A Kinder World

I was at the water park with my family when my step-mom called to tell me that my grandfather had just passed away. He was 94 years old when he died and had been ailing for some time, so the news didn’t come as a shock to me. There was relief in knowing that he was no longer suffering and was finally at rest.

Pop (as we called him) was always jocund, always smiling, and spent much of his life volunteering his time. Everyone would say that Pop was the nicest man, and he was. By being kind to others, he lived the way we all should—and in doing so, he’d had a happy life. 

In the wake of that news, I thought about my family. I especially thought about my own father who had just lost his dad and wondered what that must feel like. No matter the age, it can’t be easy to be without a parent. And even though I was sad, what I felt most was gratitude. I was grateful that Pop had lived a long and joyous life. And here I was. It was a beautiful day. My children were splashing in the lazy river under a cloudless sky. I watched them playing, and thought about how I would tuck them into bed later that night, kissing their cheeks made pink from the sun.

Just then, a woman on a blue tube floated by me. Tomorrow is never guaranteed was tattooed across her foot.

The day before my grandfather passed, Melania Trump boarded a plane to visit a migrant detention center wearing a coat that told the world that she really doesn’t care. I’ve had a hard time stomaching the political news this summer especially around issues of immigration. There’s been an ache in my heart unlike any I’ve known before, and I found myself unmoored by my emotions.

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{Photo: Andrew Harnik, AP, via TimesUnion}

As I struggled to make sense of it all, I realized that many people in America—myself included—cannot fathom living in a war-torn country or getting sick from a lack of clean water. Many people will never know what it is like to be denied access to doctors and medicine. We take for granted that our children will be afforded an education, that they’ll grow up in a country that is, for the most part, safe. We suffer our first world problems and falsely equate being better off to just being better.

Here in America, we are privileged.

Around the same time my newsfeed was flooded with the tear-stained faces of migrant children, I was reading Strength in What Remains. In it, Tracy Kidder narrates the story of an African boy, Deogratias Niyizonkiza, who barely survives a civil war in his home of Burundi. As his name suggests, with thanks to God, Deo escapes the genocide of his country. Arriving at JFK with two hundred dollars in his pocket, knowing not a single person nor the English language, in a matter of years, he goes from sleeping in Central Park as a homeless man to attending Columbia University as a pre-med student. His tale is remarkable and it is courageous.

The writing depicts gruesome scenes from his homeland that continue to haunt him long after he’s left—a baby crying at his dead mother’s breast; dogs running the dirt roads with severed heads in their mouths; an entire family murdered, the husband’s genitals cut off and shoved in the wife’s mouth. Still, this is no work of fiction. I kept reminding myself of that as I read.

“I know I have these unrealistic beliefs and thoughts, that the world can be peaceful, can be healthy, people can be humane. But is it feasible?”

This is a question that Deo asks as he returns to Burundi after the war to help build medical clinics for his people. This summer, it’s been a question I have struggled with too.

Regardless of one’s political beliefs, regardless of one’s religion, regardless of imaginary lines drawn in the sand—beneath everything, we are first all human.

“That shared humanity, like it or not, doesn’t end at our southern border, nor any border. It’s the same humanity that understands there is a risk in entering another country illegally—possible consequences, some severe and difficult to bear, though none as unbearable as knowing that your child and family are in certain danger …in many cases because a father or mother or child has already been killed,” Oscar Cásares writes in a piece titled, “A child doesn’t cry in Spanish or English. A child simply cries, and we respond.”

Warsan Shire addresses those same risks in her poem “Home.”

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.

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When I return to teaching in August, I will start off the school year reading To Kill a Mockingbird with my classes. Like Atticus, I will ask my students to stand in someone else’s shoes and walk around in them, and while we will finish Harper Lee’s book and move on to other works of literature, I will never stop trying to teach them to have empathy.

We may never come to a consensus on how to fix the problems of our world, but if we could start with our shared humanity, I believe we’d create a kinder world…the kind of world I wish for our children.

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{via Instagram @justinteodoro}

My grandfather cared. With his affection for cardigan sweaters and helping others, he reminded me of Mr. Rogers. He raised three sons and a daughter who each would hold up a torch and welcome a stranger to supper. They’d open their door and invite them in, especially when it seemed they had nothing to offer in return.

When I was younger, I was often surprised to see faces I didn’t recognize at our table come Christmas Eve. I didn’t understand why a person I’d never met was living in a camper on my uncle’s property. When a man who I deemed “crazy” approached my father in public, invading his personal space, I watched as my father looked him in the eyes, shook his hand, and asked him how he was doing with such sincerity that I immediately felt ashamed of the judgement I’d passed on him.

I believe what Pop showed us is that, “first and foremost, we meet as human beings who have much in common: a heart, a face; a voice; the presence of a soul, fears, hope, the ability to trust, the capacity for compassion and understanding, the kinship of being human.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel). It’s what I strive to teach my own children and the children that I teach.

As often happens in the wake of a loss, I regret that I didn’t spend more time with Pop when I had the chance. When I learned that there wasn’t an obituary for him, I desperately wanted to write one, but I realized, sadly, that I didn’t know enough about his life. If only I could sit by his side and ask him questions. If only I could listen to his stories and hold his hand.

Sometimes we need a reminder, like the passing of a great man or a tattoo on a foot, to remember that tomorrow is never guaranteed.

If we want to create a kinder world, we need to begin today.

Maybe I couldn’t write Pop an obituary, but I could write this. Like everything done with a giving heart, I know it would make him happy.

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In Loving Memory

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Kindness and Karate

When you become parents, you set some guidelines for how you are going to raise your children. I don’t remember ever sitting down and having these talks with my husband before we got married, as some people suggest, but thankfully, my husband and I have agreed on most points of parenting.

One of the many decisions we made early on was not to have our children involved in too many activities at one time. We didn’t want to be that family that spent every night of the week shuttling our kids from one event to the next, grabbing dinners at a fast-food drive-thru, and having our children half-ass their homework at nine o’clock at night.

For a long time, this wasn’t a problem since our older daughter never really got interested in many activities. We had her try dance, take swim lessons, do gymnastics…each one at a time. She’d enjoy the activity to some degree, but ultimately, she wasn’t too passionate about any of them. When she stopped taking dance, my mother asked her if she missed it. “Nah, I’m over it,” was her response. She was five.

I asked her if she wanted to try soccer, volleyball, softball, or basketball, but she insisted that when she came home from school, what she really wanted to do was play with her baby sister.

While I thought this was sweet, and definitely saved us time and money, I worried that she would grow up not having found her niche. I thought that by the time she realized what she wanted to do, her friends would already have cultivated their talents and she would be left behind. Being involved in sports or clubs helps grow friendships; they teach confidence and skills like teamwork and leadership. As a teacher, I know that the students who are involved in extra-curricular activities tend to do better academically. Yet at the same time, I never wanted to push her into an activity that she didn’t genuinely have an interest in. I didn’t want her to be a cheerleader just because I was, or have her play softball just because her dad played baseball. And honestly, I was the same way when I was a kid, so I could see where she got it.

So I waited, and continued to ask her if there was anything she wanted to do, hoping one day she’d say yes.

At the start of second grade, she expressed an interest in Girl Scouts. While I was happy to sign her up, I still wanted her to do a more physical activity. In our state, PE is not required at the elementary level. While most schools offer PE, it is funded primarily through the PTOs at each individual school site. And PE once a week does not equate to teaching my child how to live a healthy and active lifestyle. While some might argue that kids run around every day at their multiple recesses, I’ve also seen kids sit picking at the grass, so I wanted to make sure that my daughter got some exercise outside of her normal school day.

Around January, I asked my daughter if she wanted to try karate. To my surprise, she said yes. It’s funny, but when she was a toddler, she used to tell me and my husband that she was doing Thai-Chi and she would do some movements that looked pretty close to what I imagine Thai-Chi to be. Who knows where she got it. Probably Ni Hao Kai-Lan. Regardless, I am happy to say we signed her up, and since then, karate has been the best experience we have had with any organized activity to date.

I LOVE my daughter’s karate school. While it costs a little more than some other programs, they allow their students to attend as many classes a week as they want. On average, my daughter attends karate three times a week. Aside from the instructors knowing every student by name on the very first day and making the classes both instructional and fun, the martial arts academy that she attends teaches respect, integrity, self-discipline, and focus. They make the students articulate what those things mean. They also make the students practice at home in order to move on. It’s helped our daughter to learn about dedication and setting-goals. As she has earned her new belts, she has felt a sense of pride that I never saw in her when she had a dance recital or got a star for mastering a skill at gymnastics.

Currently, my daughter is working towards her green belt. In addition to her boxing and kicking, for one of her components of this next belt, she had to complete ten acts of kindness and write them down. While we always try to teach our children to be nice, this presented an opportunity to talk to our daughter more about what it means to be kind, to brainstorm with her different acts of kindness, to point out to her moments in her daily life where she perhaps overlooked an opportunity to be kind, and to watch her do things that made her, and us, feel really good inside.

It also proved to be a more difficult task than I initially anticipated. Our daughter can be shy at times, and children also tend to be very self-centered, so getting her to consider when she was doing something for others versus doing something for herself was a challenge. Like the day she said, “I let Eileen cut me in line at lunch.” But when I asked her why she did that, she said, “so I could sit by her.” She wasn’t doing something to benefit Eileen, she was doing something to benefit herself.

For the past month, a common question in addition to “how was school?” and “what did you learn today?” was “did you do anything kind today?”

After several consecutive days of her responding, “good,” “I don’t remember,” and “no,” I was starting to feel a little discouraged.

You went a whole day and you didn’t do anything kind?

But it made me think: Did I do anything kind that day? If someone asked me the same question, how would I respond?

As an adult, I probably would be better at coming up with an answer, but did I set out each day with the intention of doing kind deeds? Not really.

I needed to start modeling. I would purposefully stop to bring Starbucks to my daycare lady when I went to pick up my youngest and point out to my eldest that I didn’t have to do that, but I wanted to and I knew it would be a nice surprise. I looked for opportunities within our community to volunteer or make a donation.

And my husband started modeling too. He made a tool for picking up litter and when he walked to pick up our daughter from school, they- along with help from our little one-filled up three bags worth of trash on the walk home.

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What started as something for our daughter to complete, became something the whole family was participating in.

Pretty soon, I found myself asking her before her day even started to look for opportunities to do kind things that day at school, listing a few examples, and by the end of the day, she’d have done something. Like the day she held the door open for three classes to walk out to recess. While it may not seem like a big deal, for her to have thought of it and found the opportunity on her own and to have acted upon it, it was huge.

As my daughter neared the end of her list, we reminded her that she didn’t have to stop doing acts of kindness just because she had fulfilled her requirement for her green belt; we should be doing kind acts as often as we can.

When we signed up for karate, I wasn’t sure what we were getting ourselves into. Was it going to be another activity that my daughter would participate in for a few months and then get bored of?

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Six months later, she talks about the day she gets her black belt and I believe that one day, she will. But what we have gotten out of karate has been the biggest surprise. It has given us the opportunity for conversations that we might not have otherwise had with our daughter. It has helped us to shape her into a better human being, and for that, I am ever thankful.

Imagine if everyone had a list of ten kind acts to complete, wouldn’t the world be a better place as a result?

Stop and think: What’s the last kind thing you’ve intentionally done? Where can you find opportunities to be kind tomorrow?