As the High Holy Days draw near, I prepare to begin the Friendship unit with my kindergartners. Concepts I will stress in these next few weeks are forgiveness, generosity of spirit, and above all exemplifying in our own doings the mercy and compassion we ask of Hashem. In our civilized society, these seem like fairly self-evident ideas, addressed with even greater attention among observant Jews. As I interact with my students and try to teach them kindness towards others, however, I wonder if perhaps I am asking too much of them, in demanding a quality I am ashamed to admit I myself have had trouble displaying.
I received a strange gift last year. I attended a large costume party being thrown by a new friend, and wandered about aimlessly, trying to keep tinges of shy panic from my smile amidst the sea of unfamiliar faces. One woman stood out, though, attracting my attention from the first sighting; I immediately began to puzzle over my instinct that I should somehow recognize her. As the evening progressed, I continued to stare at her covertly, wondering; I suddenly noticed her staring at me in a similar fashion.
Figuring that this was proof the association wasn’t all in my head, I approached her. She smiled at me in turn, and the standard volley of questions began. “Which high school did you go to?” “Were you in the marching band, the theater program?” I wondered if perhaps she had been my brother’s prom date. No, she was my age, and so the sleuthing continued. The exchange of names did not ring any bells, but the procession eventually resulted in the discovery of our common experience; it turns out we had both attended the same Jewish day camp the summer after sixth grade.
Now that we knew why each looked so familiar to the other, we attempted to determine whether we’d actually known each other at the time, or whether we’d just interacted in passing. As Sarah began to elaborate on her activities and acquaintances that summer, I was possessed by an increasing emotional queasiness. She finished her brief bio and looked at me expectantly. I took a deep breath and admitted, “I think you and I were in the same camper group, and if I’m remembering correctly, I was one of the people who wasn’t very nice to you.”
I was stunned at myself. Feeling more certain, but vividly ashamed of my remembered behavior, I revealed to Sarah the memories my mind was now releasing to my consciousness: in the declining echelons of 11 year-old coolness and acceptance, my small knot of friends and I occupied a niche far down at the lower end of the scale. Rather than glean wisdom and compassion from our own social miseries, however, we reprehensibly chose to pass the pain on, tormenting the few poor souls who were even less popular than us. I felt like all the blood had drained from my face as I realized that Sarah had not even been just any picked-on kid, but had held the dubious distinction of being my clique’s favorite target.
More than a decade later, I tried to convey my sincere distress and apology to the vivacious woman standing before me. I was so ashamed of the child I had been that I wanted to run away and cry; instead, I steeled myself and tried to ease the throbbing of an age-old wound I was devastated to think might have pained another as my own emotional scars do me. Sarah’s response to my confession took my breath away. “Yeah, it’s dumb what kids do to each other, isn’t it? Thank G-d we grow up and quit acting like that.” She smiled then, overwhelming me with her generous compassion. Blinking, I smiled back, and told her how genuinely happy I was to have had this opportunity to meet up with her again, so many stressful and maturing years later.
Since that night, I’ve often wondered if I would be so kind and forgiving, were I to find myself in a similar situation with a former tormentor. I fear that I have not grown as much as Sarah has, that I have still not been able to take the pain of my experiences and transform it into compassion. I then wonder if, perhaps, that lingering bitterness were the reason for my reunion; perhaps Hashem sent Sarah to me so that I would be able to ask her forgiveness, that I might not just bask in her absolution, but also learn from her kindness and make it part of my own nature.
I think of all these things and wonder how I can possibly convey to my five year-old students the incredible importance of these seemingly self-evident platitudes. Knowing firsthand how hard it is, even for adults, to incorporate these simplistic character traits, do I ask too much of my kindergartners? No, I realize; not only would I of course be doing them a great disservice to deprive them of the opportunity to learn the importance of chesed, but if I am at all successful in that teaching, then perhaps I can help them to integrate these values without experiencing the pain of my own mistakes.
Nureet Poor teaches kindergarten in Los Angeles, CA.