In February while visiting Santa Fe, New Mexico I was honored to be invited to my twin nephews’ Valentine’s Day musical performance. As kindergartners, they were coming up to being six. So, you can imagine the scene. Families packed into a gently aged public-school gymnasium converted for the occasion to an auditorium. The upright piano, slightly out of tune. The lingering scent of the after-school basketball game. And then, the grand-entrance of fifty children dressed head to toe in various shades of red and occasional pink. Most wore a recently purchased simple T-shirt but others had gone all out; proudly wearing a red vest and bow tie or a tulle party dress laden with sequins and rhinestones.
They came in singing. Sweet, bright voices, slightly uncertain of the words but basking in the glow of being at the center of attention. Lining up in two groups, they held it together for over thirty minutes of song. I never knew there were so many tunes devoted to this holiday about LOVE!
After many rounds of applause, they left the gymnasium and we filed out to collect them in their classrooms. And, it was there, that I discovered the thought-provoking sign: “Classroom Rules”.
Their teacher had written it on soft, creamy, paper carefully divided by pale blue lines. Lowercase letters fitting beneath the dotted lines with capitals reaching up to touch the solid ones above. I remembered it well. Learning my letters in my own kindergarten days.
The rules were as follows:
Do what you are supposed to be doing.
Around the edges each child had signed their name in a different colored marker. Carson, Deonna, Elija, Koi, Valentina, etc. It was a contract. I imagine, the first they had ever agreed to.
It struck me that we all would be a lot better off if every one of us were required to make such a pledge. Straight forward. Honest. Uncomplicated. What would it mean to me, I wondered, to follow this commitment earnestly?
Kindness, I think, is the capacity for compassion, for empathy. Kindness compels us to get out of our own view and see there’s another. It’s more than being “nice”. It’s actually caring. It’s a calling to let go of being “right” for the sake of righteousness,as in; doing the right thing. The right thing maybe the last thing I’d actually like to do. This is especially true when I feel I’ve been wronged, ignored, or neglected. It would feel so much better to harbor a grudge, spread some gossip, give someone a piece of my mind, punch them in the nose, etc. In fact, not only would that not be particularly kind to them but also, in the long run, not the best action for my well-being either. Maybe it’s not that the object of my upset isn’t a kind person or capable of caring. Perhaps, my actions or way of being has just run up against one of their limitations: a boundary that protects them and may, in fact, be invisible to them. In that case, whatever has transpired is probably not about me at all. A calling; to let go of the judgement and go for compassion instead. Kindness benefits both parties; the giver and the recipient because it frees us both from destructive judgement. In that case, even if kindness is never appreciated by the receiver it is a balm to the giver regardless.
In regards to kindergartners this probably means “no jumping off the desks”. For adults I think this is a trickier exhortation. What does “safe” mean in this case? As humans, we are inherently incapable of getting every decision “right”. It’s just not in our DNA. So, even if we walk a very tight line, trying earnestly to safely negotiate all our relationships and decisions, we will still end up inadvertently missing the mark. So, perhaps this is really a call to be thoughtful rather than careful. Thoughtfulness implies being concerned for the well-being of others. But, I think, even more pointedly, it is a behavior requiring conscientious consideration or attention about how we are in the world. It is very common to remain unconscious. I think it’s our fall-back position because it doesn’t require action or change. But being unconscious doesn’t actually give me much choice. Instead of repeating the same patterns again and again and wondering why I keep getting the same unrewarding results, with consciousness I can choose how I want to respond or even act preemptively. I can walk that line not with exactitude but with awareness, flexibility and creativity.
Do What You’re Supposed to be Doing
I think my nephew’s classroom teacher was admonishing her pupils to “be on task”. Don’t be wandering off to the toilets. Don’t be talking to Susie about losing your pet lizard in the garage. We’re supposed to be learning how to use our energy to focus and to find out who we are. As someone who struggled to find this kind of direction I don’t think this is a bad thing. But perhaps we risk getting a little too narrow. In fact, aside from the comfortable world of the west I’m not sure many of us actually get to find out what this might be. A shame because each of us has what Joey Gauld, founder of the Hyde School, would call our “unique destiny”. Many people in our world have the raw ingredients but not the opportunity. Many are just trying to survive. Right in our own communities are individuals who are lifting themselves out of racism or poverty or illiteracy or any combination of those. Think of the refugees fleeing war, murder and starvation. Just the other day I heard a young man tell his story as he sat at my kitchen table. Emanuel paid a “coyote” to take him to the US. After almost drowning in the Rio Grande, he was caught and put into detention. After months of of being treated like a criminal and suffering overcrowding, periods of starvation, brutal cold and heat he was finally released. He paid an enormous fine which his family in the US had to cough up before he could buy a ticket to Newark where he would start the asylum proceedings. This is a real human being who ate at my table and told his personal story. Think of all the stories. I want to hear these stories. I think I might need to wander over to Susie’s desk and see how she feels about these stories. Perhaps what I’m “supposed to be doing” no longer involves sitting at my own desk minding my own “business”. Perhaps consciousnesses isn’t just about being aware of my negative interpersonal patterns but also of my sociopolitical blind spots.
What’s behind all these admonitions is true concern and LOVE. Love for ourselves, each other, people we don’t know. Maybe even for people we don’t like. I hope you will “wear your red” every month and consider what “Classroom Rules” might mean to you.