My growing up in first and second grade was done in a small Midwestern town – Decatur, Ill. As I think back, it seems to me we kids had the modern psychologists figured out before our time.
We could tell you in two seconds flat which people in our block had the most “empathy,” and we didn’t even know there was such a word! There were lots of other things we could tell you right off, too, like which wealthy men in our town loved their money and which loved their families. We knew the spinster ladies who suffered from chronic self-pity and loneliness, and the ones who had rich, full lives, stretching the hours out like rubber bands to encompass church, the sick, the children of their neighborhood, their gardens.
We could rattle off the names of the good mothers and the not-so-good ones. We had our own rules for deciding. The good ones kissed a hurt away, planned picnics for the family, came away from scrubbing a floor to see the first robin or the first snowman of the season, went to the school play and smiled with their eyes as well as their mouths when you gave them a fresh-picked bunch of dandelions in the spring.
There were other things we knew, too – such as the screamers and the shouters. “Stay off the clean kitchen floor with those muddy shoes, you brats!” was Mrs. Jumpy. Her husband was, “Get off the lawn!” Mrs. Edgy was, “For goodness sake, stop all that noise!” We knew the quiet ones, too – the ones who smiled and said, “Maybe you children would like to take your muddy shoes off before you walk across the nice clean floor.” Or, “How about using the sidewalk, kids, and letting the lawn grow its quarter inch today?”
We knew every cookie jar owner in our part of town – and the kind of cookies in each jar. The cookie ladies were usually the same ones who noticed when we got new roller skates and who took the time to stand on the front porch and cheer us on our first wobbly trip around the block. They were the ones, too, who noticed new shoes or a missing tooth. When we ran into them at the grocery store, they often said to old Mrs. Jones, “And maybe you’ll find a lollipop or two for my little friends here.”
By the time we were in first grade, we knew the people we could talk to – the ones who understood when a new baby came or when Grandpa died or when Mom had to go to the hospital. They gave us lemonade in the summer and hot chocolate in the winter, and listened to our problems and told us cheerful, wonderful things that made us feel much better inside.
We kids knew the best teachers in our school, too. We wouldn’t have understood what “dedicated” meant, but we could point out the ones who smiled when they helped us on with our galoshes and the ones who let us make real, homemade Valentines in class instead of from a kit. They were the teachers who really liked our little school and who really liked us. We weren’t old enough to understand about the other kind – the ones who were marking time in our school on the way to a better salary, or on the way to the altar, or on the way to their next degree, or who had let circumstances sour their personalities. All we knew was that some teachers made us feel good and made the sun shine even on cloudy days.
I don’t suppose we could have understood then, even if we’d been told, that some people are born with a greater talent for caring, just the way some have a greater talent for art or music, while for others it is an asset that must be acquired.
Those who are born with it have a great gift to start with; and those who acquire it are blessed, too, in the very learning. Some learn after a tragedy, or after a period of deep self-appraisal that sets off an almost volcanic eruption. Such an eruption can release a dormant talent for really caring about others, an ability to want to understand them, to take a deep interest in their lives and future.
Today, I understand all these things – and I still don’t need the psychologists’ explanation. I know the people who care; and I still gravitate toward them the way I did back in the town of my first and second grade. I know just which people can give me a lift, can make my day brighter one, and can make me happier for just a few minutes in their company. Always it is the man or woman who knows the gentle art of caring.