I saw him bent down in the hallway sweeping sheet music into a pile. There was a young girl beside him hastily shoving the pieces of her flute back into the case. A teacher reminded them that the bell was about to ring, and the two of them dashed into a nearby classroom.
The boy was one that I knew to be a little “busy.” He was animated in class, and it was sometimes tough to keep him focused. I presumed that maybe he had bumped into the girl, caused her to drop her band materials and then stopped to help her recover them. I headed into my own classroom-for-a-day, making a mental note to find him later.
When I did find him, I asked what motivated him to help the girl pick up her music. “She’s my friend. Her stuff fell. She was going to be late.” His answer was nonchalant, as though what he did was a no-brainer of sorts. And that made me happy.
Because it seems as though character doesn’t play much of a role in our curriculum anymore. We don’t formally teach integrity, service or ethics to our students the way we once did. I’m not suggesting that teachers don’t incorporate these lessons into their daily interactions with kids, because I know that many of them do. Simply that it is incumbent upon the teacher to make the connection, because it often isn’t a formal part of the curriculum.
We seem to have relegated the formal teaching of morals and ethics to our churches. Any internet search of “moral lessons” or “ethical anecdotes” ends in a litany of church ministry sites designed to assist Sunday School teachers or youth group leaders.
It seems we have bought into the idea that all of life is a grey area, and that there is no clearly defined right or wrong. That teaching kids moral absolutes is judgmental and wrong somehow. And while that may be true in some cases, it robs us of the opportunity to teach our children important lessons in life. In this case, that it’s never wrong to help someone who needs it.
It is true that life is messy, and that it can be difficult to make blanket statements about what is always right or always wrong. But we shouldn’t trouble ourselves with all the grey area. Instead, we should demonstrate what right looks like by lending our own effort to someone else. If the kids in our lives miss an opportunity to pitch in, we can coach them so they’ll recognize it the next time.
Mostly, though, we should commend those kids when they get it right. Because recognition for making good choices is the best impetus for them to continue doing it.
I told the kid from the hallway that he had done a great thing. I thanked him for helping her, and told him to keep up the good work.
When I saw him again a few days later, I was trying to coax his classmates out of the gym toward their next class. He was the last to leave the gym and I reminded him that the bell was about to ring. “I know,” he said. “See? I’m helping again.”
I thanked him and encouraged him to keep up the good work, and I realized in that moment that positive reinforcement is a powerful tool in the hands of adults. If we take the time to catch kids doing the right thing, and recognize their efforts, they’ll continue doing the right thing. Then other kids will see it, and they’ll strive to do the same.
As he was leaving the gym, one of his friends witnessed our exchange and asked what his friend had done that was so great. I told him the story and watched him walk into the gym. On his way to the locker room, he picked up a stray duffel bag that was in the middle of the court and put it on the shelf where it belonged. “Here’s my contribution,” he called to me.
Like shooting fish in a barrel.