And so, another summer is gone and it’s back to school. This morning we coaxed and cajoled two reluctant teenagers out the door approximately three hours earlier than they had grown accustomed to being anywhere or doing anything over the course of the summer. Out the door for another year of glorious personal growth and social interaction and intellectual stimulation. Or something like that. Judging by the looks on their faces as they trudged out the door, about the only thing on their minds were the beds they had been unceremoniously dislodged from.
I suppose it’s natural for all parents to look ahead to the new school year with hope and optimism for the opportunities that might present themselves to their children. Academics, music, athletics, art, drama—all present themselves as potential theatres for excellence and achievement. And, yes, I suppose that I am no different from any other parents here. I hope that this year will provide opportunities for my kids to achieve and attain in each of these areas.
But I also know that school is about much more than opportunities for formal learning. I know that for many kids, school is a place that inspires dread. For many, school is a place where they are tutored in little more than the apparently limitless human capacity for cruelty and rejection. Today, I am thinking not of the kids for whom this next year is a pristine blank sheet upon which to imprint all of their multifaceted giftedness, but of those who see the next ten months or so as something to endure and nothing more.
I am thinking of the socially awkward kid who is frequently misunderstood and picked on… Of the boy who has a hard time controlling his anger and has no idea how to express this… Of the girl whose appearance doesn’t seamlessly correspond to the impossible ideals of the popular and the pretty… Of the boy struggling to cope with his parents’ recent divorce… Of the girl who comes to school hungry because her mom and/or dad struggle with addictions and can’t cope with life… Of the kid who never seems to be able to say or do the right thing and is constantly ridiculed by those at the top of the social pile… Of the countless kids thrust into a social context that seems virtually engineered to produce a daily stream of judgment and evaluation, where their only experience is that of constantly falling short, constantly being on the outside, constantly feeling like they don’t belong.
My heart is heavy for these kids, on this the second day of September, the beginning of a new school year. I want to tell these kids, Just hang on for a few more years… What you are experiencing right now does not tell the truth about who you are and what you can do… Those kids that are the source of so much of your misery struggle with insecurity just as much as (if not more than) you… The implicit and explicit social judgments of this place called “school” are not even remotely the final word about who you are… This, too, shall pass… But I know that these words would sound probably sound pretty hollow to a kid. “A few more years” might as well be a lifetime to a thirteen year old. They don’t need hollow words; they just need something—anything—to make their daily experience more bearable.
This morning as I rode my motorcycle past my kids’ school a few minutes after the first bell had rung, I mouthed a silent prayer. I prayed for the kids who would not be on the honour roll this year, the kids who wouldn’t make the volleyball team, the kids who would eat lunches alone, the kids who would be on the wrong end of all kinds of abuse, the kids who would regularly be picked last in gym class, the kids who nobody would want to partner up with for the class project, the kids who would often make things worse for themselves because they had so little experience with making things better. I prayed that they would experience even the smallest scrap of kindness on this, the first day of school, and that this kindness would, like a little seed, take root and grow. That it would, perhaps, grow into something to provide a bit of shelter for all of the unkindness that our schools and our world are so skilled in dishing out.
I prayed that they would hang on to kindness, wherever and whenever and in whatever measure they might encounter it today. And I prayed that God would grace us all with the conviction that kindness matters in a world so well-acquainted with the crude, the vulgar, the adversarial, the insensitive, the reactionary and offensive.
Yes, kindness matters. Sometimes I am convinced that there is little that matters more.