I am human: practicing empathy

Each school year, I visit each classroom to introduce, or reintroduce myself to every student. As an administrator, I rarely miss the classroom, but I do miss the personal bond you develop spending 5-7 hours a day with a child. As the administrator who mainly sees children after things have gone wrong, I find it helpful to connect early in the year in a positive way. I choose a picture book that bridges the work we might do and also gives them a glimpse into my favorite books.

This year I chose I am Human: A Book of Empathy. It is the third in a series by Susan Verde and illustrator Peter H. Reynolds (a personal favorite). The story highlights various things that make us human, from curiosity to fear, excitement to imperfection. It also reminds us that “because I am human, I can make choices.” “I can make a poor choice a better choice with thoughtfulness. I can turn a bad day into a great day with kindness.”

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I had the opportunity to practice making a good choice in a bad situation the other night.

Going back a few years . . .

About 10 years ago, I was making a right handed turn and yielded to oncoming traffic only to be rear ended. Being on the taller side, my head had hit the frame of as I looked for oncoming traffic. It made the situation more frustrating than just a hard tap on the back of my car. My immediate reaction was anger.

As I rubbed my head and built up my anger, I heard a tap on my window. I looked out to see the kindly face of a septuagenarian priest earnestly asking if I was okay. Needless to say, my anger subsided quickly. I opened the door, told him I was fine and we walked to the back of my car, observing the obvious lack of damage together. He gave me his phone number in case I noticed anything else and we both went our separate ways.

Looking back, the anger I initially felt appears clearly to me as a choice. There was a moment between rubbing my head and thinking what to do next when I decided that anger was the emotion I would start with, placing my frustration in the hands of the wreckless, careless, probably terrible person behind me. I was, and still am glad that this man knocked me to my senses.

A few nights ago . . .

I made a last minute decision to attend an event and left my house quickly to try to get there on time. As I drove through a green light, another driver crept out to make a right on red and just kept going. With cars in the other lane, I couldn’t avoid him and we collided. Fortunately, I stayed relatively straight, avoided the cars in the opposite lane and we pulled off safely to the side of the road. I felt a different level of anger this time – the mistake was so obviously his and avoidable from my perspective.

I sat in my car for a little while, taking a lot of deep breaths. The other driver wasn’t getting out of his car either. I reminded myself that I was fine, my car would be fine, and my health was the most important thing. I gathered myself until I was ready to walk calmly back and ask the other driver if they were okay. An older man was in the car alone and told me he was okay, before asking me the same question. We both seeemed genuinely thankful that we were okay and that the accident hadn’t turned out much worse for both of us.

A volunteer fireman who had witnessed the accident came over soon after to check in and offer some advice. We exchanged info before entering the awkward wait for the officer to arrive. At first it was the basic forced small talk about where we lived, the weather, and hoping we weren’t inconveniencing each other too much. As time went on, we learned that the volunteer firefighter had served for 45 years, 26 as president, and a little about his family. He soon went on his way, leaving just me and the guy responsible for the accident.

What started as a conversation of how long the older man had lived at his house (right across the street) turned into something much more interesting. I found out he was born in Switzerland and fought in World War II, before studying chemistry at college and moving to the United States for a job. He went back to school and met his wife, then moved to his house in Delaware, in which he has lived for the last 60 years. I wish we hadn’t met in those circumstances. But I also wish it hadn’t started raining, which sent us to our cars, and interrupted his story about spotting German and US planes for the Swiss army – he was starting to explain the mathematics behind calculating the distances based on the known measurements of the planes, which I imagine was really challenging in the short amount of time needed to report the information.

Maybe we were able to connect because no one was injured. Maybe it was because there was no dispute over who was at fault. Maybe it was because neither of us was in a rush to go anywhere. Maybe it was because no one else was in our cars, which would have added probable injury and much more fear. I know there are a number of elements in this situation that made it easier for me to make a thoughtful choice than other accidents or situations.

I am human, a very lucky one at that. I got to make a choice that day that made me, and I hope the other person, feel better in a bad situation. I practiced many of the strategies that I emphasize with my students – take deep breaths, don’t say anything if you can’t say something helpful, and try to connect with people you don’t know.

I don’t believe this series of events was fated and I am not glad that it occurred. I only mentioned it to one person at work today (although now I’m writing about it to my countless followers). Maybe I’m just trying to make a bad situation better than it really was. At least I’m glad I practiced what I preach to my students – peace and empathy – and it worked in this case. A small light in the midst of a small challenge.

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