The first thing I noticed when I interviewed at the private school where I now work was how polite the students were. It was kind of stunning, after working with public school students, who, once you get to know them, are mostly great people too. But public school kids come from such a variety of backgrounds, and the chaos of 1200 students coming and going and eating and talking and forgetting and failing and rushing and celebrating can be … loud. And perfunctory, and they can hit you with their backpack as they go by, oblivious. So it was refreshing to be in a building with students who were raised to be so polite. All the time. (Soon after I started teaching there, a student missed my class. I was stunned all over again when she apologized the next day, and looked around for Rod Serling when she revealed that she had been absent because she had gone temporarily blind in one eye. “Well, it’s all right this time, Grace, but don’t let it happen again.” Right.)
Still, I understand from the students that there is a black market of stolen iPods, harassment and even racism that we adults don’t see most of the time. And I came to learn that much of the polite behavior I was enjoying was merely the act that well-to-do people put on because, as Ruby Payne says, poor people fight, middle class people yell, and rich people just shun you. (I’m paraphrasing.) So, no place, no group of people is perfect.
But sometimes perfect little moments happen anyway. I drove into the school parking lot early yesterday morning to find members of the school’s Christian club cleaning windshields and handing out juice and donuts. This seems like such a simple “act of kindness” that it might be forgotten by the time class starts. But it amazed and gratified me. Then it got better. The kids were bringing the leftover donuts into the lounge and several faculty members and I were thanking them again, and they responded with hugs and, “We really appreciate you!” So, it wasn’t even some kind of well-intentioned but contrived “program.” It was a real Act of Kindness.
Oh, but I’m not done yet. We have morning meeting at our school. This is a gathering of teachers and the 300 or so students in the high school. Announcements are made, birthdays are celebrated, skits are performed to remind us to use fewer water bottles. This morning, one of the deans announced that the day before, someone had gone to the lunchroom, opened two packages of cookies, eaten half of each package, and put them back on the shelf. In most schools, this would be so routine as to hardly be worth mentioning. But not here. Not today.
Here, today, there was a gasp. A modulated but horrified intake of breath that traveled across the room. Whoever did this surely will be discouraged from recidivism. It reminded me of a profoundly intelligent history professor I had once, who liked to talk about the value of shame, of the positive influence of being surrounded by people who want you to act right, and will call you out if you don’t. Nice moment.
And a reminder that there is a little gleam of good out there, waiting to be noticed.
Thanks to our superb chaplain, facilitator of the Christian club, for the title of this post.