Early Sunday morning, I left my grandmother's house for the last time; it was the house where I spent a large portion of my childhood, wandering the hot, quiet residential sidewalks, swimming in the YMCA pool, chasing grasshoppers in the backyard. The house has been sold and we went there to say goodbye. I rose before dawn that morning for a last run on the neighborhood trail, and choked back tears as I packed the car. Just before turning onto the highway, I realized I didn't have any cash for the toll roads, so I made a u-turn in search of an ATM. Stopping at a red light, I noticed a bank to my right; as I was in the left lane, I flipped on the turn signal and gestured to the woman in the car next to me--gave her the universal signal for "I have found myself in the wrong lane. May I turn in front of you when the light changes?"
Her reaction astonished me. Instead of waving me on, or simply ignoring my request, she went into a wild, exaggerated pantomime of acquiescence: throwing her arms out in front of her, sweeping them around. Then she rolled down and her window and shouted "You fucking idiot! Just go on ahead, don't mind the rest of us." And all the while my children watched from the backseat, confused and horrified.
I was already on the verge of disrepair, struggling to contain the emotional upheaval of the week's goodbyes, and her behavior pierced me. In response to my children's queries, I simply responded "She's probably having a bad day."
But the thing is, no matter how bad my day is, I don't do things like that. It never occurs to me to act with cruelty and derision, especially to a total stranger. And the whole encounter got me thinking about the origins of cruelty, and how incredibly easy it is to pass down to our children.
A few weeks before, sitting at another red light somewhere in Uptown, I spotted a man running on the streetcar line; he was dressed absurdly, and his gait was wild, and I chuckled to myself. Sydney--who I have come to believe is constantly watching my every move--asked what I was laughing at and without thinking, I told her. And then I caught her expression in the rear view mirror: it was one of absolute confusion, and I felt instantly ashamed. She had no idea why that was funny. Because she doesn't laugh at people, except when they are trying to be funny.
At her school, they have a thing called "Project Pride," which is basically a socio-emotional curriculum that emphasizes kindness, respect, and responsibility. The best thing about this, and what distinguishes it from traditional anti-bullying campaigns, is that it's woven into the fabric of the entire environment--it's not a separate class or lecture or module. It's not something the guidance counselor comes in once a week to talk about; it's something the teachers model, and incorporate into science and literacy and math lessons. The "first rule of Lusher" is to "Be Kind," and I'll be damned if it doesn't work. These kids are kind, and the ones who slip up are reminded by their peers--not their teachers--about the first and all-important rule. It's the thing I love most about the school, and a framework I've started using at home with both my kids.
But how important it is to model the behavior. Because our kids are watching us, constantly, they see how we treat strangers and friends and family and people who hurt us. They notice if we're shitty to the server who screws up our order, when we quickly roll up the windows upon spotting a homeless man on the street corner, they overhear when we gossip about someone on the phone. And when we laugh at someone who is trying to be healthy.
I don't ever want either of my kids to be that woman at the stoplight on Princeton Avenue. I want them to react with kindness, always, not because they are insecure or unable to assert themselves, but because they understand the power they have to wound others, and the responsibility that comes with being a person in the world. A couple of weeks ago, Evan's school had a "silly socks" day, and after much debate I suggested he wear 2 different soccer socks, pulled up to his knees, and he agreed. Walking out the door, he stopped and took them off and reminded me that his best friend J. wears knee high socks to school every day, and "I don't want him to feel silly." And Sunday morning, before we left the house on Summerfield Road, as I sat on the bed with Evan in the room I stayed in as a child, Sydney came in and sat down with us and I explained that it used to be my room and she leaned against me and said "It's okay to be sad, Mommy. It's okay with me if you cry."
I think we're on the right track.