When I was in kindergarten, our class had a pet hamster. I don’t recall his name or what he looked like, or anything more than the fact I really wanted a hamster of my own! As spring arrived, my kindergarten teacher announced that one lucky student would be taking our class hamster home for the summer. I was ecstatic! I don’t remember the conversation with my mother beyond her saying no to the hamster living in my room for two glorious months. I was devastated, so much so, I decided to take matters into my own hands. It was in that moment that I moved from innocent 5-year-old to hardened criminal. I forged a note (which my mother held onto for years and reminded me of regularly and often in the company of friends and family. Thanks, mom.) It read:
Corinna can have the hamster. Her mom said so.
Perhaps it was the handwriting. Maybe the vocabulary and syntax, so unlike my mother’s. Somehow, my astute teacher caught on and the game was up. I was busted. No hamster. And worse, I was a liar and a cheat. I remember, vividly, feeling that I had let down my mother and my teacher. So powerful was this feeling, it is just about all I recall of the aftermath of my crime. I don’t recall a penalty or punishment. I think my mother may have skipped what was standard practice in those days: standing in the corner or even a spanking.
How we respond when a young person makes a bad choice determines what message they take from the experience. Is it fear (as with corporal punishment that was the norm in the days of my youth) or a deeper understanding of ourselves and that our actions have consequences? Today, we engage young people in conversation when their behavior crosses our community norms. Yes, there are consequences, generally time to provide distance and reflection. The key difference between then and now is that we include young people in the process. We seek to restore them to the community with their direct involvement in making amends and considering how to do better moving forward.
When I think of our community, I consider what holds us together. It is not fear of punishment, that much is certain. The glue of community is mutual care and an understanding, fostered when bonds grow to be strong enough to support us when we do fall short. When a student lies or cheats or hurts the feelings of a peer, they need the grace of their community to call them to account, correct them when necessary, but also to support them by calling them into the circle, not ostracizing them or making them feel they can never be made whole again.
We know also that communities grow when members do meaningful things together. As we saw last week, our Middle School students thrive when doing things as a group. Well over one thousand items were brought in, boxed, and packed for delivery to two area food banks over just a few short days! The empathy students practiced last week was made possible through this shared purpose and collective effort. A truly resilient community that can weather complex and serious challenges, such as the on-going pandemic, requires a high level of empathy. We keep working on building our empathy quotient knowing it is part of what makes us fully human and our best selves.