My adventurous companions and I were seniors, all right – not in high school but in life – and on the morning of Jan. 30 we were happily headed to Turning Point School for our second session with the Level 6 students we’d met the week before on our turf at the Culver City Senior Center. Now it was time to visit theirs.
Our intrepid little band of volunteers included a couple of seniors whose first experience in this annual project had been that Jan. 23 meeting, and I knew they’d be awed by their tour of this state-of-the-art school, a warm, familial environment with a creative and engaging approach to academics. The striking graphics in the lobby impressed us all, and I was particularly taken with one that showed two hands reaching toward each other with words lettered on them representing adjectives by which we might all hope to be described: kind, thoughtful, courteous, and so on. This school impresses me more and more each time I visit.
A stated goal, per its website, is “to provide students with age-appropriate educational and developmental experiences that encourage them to learn by making connections,” and according to Gaby Akana, the Middle School Division Head, the Intergenerational Writing Project fits right in.
“This partnership between Turning Point School and the Culver City Senior Center is the quintessential service learning project,” she said. “At Turning Point, meaningful service learning arises organically out of the curriculum and fosters reciprocal relationships over time, which is not always an easy combination to achieve. The teachers who plan the meetings, Diana Bender and Paige Montesano, do a fabulous job of guiding the interactions between students and seniors, and their thoughtful preparation guarantees a certain special quality to the exchanges. However, each year there are inevitably surprising and unexpected moments that make for enduring and endearing memories way beyond what any of us can foresee.
“One year, the students sang their songs from their choral performance for the seniors while visiting the center. Another year, students were amazed by a senior art exhibit on display at the center. Other years, seniors are able to attend the students’ Winter Musical performance on our school stage. Last year the students turned odes they had written into a song and performed it for their senior visitors. This year, they enjoyed a puppet show given by one of the seniors. Just as memorable, though, are the extraordinary revelations that happen during the everyday conversations that naturally occur during the sessions, and the sharing of writing between generations often gives us goose bumps.”
Based on past experience I had no doubt that this year’s sessions would provide a number of such dermatological moments, and my skin was already tingling as we prepared to share the homework assignment we’d been given at the end of last week’s meeting: to write our own adage about kindness, as well as a fable illustrating that adage.
And what my table of budding Aesops came up with showed they absolutely got it as they presented fables that were replete with imagination, charm, whimsy and humor while depicting thoughtful and, in some cases, self-sacrificing behavior.
Last week during our discussion of kindness my fellow volunteer, Miriam Schnepp, spoke about the concept in the movie “Pay it Forward” about doing good deeds without expectation of reward. She had also mentioned that when someone is in need of comforting, a simple offer of tea is like “a hug in a cup.” It was heartening to see that her comments had been integrated into the fables of some of the students. “They were listening!” she commented afterwards to me and other volunteers as we headed back to the senior center. Yes, there is no doubt that these students listen, absorb and creatively use what they are exposed to.
One fable told of Little Deer, who had a horrible day at The Forest School, having overslept, forgotten her lunch, gotten a C on a test and tripped in a puddle. Arriving home she stormed into her den and cried, but everything turned around for her when she came out to find that a small teacup filled with aromatic tea had been left on a wooden chair with a note from Grey Squirrel telling her that having seen how sadly she’d walked home and knowing that this tea was her favorite, she’d left it to brighten her day and warm her up. And that small act of kindness did the trick, proving the adage that “kindness can be anything, even the smallest deeds that put big smiles on our faces.”
“Give kindness and the friendship will come” was illustrated by a story with a delightful, humorous ending involving baby Earth, whose parents were the Sun and the Moon. Earth set out on a quest to find playmates and approached several planets in hopes that they would be his friends. But the planets declined, stating that they were better than he. Earth politely thanked them for their time and wished them a nice day. After he left, the planets realized they had let their egos ruin a possible friendship, so the next day they went to Earth, apologized, and agreed to be friends. Earth was so happy that he jumped out of orbit, as all the planets shouted, “You’re out of this world!”
“Kindness is not bought, but given” introduced us to a fat rat named Lionel and a skinny mouse named Alfred who made fun of Lionel because of his weight. People saw that this upset Lionel so they paid Alfred to be kind to him. Lionel didn’t know about the payment and thought they had actually become friends so, one day when a cat came along wanting to eat Alfred, Lionel stood up for Alfred and got eaten instead. Alfred felt so bad about this, and for not having been kind to Lionel from the beginning, that he now offers friendship and kindness to everyone. When a new fat rat moved into the neighborhood Alfred made a point of being the first to greet and befriend him – and his son, Alfred Jr., is carrying on this tradition!
Illustrating the adage that “kindness is helping someone who needs it,” we have the bird that lived in a tree and, while asleep in the tree, fell and broke his wing. It was almost night as he lay on the ground, fearing the predators that would be coming. A flying squirrel heard his cries for help, swooped down, saved him, and they’ve been friends ever since.
“Kindness makes friendship” eventually proved to be the case for a dog and cat that hated each other. One day the cat, who’d had enough of being chased, offered a proposition. If the dog stopped chasing, the cat would do something helpful in the future. The dog agreed. At a later date he was caught by the dogcatcher. The cat came along, sized up the situation, stood behind the dog and went “Meow.” This fooled the dogcatcher into thinking he’d trapped a cat, so he let the dog go, leading to a friendship between the dog and cat who lived peacefully from then on.
And then we have the elephant, wolf and rat. To test their strength in resisting temptation, each had his favorite food laid out before him: peanuts for the elephant, meat for the wolf and cheese for the rat. The elephant gave in and ate his peanuts. The wolf quickly proceeded to eat his meat. The rat stood there, pondering what to do, finally grabbing the cheese and running home without stopping. But instead of eating it himself, as he really wanted to do, he gave it to his children who had never enjoyed such a great feast, proving that “kindness is not what you give yourself but what you give to others.”
One story described the ongoing conflict between River and Hollow Tree that grew in River’s midst. River didn’t like Hollow Tree because Hollow Tree not only drank too much of River’s water, he also invited his friends to drink. Complicating the situation was the annual contest held by all the animals and plants, where they’d compete to see who could eat the most grapes and drink the most water. And everyone knew River had the finest water in town so they’d head for him first. On the day of the contest Hollow Tree heard River crying because he had two little river babies that had just been born and by the time the animals and plants finished drinking, those river babies would no longer be alive. Therefore, instead of participating in the contest, Hollow Tree spread his branches around River and the babies to protect them, after which they all became friends, laughing, talking and smiling. As the adage goes, “when showing kindness, a smile is put on your face.”
The tale of the baby female deer named Rain and the baby porcupine named Henry told of how they grew to be best friends. When they were about five months old, Rain started to lose her spots and Henry’s quills started to come in, but kind of sparsely. One day they were playing hide and seek with Rain hiding and Henry counting. Unfortunately, Rain was found by a big hungry bear that chased her as she frantically called for help. Henry heard and went to the rescue as fast as he could. He shot the few quills he had into the bear’s face, scaring him off. Rain was very grateful and asked how she could repay him, and his response was to “show kindness to others because people will appreciate it,” assuring her that no repayment was needed except for them to be best friends for the rest of their lives.
Another story, illustrating the adage “kindness is contagious,” described a faraway pegacorn world, which I believe is a combination of Pegasus and unicorn. Pegacorn world was filled with kindness, and every day a little girl would enter that world and then leave again, taking a little bit of kindness back to her human world. When she’d return to pegacorn world she’d bring some unkindness from her world, but it would vanish because of the overwhelming abundance of kindness present in pegacorn world. Noticing this, Rainbow, one of the pegacorns, gave the little girl a sack of kindness and told her to open it upon returning to her human world. She did and the kindness spread to all the people in her world faster than she could say one last thank you to Rainbow.
As I listened, entranced, to the fables and the wonderful messages they conveyed, it gave me hope that these students would grow up to collaborate in the invention of a super GPS that could take us to a pegacorn world where kindness abounds and is freely given. It’s definitely something to work on.
In the discussion that followed it was brought out that small steps of kindness can work as well as big strides, and that examples of small kindnesses are all around us. “Be kind because you should be kind,” one student emphasized, explaining that some people are kind because they want a reward, and that’s not the point. We talked about the fact that small things can make a huge difference, although we may not notice this at first. One student deplored the “better than you” attitude of some people as being totally unacceptable.
We then segued into our next topic, moral courage, and how it differs from physical courage. Teacher Diana Bender presented us with a quote by Mark Twain: “It is curious that physical courage should be so common and moral courage so rare.” That led to a very spirited discussion in which examples of moral courage were put forth. We spoke about whistleblowers. One student offered a quote from Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens, who will be ending his career at this Sunday’s Super Bowl: “My favorite thing to do is to have the world tell you that you can’t do something and then go out and do it.” Other comments included “You need to stand up for what you believe in,” “If you find that someone, even a friend, is doing something that will harm them or others, you need to tell the teacher,” and “You need to admit your mistakes.”
The story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” was brought up, as an example of someone who dared to tell the truth. The moral courage of our Founding Fathers in forming this country and standing up to heavy odds was discussed. And as an example of children standing up for what they believe in one student spoke of “Les Miserables.”
Another student explained that courage is having the strength to do something, but you have to draw the line when it comes to your behavior and cockiness is being over the line. We then discussed pride, self-confidence and courage, and how these qualities may relate to cockiness. We also found that there was a strong connection between moral courage and kindness.
There was also a reference, shortly before the session ended, to the mentoring program, an intriguing concept that begins in Level 3, when every Level 3 student is assigned a Level 6 mentor. These relationships continue for three years, until the mentors graduate out of Middle School at the completion of Level 8. Then the cycle starts again with the new Level 6 students.
Our homework assignment was to write a poem about the importance of moral courage, or when moral courage should be shown. The poem was to provide advice regarding its topic, and would likely be used by these Level 6 students when they mentor the Level 3 students at one of their periodic meetings.
Today’s discussion was significant and memorable, and I found it amazing that we’d packed so much into the one brief hour that we’d spent together. I just wish I had the moral courage to parade in front of the school with a sign insisting that we have longer sessions . . .