One evening, a grandfather told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one that you feed.” – From The Tale of Two Wolves
On December 12, 2014, Avielle Richman was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School along with 19 other young children. Avielle’s death hit me hard because she reminded me of my own daughter – the same age and curious eyes, loving nature, kind heart, and friendly spirit. Over the past 15 years, I have taught thousands of students and I will admit, there are few of whom I have found myself truly afraid. They would put their hands in their backpacks and I would think, “This is it. Today we die.” Luckily, that never happened.
Like many mothers, after Sandy Hook I had a difficult conversation with my own children who asked why someone would murder kindergarteners? My nine-year-old son said that whenever he was bullied in school, he would get angry and feel like lashing out, but then someone would be kind to him, and the feeling would go away. My daughter then asked, “What if people had always been kind to the shooter every single day? Maybe he wouldn’t have done it.”
Naïve as it may have been, when I returned to school, my daughter’s comment led me to devise a plan. I would give envelopes to my high school juniors, assigning them to specific acts of kindness in exchange for a prize. At my students’ suggestion, we agreed that we all had to draw an assignment every week, including me, without expectation of a reward. We brainstormed a list of random acts of kindness that could happen at school and didn’t cost any money. My students acknowledged the risk it took to perform these random acts – they didn’t want to stick out from their peers – so we gave each other Secret Kindness Agent names (mine is Agent Mama Beast) and kept the acts anonymous. Every week, we had a ceremony where I would play some cheesy song while each Agent came up to draw their assignment. We wrote an oath and acknowledged the risks and at the end of the week we would reflect on what happened, how we felt before, and how we felt after we did our assignments. Perhaps it comes as no surprise, not only did I see the culture of our school change, but I also saw the change within my students.
When I came across the Cherokee fable, The Tale of Two Wolves, I brought it to class. I asked my students if they had ever been bullied and every hand in the room went up. I then asked if anyone had been the bully and again, every hand went up, perhaps a little less eagerly. We realized that the idea that there are “good” or “bad” people in the world was a myth. As the grandfather says, both wolves dwell within us.
Through the Secret Kindness Agents, our good wolves were gaining on our evil wolves. With time now spent acknowledging the bad wolf and feeding the good wolves, I find that when a student reaches into their bag, rather than a gun, I expect a poem, a card, or some other random act of kindness.
Ferial Pearson is an Instructor in the Teacher Education Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She started the Secret Kindness Agent Project with students at Ralston High School where she served as a Talent Advisor for the Avenue Scholars Foundation. She has since helped over 30 other communities start kindness projects, wrote a book and started a Facebook Page with the students. This week the Kennedy Center honored her as one of the winners of the Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award.