Since my November posting about the Arising of Compassion, I’ve been thinking some more about how we can cultivate joy in our classrooms (and our lives). This led me back to a wonderful book by Sylvia Boorstein’s called Pay Attention for Goodness Sake (2002). She talks about something that captured her imagination very early on in her mindfulness practice. It was a small plaque that read “Life is so difficult, how can we be anything but kind?” I think that this simple idea lies at the heart of what many educators strive for with their mindfulness practice. We are reaching for the inner resources that can allow us to maintain our kindness towards ourselves, our students, our peers, and our families even during stressful times, in fact, especially during stressful times.
The practice of kindness is one of those things that generates its own energy beyond just the simple act itself. I can still remember vividly the winter of my sixth grade year. Sixth grade was a tough year in our district. Students moved from small local elementary schools to a big, impersonal middle school. Low level violence and bullying were routine daily experiences for many of us and it was struggle to feel seen by teachers as we moved from class to class every 45 minutes. I hadn’t found my place in this new world yet and was often anxious and overwhelmed.
One thing that was consistent for me from elementary school was reading. Each month we had a chance to order books from the Weekly Reader magazine and I always eagerly awaited the arrival of my new choices. This particular month I had brought in money to order books as usual but when the books arrived, my order wasn’t there. Somehow, in the shuffle of my teacher’s desk, my order had not gone in.
Merry Decker was the teacher. She had actually been absent quite a bit that fall and I didn’t know her well. I didn’t think she knew me either. I can still remember exactly how I felt approaching her desk. I was half ready to yell and half ready to cry. I was both fiercely disappointed and mad at her. I can’t remember anything about what I said or what she said, I just remember the feelings. I remember feeling seen, heard, comforted. I remember that she gave me books that she had ordered for the classroom to replace some of the books that I didn’t get. And I fell in love. Right there in that five minutes of interaction, Mrs. Decker became one of the most important people in my life, for that year and for many years afterwards until long after her retirement and my departure for college.
As it turns out, she was having a terrible year herself. A divorced mother of two, she had just lost her adult daughter, Susie, in a car accident and was suffering a great deal. I’m not even sure I knew about the accident that year, but I know that she somehow managed to bring her best self to the classroom each day. I often marveled that she had lived up to her unusual name, Merry. There was nothing superficial about her joy. It was deep and wise and generous. It could encompass suffering, hers and others, and produce not bitterness or despair, but kindness. And that kindness allowed me to relax and begin to participate in the life of my new school more fully.
I’m sure that many of you could think of similar stories in your own educational lives: the small act of an individual teacher that made all the difference. To cultivate this ability in my own teaching is definitely one of the goals of mindfulness practice for me. It means I have to be open. I have to really see the student in front of me. It sometimes only takes a moment to really see, hear and help another person. That’s going to be my practice this season. I’d love to hear from some of you about your experiences with kindness in the classroom. I think we can all draw inspiration from stories of those like Merry Decker, who have shown us the way.