In the array of contemporary lawn signs found in my neighborhood, one presents a list of statements under the line: “We Believe:” The list include convictions I ardently share, including “Black Lives Matter,” “Science is Real,” and “Love is Love.” It ends with one I question: “Kindness is everything.” Every time I see one of these signs, I have a sense that this conclusion undermines the preceding statement. Kindness is not policy; kindness is not speaking truth to power; kindness is not setting boundaries; kindness is not risking greatly in furtherance of love or truth. These things can be done with kindness, but kindness they are not. Kindness is not structural.
Yet doing some digging, I find the origins of the word “kind” in the word “kin:” kind as in “class, sort, or variety; innate character; nature.” From this we get, “What kind of ice cream is it?” “And, are they our kind?” So to be kind meant “with the feeling of relatives for each other.” Hmmm. (In my experience, and I imagine that of yours, that gets pretty complicated!) And of course to draw the line around relatives means to set a boundary between family and stranger.
If this word history holds any indication of the way forward, it must be that kindness is in essence unselective, drawing from a wellspring of regard for the family of all living things. If kindness means to accept the challenge to center our lives in universal humanity and regard for living earth, it will be a robust, conflict-centered, tough, radical kindness. It will enjoin us to understand and change structures that inhibit it and to realize those that help it grow.
This is a challenge where life in classrooms is concerned — in a pandemic, of course, and at other times, too. Such kindness is not necessarily sweet, and is perhaps more impersonal than what the lawn sign seems at first to convey. Nonviolent at base, this kindness might not always make individuals feel safe or special. And sometimes individuals need to feel safe and special. Teachers and other human service workers need to be responsive to these needs and to tune into them more when trauma is in play, as now, and at the same time cast a wider net.
As teachers, in preparing to establish norms for classroom interactions with our students, it is important to distinguish between norms designed to help students acknowledge their own and each other’s needs and those designed to nurture a more transpersonal practice of kindness as universal regard. This might be the difference between a norm that asks students to “listen to understand” and one that asks them to “speak to be understood.” But beyond specific examples, it means questioning how norms, if not centered in radical kindness, can function incorrectly to suggest to students that the goal is to be nice — not to learn science, love, or the history that necessitates the affirmation that Black lives matter. The word “nice” originally meant silly or senseless — ignorant, as in “not-science.” Kindness may be everything, but being nice can reinforce separation, keeping people from being real, and alive, to one another.