On Radical Kindness

As promised, here are my remarks for our 2016 National Honor Society induction ceremony. 

Good evening. Before I begin, I want to thank you for asking me to speak tonight. I am honored, and so very proud of all of you. As our current Public Speaking teacher, I feel just a tiny bit of pressure to perform.

The National Honor Society is comprised of students who have demonstrated excellence in scholarship, leadership, service, and character. YOU are the people I send my freshmen to for help. You are the ambassadors of our school and community. I hope that what I have to say to you tonight supports this mission, gives you something to think about as you go forth.

So, to do this, I need you to play along with me for a moment.

Close your eyes.

YOU are Harry Potter jumping into the Pensieve, the sparkling sink of memories, here. If you were to narrate your own story, right now, what would the critical, most important moments, the game changers, look like? Thinking backward, what events have led to your sitting here tonight? What is your story?

When I tell mine, I have landmarks – good and bad – but ALL that good has something in common: kindness. I’m not talking about getting a pay-it-forward coffee in the drive-through at Dunkin’, although that is a sure way to put a smile on my face. I’m talking about deeper, life-altering kindness, a kindness that is not safe, or comfortable, or easy.

Now I want you to take a moment and look to your left, and look to your right. Search the crowd like a spotlight. Whose story do you know? Think of someone you had trouble with today, a freshman in your way on the ramp or a cranky teacher or your best friend, or your mama. What is their story? What do you think their day was like today? Visualize concentric circles and move out, and think about those in your – school – community – state – nation – world. How very many stories are we missing?

My story is built upon the radical kindness of others.

I have experienced radical kindness at the hands of professors who, when my options were to lug a feverish toddler to class or stay home, said, “you are both welcome, come”. In this they said, “you are smart, you are welcome, you are worthy.”

I’ve experienced radical kindness in the words of writers who, knowing what criticism would come, told their truths anyway. For in telling their truths they nodded to the rest of us and said, “you are not alone.”

I’ve experienced radical kindness in Target-line conversations and smiles and held doors and when reading “I’m proud of you” scribbled in the margins of a most challenging grad paper. In this, they said, “you are seen, you are valued.”

Each of these moments required pause, they required time and energy of the giver, a moment outside of oneself (or ones phone).

Each of these moments ferried me over the difficult ones, and it is not hyperbolic to say that I would not be here, right now, without each one of them.

Radical kindness happens in the margins. Radical kindness is not random.

It is empathy, and validating the feelings of others.

It is humility, and knowing we are one of many.

It is respect, regard for that which is different from you.

It is a verb. Not an idea, but an action.

It is recognizing that we ALL have a story.

I fail at this every day, and that is okay. Giving advice to young writers, lecturer and writer Andrew Solomon says “ . . . It is nearly impossible to hate anyone whose story you know . . .” and this thought sits like a virtual worry stone in the pocket of my heart. My daily failure means I am trying. It does not stop me from showing up again the next day, and the next, and the next, for I must.

Now is the time for radical kindness.

This is not to say that the act of “paying it forward” is meaningless. There will never be too much of that. It is to say that you are getting older, and more mature, and you are ready to make the hard choices – to look beyond yourselves.

It is often much easier to pay $2 for a cup of coffee than it is to stop and help someone pick up their dropped papers in the hall. It is easier to judge than to wonder. It is easier to give a present than it is to listen, and it is much more comfortable to complete a “random act of kindness” than to tell your friends “please don’t say that” or “leave him alone.”

But you are ready to make the hard choices. You need 0 dollars to change your way of moving about this one, wild and beautiful world.

Mother Teresa once commented on the state of the world: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” So again, I ask you to look to your left, and look to your right. Search the crowd like a spotlight.

Now, stand up.

If you are comfortable doing so, grab the hands of those next to you.

Here are your people.

In radical kindness we affirm that we do, indeed, belong to each other.

Thank you.

The ceremony was lovely and the most difficult moment was restraining myself from helping when two young gentlemen behind me were struggling to place the new NHS pins on each other. 

Now I am tired, and am looking forward to a weekend of very little other than house cleaning and hockey. 

xoxo

Heather

 

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Radical

At school, we share our success just as freely as we share our failures. About a month ago my dear friend and colleague, Jane, popped into my room at the end of the day to tell me about her moment. And friends, it was a good one.

Like my lockdown story, it was born of necessity. She had a student who finished his work and desperately needed something to do. She decided to try something new.

“I decided to do something totally new,” she said,  “I had him give compliments. I asked him to give everyone in the room a personal, genuine compliment. Happily, he’s the type of extrovert who would accept such a challenge. He walked through the rows of desks and stopped to compliment each classmate. If he knew them well, he mentioned their sense of humor, a time they were helpful, etc. If he didn’t know the person, he complimented their appearance, drawings, handwriting, or something else visible to him. Students looked surprised, then quickly pleased. Because how often does that happen in English class? 🙂 Everyone had a smile by the end of class. How simple, yet how powerful.”

Now, props here, because one has to KNOW their class for something like this to work. It also is a precise example of the transitory nature of the classroom. This cannot be planned out and placed in a syllabus, it does not need to be aligned to the Common Core Standards for Students Will Not Act Like Assholes. It is organic, and fluid, and entirely context dependent.

This, friends, is what builds the culture of a program, a school, a community.

After Jane told me about her moment, I started thinking about the risks it takes to be kind. For teachers, students, and those all around, there are significant risks to putting oneself ‘out there’ into the range of others. It is so much easier to stay within the boxes on our syllabi, the lines on our lesson plans. Students are more comfortable filling in worksheets or playing the perennial favorite, laptop solitaire, than they are interacting with each other.

Being a teenager is hard. Being a teenager behind a screen, from what I observe, is even harder. Jane’s on-the-fly assignment created an authentic interaction involving every single student in that classroom. The giving and receiving of a compliment seems so very simple, and is anything but.

So I kept thinking and kept thinking and kept thinking about how this was a radical kind of kindness, something vastly different from pay-it-forward coffee (which is awesome, not knocking that at all).

And then I was invited to speak at our National Honor Society induction, and it turns out that I have quite a lot to say about radical kindness. So I will say these things tomorrow.

I am honored and nervous and earnest and fiercely proud of these students.

xoxo

Heather

 

The Lockdown Story

 

Lockdown drills are an unfortunate necessity in modern America. Every school has their own protocol, and I’m finally seasoned enough to only question whether I leave the blinds up or down.

I know where my “Grab and Go” bag is, and I no longer need to consult the cheat sheets and maps for directions.

My students always gather in the same spot. As soon as the announcement booms over the intercom, they look at me, and all I have to do is point; they follow. Even when I know the announcement is coming, my stomach still drops when I hear it.

The students are every teenaged archetype all at once. A couple of boys flick each other and gesture to communicate. I suspect they have Pokemon cards in their pockets. One girl scowls at the chalkboard, her eyes betraying her invulnerable appearance. All of them look without moving, and I know that they, too, wonder: Is this really a drill? 

I think about the moment in yoga class when the teacher inevitably instructs us to open our hearts, to let our hearts raaadiate out to the corners of the room. I visualize this, and hope that the kids don’t know what I’m thinking because they’ll NEVER let me live it down, but also that they feel it. It’s okay, I breathe, I’ve got you.

I grab a clipboard, a piece of scrap paper, and a pen. I write “Once Upon a Time . . .”, and the kids take it from there.

Once Upon a Time . . .

Our class wrote about Student X.

The story was about him getting hurt.

But he ended up being okay.

Which was very fortunate for he had plans that afternoon.

While they write, I breathe. I scan the students, do a quick count from my perch on the floor, take the temperature of the classroom. The two fuzzy faced boys are still playing silent games with each other. Others have settled in, criss cross applesauce, and are waiting for their turn to work on the story.

He had plans to create an army and overthrow Donald Trump.

And Donald Trump yelled at him to go away

Donald Trump decided to build a wall in between him

and Student X. Donald was leaning on the weird wall

one day and Student X shaved his hair off his head.

One couple looks a little too cozy. We’re sitting directly under Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and this makes me smile. But I’m still watching them. Another teacher is nearly hidden amongst the students – the poor guy just wanted to show me a funny quiz, and now he’s stuck here, silent, on the floor, dwarfed by freshmen.

He accidentally cut his head open with the razor.

I watch the clipboard snake its way through the huddle of hormones and hair. The intercom clicks and I know what’s coming: ‘Good job’ the assistant principal announces, the lockdown is over.

Students groan and I grin. “Read it!” they yell. I hold up the clipboard “As soon as you’re back in your seats!”

Once upon a time . . . 

My Shitty Husband

I didn’t realize it was my (former?) anniversary until I saw it on Facebook. “Three years ago today . . .” it said. And there was a picture of so many of us, my people, huddled together in and around and on top of the outhouse that my then fiancé carefully crafted so that it would be useful at camp after we used it as a photo booth.

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I couldn’t find him in the picture.

I thought the hard part of divorce was the decision. I remember a nearly full year of agonizing and crying and mourning. Of walking through every possible scenario to save whatever was left. Then one day, I wasn’t mourning anymore. I was done crying and done hypothesizing; the unraveling of our union proceeded with remarkable ease.

But here I am, five months later, and I realize that the hard part is NOW.

The hard part is when you miss your really shitty husband.

The hard part is when you have cramps like Vesuvius and your kid is surly and you think you’ve failed at raising him AND the fucking dishes never end, man. Never end. You just want to read your book, walk the dog, go to fucking yoga, man. You realize that there is no one else to make the coffee, and no matter how shitty a person is, if they bring you coffee in the morning? You remember what that feels like. You still wake up some days and roll over, thinking that a hot cup of coffee will be right beside you.

Even when your shitty spouse seems to do nothing more than make life difficult, there is someone there to yell at. Someone who, for better or worse, knows the only way to stop the tears, catch your breath.

Our life together was not healthy or fun, and the rare good times were too far apart to even create the illusion of happiness. But he was . . . there. Even if the burden of home fell on me, there was another human around. In Case of Emergency.

As a teacher, I spend the end of August and beginning of September coiling, coiling, coiling so tightly that I actively fear the release. I know that something is next, but I’m never quite sure what. It could be a weekend of sleeping, a thrown coffee mug, or a midnight drive. But usually, it’s just a couple of hours of uncontrollable sobbing. (I blame society, not nature, for the record.)

Maladaptive, yes, but there are few people in the universe, who can both push you over the edge and soften your fall. My shitty husband could do both.

 

And I miss him this week.

Not Quite What I Expected

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Here’s a throwback piece from last summer. Because I am thinking of summer and baseball season and the sheer improbability that I am the mother of a fifteen-year-old.

June 3, 2015

I woke up this morning and peeled off the sticker to show the start day. I covered up Sunday with Wednesday, the seven days of each week feeling exactly like the number of parenting days I have left.

The afternoon became sunny, with the haze of blackflies that signifies early June in Maine. The boys lost, again, but it was less painful for all of us this time around. They piled into my car, one seatbelt short, and joked as the two skinniest ones strapped in together. We decide to stop at Dairy Queen, me and the four uniform-clad middle school boys. They smelled of spring: sweat and bug spray and hair gel and dirt, and I realized that I can count the days I will have like this.

 

I think back to the interminable years of early-middle childhood. The ones where I skipped over sentences to finish the bedtime book sooner, or when I was on the couch reading instead of playing Lego. The parenting hourglass seemed full, heavy and oppressive; now it is no longer top-heavy, and the sand is moving faster, faster, faster and I hold my breath willing it to stop.

It is June, the school year is winding down, and the enormity of life hits me like the proverbial wall in the last four miles of a marathon. Except – I’m not ready for this to be over. My legs are fresh and I JUST hit my stride. But I can see the trajectory now: instead of arguing over too much screen time and the dangers of drinking soda, we will be talking about grades, drinking, drugs; learning to drive, safe and respectful sex, SATs; choosing a college, a career, and finding time to visit. Like love in a John Green novel, my parenting days have unfurled slowly, then all at once.

I placed the small, yellow pill on my tongue and swallowed dry; knowing this was the right choice, but mourning what might have been. My imaginary minivan, Disney vacations, and family meetings; the loudest cheering section for every soccer game, comically lost and forgotten siblings; and the sweet, slow burn of controlled chaos. Moving seamlessly from parenting to grandparenting with too many animals, my husband and I having just enough time for a quick grope as we pass in the kitchen.

My parenting time has been quiet, if not lonely. In solo parenting, you are The One: the designated worrier, disciplinarian, parent-teacher conference goer, and tucker-inner. If you go down – no one is there to lift you up. And that is okay. It is okay for our kids to see us as humans. We learn to apologize and explain. We become kinder to ourselves and to others. We know that everyone has a story.

I never planned on being mom to an only, and maybe there will be more. Eventually.  My decision to be done, for now, is a cross section of pragmatism, biology, and acceptance; acknowledging that another, also rich, life is possible even if it is not the one I had imagined.

An Announcement,Some Bravery and One Poem

The Announcement: Time to preorder friends. My across-the-web friend, sister, and mentor, Glennon Melton of Momastery, is releasing her second book. Love Warrior. It is about marriage. But it is also about us. (Do you love that I’m telling you about this book I haven’t even read? I can do this because I have been reading with Dear G for so so long. I know the story that gave rise to THIS story, and I trust in G and her infinite wisdom and grace).

This is some of what she has to say:

“Listen to me: Some loves are perennials—they survive the winter and bloom again.    Other loves are annuals—beautiful and lush and full for a season and then back to the Earth to die and create richer soil for new life to grow. The eventual result of both types of plants is New Life.

New life for annual and perennial plants. New love for annual and perennial loves. Nothing wasted. No such thing as failure. Love never fails. Never never. Are you still married? Your love did not fail. Are you divorced? Once? Twice? A third time? Your love did not fail. It made you who you are inside of THIS VERY moment. Love never fails.”

 

Some Bravery: Glennon (see above) has this idea that life is brutiful, the inextricable qualities of brutal and beautiful. I’m reminded now, more than ever, that they truly cannot be separated, and that one colors the other in a constantly shifting perspective.

Right now? Life is messy and complicated and heartbreaking. Life is beautiful and amazing beyond belief, and I wonder if this part of life is the psychological equivalent to what Phillip Petite felt like while walking between buildings, suspended directly in between beauty and freedom and impending death. I need to tell this story, yet, this is not all my story to tell. But I have learned so much. So much about addiction and love and mistakes; about my own capabilities, and the patience of my friends. I have learned I am learning I will be learning.

Yet.

I am waylaid by beauty.

 

And one poem. 

 

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When your husband no longer loves you

or you, him

 

you teach him how to roast a chicken,

how to prioritize — which task

needs doing first.

 

You begin to help more.

 

You think about the bandit who cut

your wedding cake when no one was looking.

The haircut, your hesitance. The scale

with which Father Bill confirmed you were

the most mismatched couple he

had ever seen.

 

You think about the difference. What

it feels like, now, to kiss someone who wants

to kiss you.

 

You can’t actually remember how long

because it feels like forever. Like you have

not been loved in forever.

 

When your husband tells you he wants

to love you, you are relieved. Not

with the want, but the admission.

And this makes you feel less crazy.

 

You remind him not to overfill the

washing machine.

You get off the couch.

 

You make dinner again.

 

You play cards at night, kiss chastely,

say “please” and “thank you,”

and mean it.

 

You become okay with not knowing

what happened.

 

It just is.

 

You are here, and something is next.

 

 

Much love, friends.

xoxo

Heather

Bravery

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I wrote earlier this week about my struggle to tell a story that tweaks every nerve of my being. I’m restoring my courage through the honest writing of brave people.

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Need courage? Start here:

http://momastery.com/blog/about-glennon/

http://dashandbella.blogspot.com/2012/12/i-know-mama-who_13.html

http://www.mattlogelin.com/archives/2008/04/13/what-happened/

Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott

http://benandbirdy.blogspot.com/2012/04/perfect-vinaigrette-healthy-lunch-bowl.html

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Tonight, I’m attempting to make a black hole cake for Colby to take to school tomorrow. That, my dears, is an exhibition in bravery.

p.s.

I bought materials for an extra cake just in case this one tanks.

xoxo