Remember Ella? I write about her often. My quiet, sweet student who had struggled with anorexia in her junior year. As her senior year unfolded, she continued to hide out behind her stack of notebooks in my English classroom. While she rarely spoke, she always perked her head up and closely followed every discussion. By second semester I suspect she had added a bit of weight to her thin frame, and I know her dark curls were no longer pinned tightly behind her. They were looser by spring following the latest fashion, and they bobbed down her back as she walked. I had noticed the change, and I think Jason had, too. He sat behind her and sometimes he would gaze admiringly at her as high school boys do.
Some days in classrooms something pops open. There is a comment or a shared insight that reveals a truth and a magical feeling floats across the room so big it cannot be held down. And this is how it happened during second period in March about two decades ago.
On that day we read a poem called Kindness. We read it twice. Here are a couple of lines:
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
When we finished the poem, with the words still floating across the room, Ella’s hand unexpectedly shot up. She leaned forward and spoke before I asked a single question. She called out, “I get it! I know what the poem means!” And she did.
In the coming minutes her hands moved like windmills through the air as she explained how anyone’s future can be dissolved unexpectedly in a moment. Turns out she had experienced a great deal of loss. Turns out she understood a poem about pain, a dead Indian, and our human need to be kind. With her father’s unexpected death her world had crumbled as she knew it. You could see the pain streaked across the faces of her peers as she shared her story.
When she finished, it was Jason who championed her words. “Yes, Ella. It is the pain that helps us see what is important.” And he spoke of his cousin and his drug death by fentanyl.
In moments like this I dissolved into the class. We became one as we explored the wisdom found in words. Turns out not only Ella and Jason understood the way kindness could weave a path into us after a great pain. Thirty-two minds took it all in, wide-eyed with wonder they tapped into the beauty of kindness.
Here is the Naomi Shihab Nye reading her beautiful poem on You Tube: