We are more likely to be better humans to each other, to celebrate each other when we empathize rather than judge, when we lean in rather than walk away.

Tonight was a reminder…of the comfort that can be found in community, of the value of story, of the nuances and shades of kindness. And I will walk into tomorrow carrying the lessons of humility, empathy, and honesty that inspired that reminder.

(Day 6 Positivity Project)

sermonizing

Every so often on a Monday, I have the opportunity to address my entire high school student body. I take that privilege seriously and use it as an opportunity to find new ways to remind my kids that we are in fact a community rather than some cold institution and as such each member has a responsibility to be a decent and kind human being. Without that standard being upheld, we devolve into just a building with people working side by side rather than together…without that, we lose our heartbeat, and the vibrance of who we have always intended to be as a school withers.

We are a small school, so these moments of sermonizing are rather cozy occasions–no microphone needed, just me talking and interacting with 120 kids seated side by side on the floor in front of me. Part of me recognizes that I have usurped a time typically reserved for announcements simply to yield an extra opportunity to teach now that my new position has reduced my class load. (But I am okay with this) I have taught at this high school since the second year of its existence when it only consisted of two grades, 9th and 10th…when I was the English department…when we were only 20 students big. In those early days, it was evident that there was something special about this school we called home…a school where learning for learning’s sake was embraced before grades and test scores…where the operating principle of “be kind, be kind, be kind” centered us everyday…where we were as much a family as a student and faculty body…where cliques were shunned and acceptance of all, required. Most importantly…acceptance of all. Every single kid, no matter their uniqueness was accepted for exactly who they were in that moment and they were given the grace to change as they grew over time. It wasn’t perfect all the time, but it felt ideal at its core.

As we have grown in size, slowly but steadily, it would be easy to move farther away from that beginning…to rise far enough above the core that we forget it is our foundation.

I can’t let that happen.

I have poured too much into this place and I treasure our first few classes of kids who knew this and embodied this and, truly created this bedrock, to walk away from it or to cheat it in any way. Honestly, the main reason I applied to be Head of the High School (having had zero inclination toward administration before) was to preserve the heartbeat of this school…to make sure a stranger didn’t arrive who might not get it…who might unwittingly stray from our purpose and who we are meant to be.

So, here I am. Stealing time on a Monday to reinforce these values in myriad ways. This week, we spoke about judgement…about how what we see of others is sometimes the eighth layer of the wall they have built in order to protect who they really are from being hurt…about how instead of judging others and walking away, maybe we could ask some questions to grind away the layers…about how we can extend each other some grace because sometimes life is hard and a little compassion goes a long way…about how it is not our job to judge, but that it is our job to love, to accept, to uplift the members of our community.

Did they hear any of this? Hard to say, really. But if even one kid walked away with new understanding and with the ambition to act on it, then I’ve done okay…then, the example will be set and spread…then, the time was well spent…then, our little school will continue to strive toward being the community of learners we were created to be, to become.

And hopefully, the tiny community will begin to influence the community at large. Teenagers are pretty remarkable humans. If anyone can begin to change this world for the better, it is them.

(Day 45–I still cannot believe there have been this many daily blogs in a row…two weeks away from king cake!! I cannot wait!!)

transformative

High school students enter my school everyday with their own individual sets of “stuff.” It would be naive to demand or command that they adhere to some delusional set of unreal expectations that implies that perfection is the only allowable outcome–constant, never wavering hard work, attentiveness, dedication, positivity, even-keel temperament, and a zeal for the subject matter. These kids, though, are teenagers and their most important job in the moment really doesn’t have anything to do with getting into college or taking on leadership roles in clubs or pleasing me. Their most important job has everything to do with figuring out who they’re going to be in this world, what kind of person they will become. If I narrow-mindedly assume that my class should always be their first priority, I have lost sight of the fact that these students are living complete and complex lives. If I can’t extend a little grace toward them, with the understanding that they will have good days and bad because in fact they are human beings, then I’ve missed the point.

In her poem “Kindness,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes these words:

“Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.”

She is writing about empathy’s integral role in kindness. She is writing about the sort of transformative moment that empathy creates as it brings  sincerity and  weight to common niceties. Nye seems to imply that in order for kindness to live into its potential, for it to truly be meaningful, we must see ourselves in the situations of others. We must recognize the common ground of humanity in everyone we encounter. We must see our sameness in order to be able to nurture each other through our differences. We must understand that someone else’s misfortune could be our own.

In that awareness, we not only become truly kind, but we also transform ourselves into better human beings. We are able to creep out of our shell of selfishness in search of ways to help those in need around us…even the people we don’t necessarily know because we have paused to imagine life through their eyes. We are able to shift out of our own biases to see the truth of the people around us rather than our assumptions about them…assumptions that imprison and inhibit our true kindness potential.

This is what I attempt to achieve in my classroom. I work really hard to see beyond the moment and to understand what is causing the moment. Is the student tired, overwhelmed, going through a hard time…what is the reason for the behavior? In doing this, I’m working to pause before rushing to judgement. I am working to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I was recently reminded by my friend Sara Ahmed of the benefit of the “soft start” in classrooms. This is a brief period of time at the start of a class where students are actively engaged in an activity that interests them but isn’t necessarily course work.  So, this week, I have placed magazines, adult coloring books, books of poetry, QR codes for a Padlet full of links to interesting articles, writing prompts and more on the tables of my classroom. The kids come in, sit down anywhere they are comfortable and work on whichever activity they feel best suits them that day. Part of why I offered this, outside of the fact that it is just good practice, I was sort of struck by the realization that our kids go from class to class with sometimes stark contrast in subject matter and we expect them to immediately switch gears without much pause. The soft start allows kids to decompress a bit and to transition so that when it comes time to work on coursework, they are better prepared and mentally ready to focus. My students this week have said that at first they thought the “soft start” was silly and a little fluffy. After a couple of days though they realized that it was really helping them–they felt like they were thinking better in class because they had that moment to quiet themselves and find their focus. I loved this!! However, if I stood harshly by the idea of working bell to bell, if I ignored the needs of my students, we would have missed out on this transformative.

It was a kindness. I saw myself in the way we ask them to “do school” and understood that there could be a better way. I recognize that there are people out there who think that because of my level of empathy, I am too soft on my kids. There are people who feel like I am not preparing them for the real world. On the contrary, I feel like I am preparing them to become leaders in the world I want to live in. A world filled with sincere kindnesses. An empathic world.

(Day 18)