Can Kindness Be Taught?

In 1993, I proposed to a group of parents the basic philosophy and concepts of what a year later began as the Puget Sound Community School (PSCS). For 24 years I served as the school’s director, save for one year when I was on sabbatical with my family. My wife, Melinda Shaw, served as co-founder of the school and created the school’s administrative structure.

Among the concepts of the school when it started was to hold its activities in public places — churches, libraries, parks, teen & retirement centers, conference rooms. I believed then as I do now that children are isolated too much from the overall goings-on of society. Part of the purpose of PSCS was to immerse the students in the greater community, and for adults to see young people doing decent things, like learning and serving the community, during school hours.

Another of the founding concepts of the school is kindness, which I often define as the mindful awareness of self and others that compels one to act thoughtfully. I assumed that I would be the one to remind or “teach” this concept to the students. But it was just as often they who taught me, and each other, about it.

Maybe more.

So there we were on a typical Tuesday, late in March of 1996, when the PE class was meeting in its usual fashion at a local park. As it was the first scheduled activity of the day, students were dropped off at the park at 8:30 from where they would walk to their next activities. They’d arrive with their backpacks, lunches, and anything else they may want during the day. Since I drove myself to the park and needed my car during the day, the students usually put all of their things inside my car for safe keeping.

On this day, however, I was a few minutes late due to an early morning long distance call. When I arrived, the students were already tossing a Frisbee; their belongings were scattered in various places. Still, most of them ran over and put their things in my car.

An hour or so later, when the time had come for us to stop, we returned to the parking lot. One student, Gus, began looking for his Magic cards, which he had left there. They were gone. We searched high and low for them without luck. Gus was devastated, distraught; these cards were not only incredibly important to him, they were worth a considerable sum of money.

Having failed to find the cards, Gus rode with me to the next site at which our Tuesday activities took place. During the drive, I suggested he try to track down a Lost & Found Department at the park. He didn’t seem too interested in the suggestion and I let it drop.

Coincidentally, the next activity in which I was involved was meeting with a group of students interested in expanding the concept of kindness; in fact, I would be meeting with two such groups that day.

What we would do is talk about the kindnesses we had experienced in the previous week, as well as plan specific kindness projects that we would then perform. An example of such an activity had taken place the day before when a group of students inside a shopping center put a dollar bill under a pay phone and then called the corresponding phone number. The person who chose to answer the ringing public phone was greeted with, “Congratulations! You’re the victim of a random act of kindness. Look under the phone.”

It was pretty obvious to all of us on Tuesday that one of the kind things we could do was find ways to help Gus.

One student, Woody, in the first group, also an avid fan of Magic, gave Gus all of his duplicate cards. Other students secretly planned to pool some of their change and buy Gus a few of the more valuable cards that he had lost. Still others helped Gus by talking to him, offering their kind words and thoughts.

As the day proceeded, Gus stoically appeared to accept the fact that his cards were gone. When the second kindness group met he was outside playing basketball. Still, the topic of conversation returned to Gus and his lost cards.

Johnny, who was not feeling well, having what he called, “Not a good day”, suddenly transformed. He went from a quiet listener, attentive to what was being shared, to an active participant. Whether he was aware of it or not, it was obvious to me what he was doing. He was going to “fix” HIS day by trying to find Gus’s cards.

Energized, Johnny began questioning people about the cards, soliciting suggestions of what could be done to find them. Turning to me, I told him the suggestion I had made to Gus earlier, the one about trying to track down a Lost & Found. He ran for a phone book and looked up the Parks Department, finding several phone numbers. As we didn’t have access to anything but a pay phone, he then began collecting quarters from people to pay for the calls.

His first phone call directed him to make a second. The second call yielded yet another number which he wrote down incorrectly, so the third call was a wrong number. The fourth was a repeat of the second, in order to get the correct number.

On the fifth call he expected to reach an answering machine on which it had been suggested to him he leave a description of the missing items. He was surprised to reach a live person who, upon listening to Johnny’s description of the missing cards, told him that they had found them.

At the moment Johnny hung up the phone, Gus walked into the room. I got his attention and told him, “C’mon, we’re driving to the park. I think Johnny found your cards.” Astounded, Gus dropped what he was planning to do and the three of us, Gus, Johnny, and I, drove back to the park.

For me, at least, the drive seemed to take forever. I was so overwhelmed with what Johnny had done that I wanted to fly, not sit at red lights. I imagined the two feeling the same, but Gus spent the drive quizzing Johnny on how he had found them and Johnny spent the drive responding humbly with comments like, “I just wanted to do something nice today.”

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, the cards were indeed there when we got to the park. Leaving, Gus put his hand on Johnny’s head (the best way I know to describe this is to liken it to the kind of tap you see baseball players give each other after one has hit a homerun) and said to him, “I must be the most grateful person in the whole world”.

Sometimes, when we let it happen, we can be privy to the most amazing of things. That was my fortune that day, hammered home when Johnny, in all of his dignified humility, said to me, “Thanks for driving us, Andy.”

Did you get that? He was thanking me.

Published by Andy Smallman

I work to promote ordinary activities that awaken kindness, cheerfulness, thoughtfulness & awe, helping people connect to their true nature and increase peace in the world.