When I taught second grade, all of my students started the year behind in reading; several had no reading skills at all. Teaching literacy became my supreme focus that year, but I harbored a shameful secret: I was working harder with these kids than I’d ever worked in my life, mostly because I believed it was the decent and honorable thing to do. I wasn’t really confident they’d ever overcome their many hurdles with reading. The circumstances in their home lives were so dire, and the expectations everyone, including the kids themselves, had of their unfolding lives were so bleak, that it often felt like they’d never be able to read.
However, we never stopped working, mostly because I figured, what else were we supposed to do? And guess what happened? They learned to read – I watched student after student experience breakthroughs whereby letters, words and sentences on the page became meaningful, and every one of those students became a zealot for books – sometimes overnight.
The shame I later felt for being surprised at my students’ eventual progress helped me to articulate a central insight I got from working with them: Language is natural, learning to read is what’s supposed to happen in our development as people. It’s illiteracy and the inability to communicate which are the abnormal things. Chewing on that statement as I type, it seems obscenely simple. Still, this epiphany rocked my world, and has powerfully shaped my outlook on life ever since.
This week I learned about an organization called The Roots of Empathy, which seeks to diminish aggression and bullying in schools by building skill sets of intentional compassion in young children. Often they work in settings where there is a great deal of violence in and around the school. But the program relies on a fundamental conviction about empathy that’s similar to the belief that I came to have about literacy: That all people are born predisposed to be empathic toward others – empathy is natural; it’s not an arbitrarily bestowed talent of virtuous people – and this capacity should be nurtured and strengthened, like any muscle we’re born with.
When young people grow up to be cruel and unfeeling toward others, it’s because our disposition toward empathy has been neglected or undermined by bad experiences. Bullying, in this view, is the result of something going wrong – it’s not inevitable. The program therefore, seeks to condition and enhance the natural empathy skills of young children. You can read about how they do this, and the research that shows their impact on communities, here.
When there is so much aggression in our homes, neighborhoods and the world at large, it’s easy to think, even if we don’t like thinking it, that the trajectory of violence is inevitable. Likewise, with so many students giving up on education, and schools giving up on them, it was easy to think that struggling pre-readers would never be literate. But that’s not how it’s supposed to be. We’re meant to care, we’re meant to learn, we’re meant to thrive.
When we invest our lives in good things, we prepare ourselves for the best kind of surprises.