I read this today on a sign indicating appropriate behavior while in the hallway at my son’s elementary school. When I read it the first time, it made sense to me. I’m sure that I was trained in the same way and have probably seen this message infinite times in my own elementary school and other institutional experiences and beyond. But, the more I looked at the sign, the less I was sure of what it meant. In my experience, this means, don’t make noise when you walk in the hall. But, how do I know this? Walk silently actually means something very different depending on the context.
There are other messages on other signs. One of those messages is that students should “Keep their unkind words to themselves.” Again, upon initial reading, I immediately knew what this meant. It means that I shouldn’t call anyone a Poopy Head, you know, at least to their face. But, again, the more I saw this message, the less I was sure of what this really meant.
I was even less sure of what it meant when I happened to walk by the lunch room on my way to my son’s classroom and heard a lunch aid yelling at a student who had walked up to her and asked for help because their hands were full of too much hand sanitizer. She said, “You took too much soap. Don’t you have soap in your house?” Seems that someone hasn’t been reading the signs in the hall! First of all, it wasn’t soap, it was foaming hand sanitizer. Second of all, it is not beyond my imagination that this child had never used a dispenser for foaming hand sanitizer before. Third of all, the implication that perhaps this child did not maintain hygiene at home and therefore was ignorant on how to use the sanitizer at school wasn’t very kind.
So, on the third day of school, this poor child was berated for having too much hand sanitizer on his hands. I wanted to walk loudly (if you can walk silently, you can also walk loudly!) right into the lunch room with a paper towel and help that child remove the hand sanitizer. Then, I wanted to use some of the hundreds of unkind words that had immediately come to mind when I watched that Pittsburgh Public School employee talk with complete lack of respect or empathy to that dear child.
What I know is that you can put up all the signs in the world, but the best way to lead these children will be by example. We must show them that compassion is possible and makes the world a better place to live for everyone. It feels really good to be compassionate and express empathy and kindness to one another. We can learn to be loud in our silence and have so many kind thoughts that there is little room for the unkind words.
In our yoga practice on the mat, we first learn awareness. The first time that we sit on our mat and wait for class to begin, we become aware of the hundreds of thoughts, ideas and feelings that travel across our mind in a single moment. Some of those thoughts are unkind and we may, at the end of a long day, have myriad unkind words for our family members and colleagues. But, our practice shows us that it isn’t a sign that should keep us from expressing these unkind words. Our practice brings us to a space where we notice that our thoughts and feelings are constantly in flux. Our unkind words in this moment are no more or less true than the kind words that we might have for the very same person on a different day or in different circumstances. As a matter of fact, after calming the body and mind in a yoga class, we might find that all the unkind words are gone anyway as the intensity of the passion of experience has faded.
What I wish for this lunch aid and all the children and teachers and administrators in my son’s school is awareness. Awareness that they live and work in community. Awareness that their feelings and experiences are important, but always changing and shifting. Awareness that we all make choices in how we express ourselves and that these choices impact other people.
On your mat, the next time that you practice, soften your face and tongue. Relax the muscles behind your eyes and soften your inner ears. Feel the expressed and unexpressed unkind words you carry within you. Free yourself slowly by breathing into the unkind spaces and exhaling the unkind. Let you body relax and watch the breath as you free yourself slowly of unkind words. As you practice, catch yourself if you start to think anything but the kindest thoughts about yourself. Forgive yourself for all the times you used too much soap, forgot to sort the laundry, used the wrong color pen, took the subway in the wrong direction and wore different socks. Once you feel better, offer some forgiveness to everyone else.
Tonight, in my practice, I’m going to forgive the lunch aid. It’s a start.