We’re nearing the end of an interdisciplinary unit with their Health course, and because my students range so vastly in age, ability and length of time in our facility, finishing projects has a few more hurdles than in typical classrooms (not to say projects don’t always present hurdles for teachers, because they always always do).
We have a small population right now, just 18 kids. Those 18 kids are divided into 3 groups based on security, conflicts, severity of charges, behavior plans, etc. – not by academic abilities or grade level. So of course as I try to structure classes and plan the project out, we know they will all finish on very different timelines. Last week, I made a list of kids who were ready to move on, and kids who were at least 2-3 steps behind…the list was split, 9-9. Of course.
So, time to fill the gap.
Last year, a man named Leon Logothetis came to our facility to speak to the residents about his book and his journey, The Kindness Diaries. He shared his story of losing faith in humanity as a broker. Tired of pessimism and selfishness, he set out on a trip to travel the world, relying only on the kindness and generosity of others for food, gas, and shelter. He documented the entire thing, and it is now on Netflix as a series. I decided this was a good option, given my students’ worldview and perspective, a chance to make their world a little bigger. Something happened though that I hadn’t anticipated because of our experience last year – when he was here in the facility, the kids were engaged and asking so many questions he went over on time by nearly half an hour. They were intrigued and always wanting to hear more. This time, though, they sat back and watched through eyes of cynicism and unbelief.
“There’s no way they’re that nice. He’s paying them.”
“They just want to be on TV”
“He’s just doing this to make money”
“People aren’t that nice. This is fake.”
This story, as a series presented on a screen, is literally unbelievable to them. It is a foreign perspective that seems so distant it must be fictitious. The kindness must be bought or bribed. The generosity is only self-serving. The narrative is literally too good to be true. We find it pleasantly surprising when we watch or hear of these things; we ultimately find it inspirational or touching because we have the privilege of knowing that it is possible.
It is not so unlike the moments we’ve experienced in our own lives, the humility we feel when we take the opportunity to serve others, or the gratitude that fills our hearts when kindness is extended to us. We see and experience these things often enough that when they are taken to the extreme, it is conceivable. Not so, for my students.
It wasn’t until halfway through episode 2, when Leon asks to stay with a man who shakes his head and shares that he is homeless. Leon stays with him anyway, and they sleep on the ground in his camp, sharing stories and dreams. This man, who has nothing, gives him everything. He had been in and out of jail, lost his marriage, and never finished school. For the first time in the series, my students saw a man who reflected – at least parts of – their experience. And then Leon gave him something beautiful. He paid for him to have a home, and go to trade school so that he could become a chef.
My students were in.
This story is now a motivator – “Miss, if we get all our work done and it’s good, can we watch that show at the end of class? Last 15 minutes?”
Our most hardened kid, here for arguably the most violent charges and the most proud of his gang lifestyle, who literally gets mad because our autobiography collection includes only books when the gang member changes his life at the end, picked up a copy of Leon’s book. When he prefaced a viewing with “This is the city where he helps out those kids, huh?” I was shocked.
“…how do you know that?” I cautiously ask
“…’cuz I read that part in the book already” he sheepishly replies
I raise my eyebrows and smile ever so slightly
“…Miss…I’m not 100% gangster…I can be into this stuff too…”
Almost ashamed, he buried his head in his arms and peeked up at me through the corner of his eye.
He knows the stories of kindness well now, and is easily the most enthusiastic viewer of the show. And while he admits that it would be much more interesting to watch if it was “The Aggression Diaries” he also concedes that this is cool because “it’s people bein’ nice, and we don’t really see that.”
And maybe that’s the takeaway from all of this: We acknowledge and act on the fact that there are children in this world who don’t believe kindness if they see it. Children who have been taught that kindness is weakness, kindness is only ever self-serving, kindness is fiction. Let us be witnesses to kindness in the world, especially to those the world deems “unworthy” of it. Let us make kindness visible to those our society makes invisible, tangible to the untouchable.