If All Else Fails, Be Kind

Auld Lang Syne
Jean Redpath
Auld Lang Syne
Jimi Hendrix

If All Else Fails, Be Kind

Las Meninas
Diego Velázquez

Every New Year it is the custom to offer a cup of kindness “for old long since” the English equivalent of the Scottish lyric. It is a way of saying, “let bygones be bygones” and for old time’s sake let’s be friends. Not a bad way to finish one year and start another. When I was just out of high school and beginning to make my way in the world I had to make a choice, would I embrace rock and roll or folk music, the popular music genres of the day. For old times sake I have mashed together the two genres in this rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” sung by Jean Redpath and played as an instrumental by Jimi Hendrix. Is it necessary, after all, to form hard and fast cultural alliances?

The painting is a bit of a puzzle and captures another aspect of being grown up. Critics wonder who this painting is really about. The children are in the foreground, as they should be, and that would suggest it is about them. But the subject of the painting seems to be the making of the painting, perhaps an early example of meta-art. If this is the case, than perhaps the painting is about the painter peeking out from behind the canvas. Some suggest the subject of the painting is the couple the painter is painting who are reflected in the mirror on the back wall behind the painter, the king and queen of Spain. This does not seem likely, though, because it is much too easy to miss them as the mirror is not prominently displayed, though they would be the people the painter is peeping out to find. For me, though, the most prominent figure in the painting is the gentleman standing in the doorway. I do not know who he is, he may be a servant for all I know, but his pose in the doorway suggests assurance and perhaps a tad bit of cockiness that commands my attention.

But it is the children that I think most about. It is just like an adult to put the children in a place of prominence and than proceed to ignore them. As a culture we talk about how important it is to educate and care for the children and then when times are tough we cut the very programs, schools, parks, health care, and the like, that were established, ostensibly, for the well being of the children. At times children figure prominently in political discourse as a way of shaming some into making sacrifices for the children that the society as a whole is unwilling to make. It is often said that actions are better teachers than words, but I wonder if we really believe this.

Cottage Girl with Dog and Pitcher
Thomas Gainsborough

The young lady is obviously poor, her pitcher is broken and her clothes are torn and she has no shoes. But she has her dog and the dog and she seem to enjoy each other’s company. The clouds and somber colors suggest a chill but it is difficult to tell. It is difficult to tell what the child is feeling, her face does not suggest she is happy, but nor does it suggest she is sad, though she seems more somber than carefree. There was a review in this week’s Guardian of a book, Caroline Moorehead’s Dancing to the Precipice, about a woman who married into the French aristocracy and managed to survive the tumultuous aftermath of the French Revolution. The article is titled “French Connections” and the book is about the life and times of Lucie de la Tour du Pin. Among other things, the book points out that the French aristocracy prior to the French Revolution spent exorbitant sums of money building parks where they could live the simple life “enjoyed” by this child, while those living the simple life “endured” by this child wanted for many of the basic necessities of life.

Illustration from The Pied Piper of Hamelin
Kate Greenway

The Pied Piper is perhaps an apt metaphor for society’s treatment of children. The town does not want to pay for the services the piper has rendered, even though they promised they would. The service the piper performed was to play his flute and charm the rats out of town. When he was not paid he played his flute again and piped the children out of town. Perhaps, truth be told, after the piper performed these two offices the rodents and the children were gone, but in fact the “rats” were left behind. There comes a time when for our own well being and the well being of those that look up to us, it is important that we are seen to have paid the piper and acknowledged our responsibilities.

In fairness, though, it is often difficult for a culture to manage all of its responsibilities. The freer, and the more affluent the society, more often than not, the more difficult it is to meet these responsibilities. It is often the case that the affluent are not used to making sacrifices and as a result they do not make them well, if at all. Studies have shown that the poor are often more generous than the well off. This was certainly St. Paul’s experience. He received generous donations from poor churches like the one in Philippi, while the more well to do churches, like those in Corinth, were a bit more miserly.

“Children Will Listen”
From Into the Woods
Stephen Sondheim

At the end of the day, the children do hear and the children do listen. I like that it is the witch who sings this song in the musical, the character that is supposed to be the villain. There was a review (“Easy to Be Hard”) in The New York Times Review of Books last week of the book On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor. The book is about the difficulty we have as a culture being kind. According to the book nothing terrifies us quite so much as kindness. Not that we do not like being treated kindly but that we fight being kind for fear, I suppose, of being taken advantage of. We speak of kindness as a value that ought to be cultivated, while at the same time we often retreat from it. If we do a thing as a true act of kindness we cannot expect kindness in return. The act must stand alone and be perceived as having been performed with no thought of reward. We may desire reciprocity but we cannot expect it. As a result, we often avoid acts of kindness.

But, according to the article (and the book I suppose) we cannot be happy living exclusively for ourselves and a life that is not characterized by kindness is probably not a happy life. The article suggests that our children see this inner conflict and grow up to be equally conflicted about acting kindly. The article ends, “Indeed, the ones who pay the largest price for our contemporary cloak-and-dagger relationship with kindness are children, whom adults fail by neglecting to help them ‘keep . . . faith with’ kindness, and thereby sentence to a life ‘robbed of one of the greatest sources of human happiness.’” By not teaching our children to be kind we fail to teach them how to be happy.

As a teacher I often wonder what is the proper way to show kindness to my students. There are those that suggest teachers, especially, English teachers, should structure their classrooms and their practices around those things that their students enjoy or most easily understand and relate to. There is a value to this, because students need an avenue of entry into the academic discipline. It would be unkind to demand that students master a thing that in no way they can understand relates to their lives as it is lived now or as they believe it will be lived in the future. Part of the answer to this dilemma is helping students to see that life as they imagine it will be lived and life as it is likely to be lived are not necessarily the same thing. The literature and composition skills that I teach will, I believe, serve students well in the future, but students often cannot see how that is true.

Sir Isaac Newton
Godfrey Kneller

In this week’s Boston Globe there was an article by Jonah Lehrer “The Truth about Grit.” The article is about tenacity and the importance of tenacity to our ultimate success. It begins by telling the story of Sir Isaac Newton’s discovery of the laws of gravity. The story is told of his seeing an apple fall to earth (or of an apple falling on his head) and of how in a flash of inspiration he comprehended the laws of gravity. But the apple allegedly fell in 1866, but his treatise on gravity was not published until 1887. The falling apple may have started Newton thinking, but it took 20 years to finally work out all the details of that inspirational insight. Newton was a smart guy but it was not his intellect alone that enabled him to understand gravity, it took years of hard work and singleness of purpose. Intellect alone would not have solved the problem.

The article goes on to talk about the most important lessons our students learn in school have little to do with finding things out, though that is important, but with staying with a problem until it is solved. It talks about a study where two classes of intelligent fifth graders were given an age appropriate test. Both classes did well on the test. Because they did so well one class was complimented for their intelligence while the other class was complimented for working so hard. Both classes were then given a test that was intended for eight graders. Those that were praised for their hard work, worked their way through the test and solved many of the problems, while the group that was praised for its intelligence gave up when they did not meet with initial success.

I do not know what the parameters of the study were or how reliable the findings are, but I think there is something to be said for encouraging students not to give up, for maintaining a difficult curriculum and then encouraging our students to solve the problems that the curriculum puts in their way. Even if there is no value to studying the works of literature the different cultures of the world have given us, from Chaucer to Confucius, there is a value to helping students develop tenacity, that that skill alone will serve our students well even if the problems they were given to solve do not prove useful later in life. One thing that school teaches us, or ought to teach us, is to work something through to completion whether we like the task or not. Often in the process we find the task less onerous than we had imagined and on rare occasions even come to enjoy the task.

I believe in a difficult and rigorous curriculum. Most of my students will not go on to study Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, or William Wordsworth but I think even if the literature does not speak to them there is a value to being able to work out what it means and look into the mind that created that language. What I see as a world of wonder, students often see as a barren and boring landscape. I cannot make them be excited but I can encourage them to look for the problems the authors confront and ask them to assess the outcome of these confrontations. That even if the words themselves do not speak to students, students will gain useful skills from solving problems, will perhaps expand their vocabularies a bit, and learn to give a fair hearing to those they do not necessarily like or agree with. This is hard work. I think often we do our students a disservice by suggesting to them something worthwhile can be accomplished without expending much effort. It is very frustrating working our way through things we do not understand and often, because we do not understand, do not enjoy. But it is my experience that great pleasure can be found at the other end of that frustration.

Snap the Whip, 1872
Oil on canvas”Winslow Homer: Snap the Whip (50.41)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.
(October 2006)

That said, it is important to leave a bit of room for play. Play often helps us not only to relieve tension, but rejuvenates us as well. We return to our work with new energy and new enthusiasm. In our rush to cut budgets and make our schools more cost efficient we are cutting the programs that provide the students the opportunity they need to play if they are to study well. When I was in school I had lunch and morning and afternoon recesses to burn of some pent up energy and to refocus my mind. Perhaps this was only because I went to school in Southern California, where it never rains and the weather is always pleasant. But it is not just recess that is being cut; it is music and drama and sports programs along with many of the other extra-curricular activities that drain school budgets. The children in the painting are likely to study better after playing their game, but even if they do not, what becomes of a people who do not know how to balance work and leisure? It takes stamina to be tenacious and our games often develop stamina. It takes a mind that is comfortable with itself to be kind and finding the balance between work and play often helps us to be more comfortable with ourselves. I think it is important to play hard and to work hard, and that in doing so we become a kinder and happier people.