View from Glen Hill: Drilling down to the holiday spirit

I offer here several experiences of the season that reflect for me what the holidays celebrated this month are all about.

I went to Temple B’nai Chaim in Georgetown last Sunday on one of the last days of Hanukah to speak about refugees and refugee resettlement with the children and youth of the temple, some 80 strong and ranging in age from very young to teenagers. In the course of my remarks given at the invitation of the temple’s Religious School director, Jennifer Haynos, I used the word “empathy,” and then quickly realized that, given the very young age of some of the students, I should ask if someone would explain what that word means. Immediately, up shot the hand of one of the youngest students there, maybe 6 years old. She said, “Empathy means feeling the same as the other person in your heart.” I was really blown away by such a great definition; hers should be the one used in dictionaries!

That experience tied in for me with another one earlier this month when I was a fly on the wall at a parent meeting for the youngest child in our refugee family, 4 years old, and heard his teacher report that she was especially impressed with his empathy as specifically reflected in his ability to sense when one of his classmates is upset or concerned. The example she gave of that was his arrival in class one day to see one of his fellow students looking sad. He immediately went over to their classroom bookcase and took down the book he knew she liked best. Then he went over and sat with her as they turned the pages together, looking at the pictures (they don’t yet read, of course). I was later told that the teachers and staff at Miller-Driscoll focus on helping their students understand what empathy is and how to respond to the needs of others. Clearly, their lessons are taking hold very well!

Then I had lunch last week with a good friend; our political views are about as different as oil and water, yet we remain good friends. While we don’t often talk politics, we do talk about everything else. I know how good a heart he has and how he is always thinking of the needs of others and acting very specifically and intentionally to meet those needs in whatever ways he can.

What he wanted to talk about most with me was works of art he had recently seen that focus on the words “Be Kind.” He showed me a photo of those two words emblazoned on the side of the Redding middle school in a beautifully decorative 10-foot by 10-foot sign. The sign is composed of thousands of small individual ceramic tiles that together form a sort of cloud-like shape in the middle of which, also in tiles, appears “Be Kind.” He told me that the tiles were prepared by the school’s students and then kiln-fired by Ben’s Bells, the nonprofit creators of this idea (one that has apparently spread nationwide). Then the tiles were applied to the exterior wall of the school and grouted in place by adult volunteers. He mentioned that individual small tile pieces are also prepared by the students to be kept by them and given out with a small card attached when someone could use a little reminder to “be kind.” The card encourages its recipient to “pass kindness on.”

My friend’s idea was that we should implement this sign idea locally, and indeed the joint youth program of St. Matthew’s Episcopal and Wilton Presbyterian churches is doing so — on a much smaller scale than the Redding school sign. My friend’s big goal is to see a Redding-sized sign on the side of one of our Wilton school buildings. It costs $4,000 to $5,000 to pay for the materials to create the 10-foot-by-10-foot version of this sign, so it’s not a trivial project financially. But now that he’s put forward the idea (one that it turns out was already in the view of our schools), we’ll see what can happen.

The last experience I’ll recount is more personal. Right before Christmas, our two young grandsons were asked, “Where were you before you were in your mommy’s tummy and got born?” The answer our 3-year-old grandson gave was simply, “Nowhere.” But his 6-year-old brother couldn’t let that answer rest. “No,” he said, “I was in God’s heart.” Now, there’s another great reflection of all of the holidays!