It was the day before Valentine’s Day, 2003. The assignment: put your name at the top of the page and pass it to the person on your right. When you receive a paper, write something kind about the one whose name graces the top of the page and pass it along. 32 pages were torn from notebooks. 32 names were written. 31 times (and if it was now, it would be 32) students wrote something nice about each of their classmates.
The next day, 32 students received a single page with a watermark and 31 compliments typed down the front. 32 students read what their peers thought of them – your smile makes my day even when it didn’t start out so good, you have beautiful brown eyes, you lend me a pencil when no one else does, your hugs are better than anybody else’s, you smell nice, you always remember my bday – thank you. 32 kids will never forget what they meant to their school community.
In a time before cell phones and social media, these little activities & lessons connected kids to themselves & each other.
Throughout my career in public education, I had the goal of creating communities among the students, teachers, and staff in my charge. For the most part, I believe I was successful, however, with the increasing pressure of reaching lofty language and mathematical standards, achieving high marks on state and national assessments, and exceeding growth plans created at the start of each year, such lessons have become a lost art. Unfortunately for many children of the thousands, building communities refers to Roblox and getting to know friends means reading their Snapchat profiles. Most schools have little available time to teach the importance of service learning. Sure, in upper grade levels, students may be required to earn credit for community service, but as young children, few are shown how to do so.
And parents seem to be at a loss, too. As my son approached the critical elementary school years, I knew I not only wanted to teach him the value of community – easily done in Hoboken where fellow moms help carpool to basketball practice and keep an eye on one kid when the other needs a bathroom break in the park – but also how to give back, even at a young age. I was not alone. On the playground in December, many conversations revolved around the question: how could we lavish gifts upon our children while simultaneously teaching them that not everyone has what they have? This balance has become my goal. As a family, we “adopted” families for Christmas and bought extra presents to donate. We even decided (with some convincing at first) that for birthdays, rather than gifts, my son – now 8 – would request that friends bring canned goods for the food pantry. After doing so for five years, it has become routine, so much so that my daughter - now 3 – was eager to have her friends bring books for kids who don’t have any. Even these activities, however, have not brought the idea of community and giving to the forefront of their minds on a regular basis.
For my eight year old, however, serving dinner at the Hoboken Shelter did. He helped do laundry, wrapped silverware, and then distributed plates to the guests who waited on a single file line for a meal. When we left, the questions were pouring out of him: Where do the people go at night? Why did some need to take the bus? Do they have children? Some people looked like teenagers – do they go to school? Why don’t their friends and family help them? I had very few answers. At the corner, one of the guests stopped us and asked my son if he had a sister, to which he answered yes. She reached into her large garbage bag filled with belongings and pulled out two pairs of holiday socks – one for each of my children - and said thank you to us. We thanked her in return and got into the car to drive home. My son’s questions continued – Why did she give us socks if she has so little? By way of response, I asked how he felt serving dinner to those in need. In typical 8-year old fashion, “good” spoke volumes. He recognized that it felt good for the impoverished woman to be able to give something back and he liked the idea that he could, too.
Kids may not have money to share with their community, but they have heart and they have time and truly, that is all one needs to make a difference. So, should kids give up piano lessons or basketball practice in order to care for injured animals or make sandwiches for shelter guests? Not necessarily, but a well-rounded child will be able to do both. He will use the presence he develops on stage to speak in front of elected officials or the team-building drills learned on the court to rally friends for a park clean-up. Conversely, she will gain compassion through work at the humane society that will spill over into her music and patience while cooking for the homeless that will be beneficial at a STEM competition. Although it doesn’t always seem like it, there is enough time to pursue interests and hobbies and give back to the community. Best is when one activity accomplishes both objectives. As a teacher and administrator, I wanted to build a community, a neighborhood, and was able to do that by encouraging kindness and cooperation. In Hoboken, I have found that neighborhood with other parents who are on my team, part of my family. As a mom, I want my children to be wonderful students, amazing athletes, and talented artists, but more than anything, I want them to be altruistic, happy people. And I am not sure why, with hard work and endless support, they can’t accomplish it all.
Shana L. Wright is a lifelong student and educator. As a community servant and mom to an 8-year old son and 3-year old daughter, Shana recognizes the importance of teaching youth the value of empathy and service to others, while understanding the difficulty schools and families have in doing so, given resource and time constraints. Project H.E.R.O.I.S.M. grew from her belief that all valuable life lessons can be culled from literature and applied through experiential learning projects.