Finding Compassion in the Children’s Library

Kid's BooksSunday morning at our spiritual community, a dear woman named Cindy shared a story—an adventure, really. She started by telling how she and her husband Don wanted to see the endangered mountain gorillas in Uganda. She showed PowerPoint slides and described the arduous and somewhat humorous hike to the beautiful animals.

Then she told how they also visited a local school. The accompanying slide pictured a tiny rough brick building with a hard floor, no desks and no electricity. On the classroom floor sat smiling, beautiful black children. The children and the teacher were thrilled to show Cindy their school. Cindy said that she was so affected by the sharp disparity between that school and our local schools, all she could do was cry. As I watched and listened, my throat grew tight and my eyes blurred.

It seems that in recent years, I have had more occasions to feel choked up. It happened to me several months ago when my wife called me to come and see the Ellen Show. Ellen had arranged a gift of $500,000 (including building materials and technology upgrades) to a Detroit school with few supplies, a terrible building, and no money. On the TV screen I watched the thrilled response of the kids and the teachers as the gift was announced. I was excited to see what was happening for these kids and I wanted to tell my wife how wonderful this gift was but my throat was so tight I couldn’t speak.

I blame my response to these stories on the time I spend in a school with mostly black students in a declining city not far from where I live—Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary. A couple of years ago I started volunteering in the grade school library. The library had been established there just a few years earlier completely by volunteers. I knew nothing about children’s books, how a library works or whether I would be of much use. But I have found it pretty easy to help kids check out books and to straighten books on the shelves. And it is great fun to occasionally read to the students. The kids are variously quiet or noisy, sweet or naughty, and always just kids—kids like mine were when they were little.

My first experience with the throat thing came after the third time I checked out a book for Rose. Rose is a small, beautiful mixed race girl of about eight. She is always very quiet. I am usually not observant of clothing, but I could see that Rose was wearing the same very dirty blue polo shirt (the school “uniform”) as she had the week before and the week before that. In my mind, I imagined a fatherless home and a mother too exhausted to keep up with things like laundry. Or I imagined Rose living with a grandmother while her father was in jail. Of course I had no clue as to Rose’s actual situation. She may have lived with a very loving family, and her shirt could have been some odd exception to that care.

I was fine helping this little lady at the time, but later when I told my wife of the experience, I squeezed back tears, and I fought a tightness in my throat to get the words out.

Just as I knew little about Rose,  I knew next to nothing about the other children, their families, their grades, or their deepest feelings. On the one hand, it seemed obvious to me that they were just like any kids. Among other things, that meant they were full of potential—delicate, raw, beautiful  potential.

Something else seemed obvious too. It was easy to see that the education these children were receiving was far inferior to the education my own children had received. I knew that on average, children at this school read at least two grades below their level. And I knew that only a small percentage would ever graduate from high school.

I suppose all this actual knowledge and guessed at knowledge is inside me and is the cause for this malady, this tearing up and hurting in my throat—as if I am an emotional old man who feels like crying for nothing.

But it is not for nothing. I have decided that this is what the discovery of compassion feels like. You feel kind of dumb and out of control. You also feel changed somewhere inside.

And best part is that I found it is simple to make that choked up feeling go away—I replace the kids on the TV screen or in my head by getting in front of real kids. Every Tuesday morning I check out books for the kids, or I straighten the book shelves, or I read a story to them. I can’t be sure how much I have benefited them. They do seem to appreciate my assistance, my reading, and my simply being there. But I know this—this simple work has benefited me. I have learned from them. I enjoy simply being with them. And I feel like a better person.

    Cindy and Don not only arranged for desks to be made for that tiny school. In another village, they worked to have an entire new school built in place of a nearly useless old one. You can listen to Cindy’s entertaining and inspiring story at my spiritual community’s web site.
The Ellen Show story had a more mixed ending. It turned out that some principals in the school system were taking bribes and of course lost their jobs. Lowes, the donor, is apparently following through with the generous gift. For more, see WZZM News.

If you haven’t felt compassion—in your heart, in your throat, in your eyes—wherever you experience deep feelings, I know a sure way to get the feeling. Just go help someone. Help adults who can’t drive. Help feed someone who is homeless. Help a friend who has a dying loved one. Help some kids who need your help.

Of course, many people already have great compassion. Perhaps you are one of them. Maybe you have given more generously of yourself than I can ever hope to give. In fact, it is through knowing people like you that I became a volunteer.

But if you have never had that feeling, how about reaching outside of your comfort zone? Sure, it’s good to help out with your kids’ soccer team or to help a friend with a project, but I mean put yourself in a place where there is some risk, where you don’t quite know what will happen. Where the need is sharply, maybe painfully apparent.

If you do, you may very well lose control of a deep part of yourself. You might even become achingly and embarrassingly emotional at times. The wonderful thing is that there is a perfect way to handle these feelings. Just get into action. You just might become a force in changing the world for the better. I am confident you will help change the world for at least a few people—and one will be yourself.

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Finding Compassion in the Children’s Library — 3 Comments

  1. Great story, Rod. Can’t count the number of times I drove home from work with tears in my eyes, or actually crying, at the injustices in our world. You are making a difference.

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