My sister has been a teacher now for seventeen years. If you figure an average of twenty kids in each class, that’s well over three hundred lives she has been a part of molding, guiding, and enriching. That’s amazing stuff. She doesn’t talk about her work often, but every now and then a funny story about her kids or an event in the classroom gives me a small glimpse into her world and the profession that has made her “that” teacher; the one that parents request when it is their child’s turn to make their way through second grade. One of her more recent lessons was titled, “Kindness Matters.” She came up with the idea to challenge her class with the question of how and why people’s kindness to one another makes a difference in other’s lives.
As a beginning, the children were set with the task of considering some specific “groups” of people that are affected by the kindness of others. They identified the elderly, those with physical and mental disabilities, kids living in foster care and even the animals that are sheltered down the road from their school at the SPCA. The students’ understanding of the world was opened up through discussion of each group, what challenges those in each group may face and how the kindness and care of others can make their lives easier and more joyful.
It’s always a powerful lesson when you take the time to step back from your own life and reflect on those that carry the weight of a heavier cross. It’s one of those lessons we all have to learn over and over again, as it is all too easy to rationalize the importance of staying focused on ourselves and concentrate on meeting our own personal needs. We can be quick to look for fault among groups of people that are “different” and choose to remain comfortable in our judgement rather than in mercy and acceptance.
This is nothing new of course, and my sister took advantage of the opportunity to tie this seemingly simple lesson to major historical events, being careful to note how kindness strewn in and among otherwise horrific circumstances made a real difference. They spoke of the Civil War, for example, and the inhumane treatment of men, women and children who were born with different-colored skin. Her students were introduced to the Underground Railroad and the kind hearts of those that put their life on the line to save that of another.
We live in a world where history continues to repeat itself; a constant battle forged between the so-called “norm” and those that fall into the category of “different.” My hero in all of this is our most holy Pontiff, Pope Francis. Pontiff comes from a Latin word, meaning “bridge builder” How appropriate I find this title to be for this humble soul that has taught kindness from day one of his papacy and continues to challenge our divided world to come together with mercy and kindness for one another. After all, that is the true heart of Jesus–a heart of mercy, and I adore Pope Francis for showing that heart to each and every person he encounters.
The reason I know so much about this particular lesson taught by my sister is because I was asked to be a small part of it. Some of her students wrote up a list of questions for me about what it is like to raise a daughter with Down Syndrome. Their questions were thought-provoking and forced me to consider specific times when another person’s kind or unkind treatment either helped or hurt our daughter. I was asked how others look at her overall and if people are quick to accept her and her special needs. It made me stop and think about the incredibly kind and supportive classmates Mary spends her days with in kindergarten. The more I thought about the encouragement they consistently show her, the patience they have for her and the genuine desire to see her happy, I realized it was time for me to show a little kindness of my own and say “thank you” for these little lives well-lived.
The students in my sister’s class have moved on to a different lesson, but I have to believe the lesson on “kindness matters” is one that will stick. I love to think of all the lives that will be positively influenced and all the hearts that will reap the reward of this newly gained wisdom and appreciation for the the power of kindness.
I’ve shared my letter to our daughter’s classmates below. Each kindergarten class in Mary’s school is named after an animal. Mary’s class is the Fish class, in case one might wonder why I’m referring to her classmates as “fish friends.”
Dear Fish Class,
Hello! I’m Mrs. Johnson, Mary-Rose’s mom. I haven’t had the chance to meet all of you face-to-face, but have caught glimpses of you during my visits to school, have had fun watching you play at your classmates birthday parties and have enjoyed stories shared of you from your teachers. I’ve learned something about all of you that makes me a very happy and grateful mother; you are patient and kind to my daughter and I want to say, “thank you.”
As you all know, Mary-Rose needs extra help to be able to do and learn all of the exciting things that are taught in Kindergarten. As her mom, I was very nervous about how she would do and worried that she would be frightened by all of the new activities or feel sad because she isn’t able to speak to all of you in long, clear sentences. It can be scary for parents to send their little girl to school knowing she might not be understood by her classmates and teachers.
I understand now that I don’t need to worry! I can see that Mary is surrounded by friends that are patient and kind and work hard to help Mary succeed at school. I am so thankful for the many ways you all encourage Mary when she is nervous to try something new, the way you are all willing to wait patiently while Mary completes her tasks and the time you give to her when she is trying to speak and play with you.
Have any of you ever seen a big group of fish swimming together in the water? I’ve always found it amazing how they stay so close together and all move at the exact same time. I did some research and found out that the fish do this to help protect one another from other, bigger fish that may want to munch on them and also to work together to find food to eat. They work and move as a team, much like all of you do as classmates!
Every time you all work together to help Mary and show her kindness, it matters. The way you treat Mary makes all the difference in her enjoyment of school, her confidence to work hard to do all the things she sees her fish friends doing and to feel good about herself and all the success she is achieving in Kindergarten. You are all a part of that success and each one of you should be celebrated for your friendships with Mary.
As you continue to grow and learn all sorts of new things, always remember that the kindness you show to others is one of the most important things you will do in life. You are all like little super heroes that have the power to make someone’s day wonderful and happy. I thank you for doing just that for Mary-Rose.
Copyright 2016 Nicole Johnson