On the day we celebrate our country founded in liberty and justice for all, I'm reminded that kindness still counts. I don't have a Foursquare app on my cell phone. So I don't have the ability to check in to see where everybody's going to hang out on the 4th. Full disclosure: actually, I don't have a smart phone. But tomorrow I'm going to a block party, as will millions of others across the US on Independence Day.
I suspect I might see volleyball games...maybe even horseshoes or croquet set ups in folks' front yards. Does anybody still play Four Square? I wonder if I still can spike a ball. Several months ago, I remembered how I learned to play...and the message that being kind to others means to me.
I maintain a love of this good old-fashioned playground game, which I learned years ago from an expert, Robin, who knew how to be kind to strangers.
Just Like the Others
”Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.” ~Seneca
By the end of the first week at my new school I’d already learned to loathe recess. My new sixth grade teacher by then had wearied of my begging to be allowed to stay in to help her empty the wastebaskets or erase the blackboard.
“You have to go outside and play, just like the others,” she’d say, furrowing her brow.
But I wasn’t just like the others. When my family had first moved from urban California to a small rural town in Oregon, I’d skipped a grade. The old three-room schoolhouse boasted a teeter totter and a few makeshift tire swings strung up on maple tree branches. Shorter and slighter than my classmates, I nonetheless could hold my own in the dirt yard at tag or crack the whip. Recess didn’t require us to have any special skills. Nobody ever chose up sides for teams.
Now, though, since we’d returned to the city, my diminutive size mattered. Recess involved competition on asphalt courts. Nobody knew my name, so I usually was the last one chosen. So I took to lingering on the sidelines, admiring the grace of a tall, pretty blonde. Robin sat on the other side of our classroom. Like me, she managed to get all the words right on our spelling quizzes. When we stood side by side at the blackboard to work arithmetic problems, she solved the sets just as fast or even faster than I could.
She especially excelled at Four Square. I’d figured out the rules by watching the players advance from the lowest to the highest square.
Eventually, Robin took me aside.
“Let’s go over to the corner and I’ll teach you how to hit the ball right,” she offered.
And she did, though it took her several afternoons of coaching before I actually managed to advance to the highest square.
Though I lost track of Robin once I started junior high, I often thought of her over the years. I tried to model myself on her, befriending new kids who started school midterm, offering to show them around the campus, or inviting them to sit with me and my friends at lunch. If a new family moved into the neighborhood during the summer, I’d tell them about the nearby park where they could swim for free on Saturday morning, and offer to walk over there with them.
“It’s what Robin would have done,” I’d tell myself. Robin had been a lodestar, an inspiration, a shining example of how to treat outsiders with kindness.
In college, when I studied the philosophy of Martin Buber, I realized that Robin, even as a child, instinctively must have known the meaningfulness of relationships, the I and the Thou.
Decades later, I read about “The Note Project,” sponsored by a Chicago writer and publisher. Mike O’Mary. O’Mary wanted a million people to improve the world through sharing appreciation. He had received a note of appreciation from his sister at one point in his life that he felt changed his whole perception of how to live in this world.
“In my personal life, appreciation is a tool to build and strengthen relationships…every chance I get I tell the people I love and appreciate that I love and appreciate them. I tell them every time I see, write or talk to them,” O’Mary said. He encouraged everybody to think back on somebody who had provided a random act of kindness, and write to thank them for it.
I thought immediately of Robin. Now in my seventies and living in a remote rural area of Northern Washington, I realized that my chances of reaching her to thank her for her kindness to me when I was an awkward, lonely sixth grader were remote indeed. But Robin had a very unusual last name, one that I’d never forgotten. So I took a chance and Googled it.
What a miracle! Her maiden name showed up with an attached surname, with links to several Internet articles that alluded to her. A still-practicing psychiatrist, she’d recently been widowed. She still lived in Southern California.
I took a deep breath…and a chance. I wrote her a note, explaining that I’d always remembered her, and wanted her to know how much I appreciated how she took the time to teach me Four Square when we were both so young. I wrote that I had been widowed a few years earlier myself, and had a couple of stories about how I’d weathered the demise of my husband in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book, “Grieving and Recovery,” that I’d like to send her. I appended my email address.
A few weeks later, I opened my inbox and had a response.
“I can’t tell you how surprised and moved I was to receive your letter this afternoon. And pleased,” she wrote.
She described her own troubled family situation, with complications I never could have guessed. Because of harrowing home conditions, she’d blocked from her memory most of her elementary school years. She, too, had felt invisible at that elementary school. She’d been delighted that though she couldn’t remember me, or her kindness to me, I’d remembered her.
I sent her the Chicken Soup book, and we continued to correspond frequently, reminiscing about the family events that had lead us both to similar professions, hers in psychiatry, and mine is psychiatric social work. When I visited family in California, we arranged to meet for lunch. Now that I once again live in the Southland, we have met for lunch again.
She immediately replied. “I wonder why you would imagine he would think you're inferior! You're an accomplished woman. And you know all the secrets of Four Square!”
Once again, she’d provided the encouragement I needed. My timidity vanished.
I stopped regarding my new friend as an “other.” Rather, we got to know one another, I learned that his unsettling event in his childhood had lead him, too, to devoting his life to being kind to people, trying to be an agent of change in the world. He, too, had struggled as a young man with trying to fit in, to be just like the others.
It might be that simple. We just need to “like” the others.