The Mantras

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When I worked for the KIPP Charter schools we all attempted to follow it’s golden rule to work hard and be nice even as we realized that the actual definitions of working hard and being nice were somewhat subjective. The guideline was in reality more personal than a generalization. Some among us worked much harder than others and the same was true of being nice. Our human perceptions derived from the totality of our experiences will vary tremendously even when certain words seem to be very clear in their intent. 

I learned soon enough when I was struggling to fulfill my promise of working hard and being nice that I had to draw a line of self preservation in order to be useful to anyone. There were times when I became exhausted and had to pause for some rest without feeling guilty. There were moments when I had to make difficult decisions with teachers, students and parents that did not feel particularly nice. There were indeed incidents in which the kindest approach was to hold people accountable for their actions lest they believe that bad behaviors were okay. On such occasions there were regularly those who questioned my devotion to being nice. Tough love is never easy. 

I remember having to deal with a student who had stolen from his classmates. He was initially quite cavalier about what he had done, even attempting to create ridiculous stories about “finding” the items lying around and thinking that nobody wanted them. Eventually I learned that he had a treasure trove of stolen goods in his room at home. I had no choice but to insist that we make the penalty for his deeds fit the grievousness of his crimes. 

He was one of my favorite students, a very bright young man who seemed not to realize his enormous talents. He was charismatic and uncannily brilliant in mathematics. His home life was difficult but he very apparently loved his mother and worked to help her with expenses. I suspected that his thievery was intended as a way to make some extra cash for what he believed was a good cause, but it was nonetheless wrong. He saw my disappointment as I spoke to his mother about what he had done. I also witnessed part of the problem when his mom defended him with many weak arguments meant to forgive his actions. 

I suspect that the poor woman thought she was being kind and loving, but I felt that by not holding her son accountable she was teaching him a terrible lesson. True kindness would have been to tell him that it is never right to do bad things even for seemingly good reasons. As it was the boy worried that I hated him because I stood firm regarding his punishment. I had to explain to both him and his mother that I hated what he had done, but I would always love him. Such a concept seemed foreign to them. They were confused that I would hate the sin but not the sinner. To me it was all about truly being nice. 

I recently saw a variation of the KIPP mantra that was Be Strong. Be Kind. I wondered what those words might mean to each individual. They are so generic that they definitely have multiple meanings, particularly the idea of being strong. In today’s world we all too often  equate strength with holding power over others, or pushing ourselves beyond our healthy limits. In truth a strong person knows first and foremost when to say, “No!”

There is so much over which we have little or no control. There are situations in which we should not even consider attempting to control individuals or groups. Understanding that we can’t control every situation is the mark of a truly strong individual. Accepting that we will never please everyone is the definition of true strength. Insisting on self care when things get out of hand is a sign of a healthy mind. As the song tells us, life is a gamble and the strong among us know when to hold the cards and when to fold them. The truth is that we can’t personally fix every single problem nor can anyone else. We have to learn what being strong really means rather than emulating the many posers who seem to believe that strength lies in physical and emotional power over others. 

Some of the strongest people that I have known were also the wisest and the quietest. My friend Sharon Saunders was one of those individuals. She listened and watched and took time to consider what was happening around her and what she might do to help people. Her lack of showmanship and bravado sometimes resulted in a misunderstanding of how magnificently she combined handwork, being nice, kindness and strength all at once. The students and adults who were fortunate enough to learn from her good counsel felt the earth move under their feet as life changed for them. Because Sharon was quite humble about her abilities her miracles were not always as apparent to others as they were to those she had helped. She made her work seem so easy that sometimes people believed that she was not working hard at all. In truth she was totally dedicated to those who came to her for help and they would all eventually attest to the mark she had made on their souls. 

It’s laudable to work hard and be nice. It’s a wonderful idea to be both kind and strong. Nonetheless we have to be careful to truly understand what those kind of words mean. They are not declarations of selfless tolerance of situations or people who demand too much of our love and energy. They are guidelines for doing our best with the resources that we have and knowing when we have done all that we can. They are never about demeaning ourselves or accepting bad behavior. The wise person can walk the fine line of each idea while still being mentally and morally healthy.


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