For years I've listened to people, everyone has, rave about their dentists or doctors, "Why Dr. Brown made the root canal almost painless," or "Grams was smiling right up to the time of her surgery" and, "Dr. Connor did his very best to save her but no one could." Cynic that I am, I've often thought, maybe you didn't need a root canal, maybe the surgeon's vacation house needed a new roof or his daughter was off on that summer trip to Paris. I asked a psychiatrist I had occasion to see for a time a couple of years ago, how to select a good doctor. He told me that most doctors had similar technical skills so look for someone who is kind. Not a bad criterion I think. Fits all professions, friends, lovers. Kindness. What better trait, especially if you deal with fifteen to nineteen-year-olds every day. Students who face so much: single parent families, jobs bagging groceries or bussing tables 'till midnight or changing oil filters sometimes late at night for lousy money. They are ecstatic, heartsick, goofy, scared, impatient, healthy, ill and delightful. And they are frozen in high school. I once had a student in my second AP class who was bright, beautiful, competitive, and could pump up a discussion that at times had me scrambling to keep up. It was arguably the best class I've ever had, but one morning, Karen entered the room in tears of frustration and anger. She'd been walking down the hall and a group of football players joking and laughing at a locker, hadn't said hello to her. She was furious, not with them, but with herself, because she cared that they'd ignored her. I saw her a year later at the University of Washington where she was excelling in the Honors Program. She repeated what I had told her that morning, that she found she was attractive to a wide range of people, even the handsome, bright ones.
Kids change so rapidly, want to know so much and succeed, and yes, please those of us who hand out Heart of Darkness or Braided Lives or the poetry of William Stafford or Dorianne Laux. Those kids who fall so hard for love. Remember your first love? Never say “puppy love” or that your emotions will ever be more intense, more open, more marvelous than it was then. Remember that first real kiss, and walking the hallway so you would pass her, afraid you might say the wrong thing or the right thing, making up conversations the night before, imagining the dance, her in your arms, hoping you could actually dance, then stopping on the way home, finding that deserted place to park, when a long, deep kiss would almost destroy both of you. And you have the nerve to sneer at those couples holding hands on the way to class? Shame on you and your lack of compassion and memory. And you want them to engage Marlow's journey up the Congo when they are raw from simply dancing to class? Or working every night or dealing with their mom's new boyfriend who parked his Harley in the kitchen or the suicide of a friend or wondering what will become of them in the few short months until graduation, too poor in money or spirit to even consider a bright future? Sympathize? Come on.
FOR THE SAKE OF STRANGERS
No matter what the grief, its weight,
we are obliged to carry it.
We rise and gather momentum, the dull strength
that pushes us through crowds.
And then the young boy gives me directions
so avidly. A woman holds the glass door open,
waits patiently for my empty body to pass through.
All day it continues, each kindness
reaching toward another—a stranger
singing to no one as I pass on the path, trees
offering their blossoms, a retarded child
who lifts his almond eyes and smiles.
Somehow they always find me, seem even
to be waiting, determined to keep me
from myself, from the thing that calls to me
as it must have once called to them—
this temptation to step off the edge
and fall weightless, away from the world.
A teacher asked Paul
what he would remember
from third grade, and he sat
a long time before writing
“this year sumbody tutched me
on the sholder”
and turned his paper in.
Later she showed it to me
as an example of her wasted life.
The words he wrote were large
as houses in a landscape.
He wanted to go inside them
and live, he could fill in
the windows of “o” and “d”
and be safe while outside
birds building nests in drainpipes
knew nothing of the coming rain.
—Naomi Shihab Nye
I don't want to belabor the obvious (though one of my fans once pointed out that I have a real flair for the obvious) but those two poets, two poems, say so well what I want to say about kindness, its pervasiveness and effect, how in spite of everything it saves us all again and again.