Who would you rather spend time with—someone who’s right, or someone who’s kind?
Being right and being kind aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. But through school and career, it’s easy to focus on being the best you can be in your classes and at your job and, sometimes, to overlook or minimize being kind. It’s also easy to zero in on being right, especially if you’re in a highly competitive field, such as litigation. You can rationalize unkindness when you’re surrounded by others who encourage it, when you feel that someone isn’t treating you well, or when you think someone is wrong and isn’t recognizing your (or your client’s) essential Rightness.
I have some great friends who have taught me about the value of kindness. Pat Downs is one of those friends.
Pat’s a high school friend who’s now a principal librarian for the San Diego County public library. Last year, she told the story of her life, including some profound thoughts on reading, storytelling, and kindness, in a speech to college-bound foster youths. I’m delighted that she’s allowing me to post an edited version here.
Those of you who know me understand even through the hardships, I’ve had a pretty charmed journey. My favorite sentiment, from Jean Paton’s “Cry, the Beloved Country,” remains, “God has put his hand on me.” And so He has. This is part of my attempt to give back.
‘I was asked to speak today because like you, I am a foster kid. I was born to illiterate parents, one of 10 children, in the hollers of Kentucky, just a mile from where Abraham Lincoln was born.
‘When I was four, my family moved to Illinois. My father was a sharecropper, worked other people’s land for a part of the harvest and very little wage. We were desperately poor.
‘But much worse than the poverty was the fact that my parents abused us in every way imaginable. My father was ultimately imprisoned. My mother was probably spared prosecution because she was never quite right mentally.
‘My siblings and I were eventually all displaced and separated. For some years I lived in what was called a children’s home. When I was sixteen, I became the first foster child in my county. The president of the children’s home wanted to promote fostering—something that was just not done in our rural community. So he basically interviewed dozens of kids from the home and decided on me. Fortunately, I didn’t know why I was chosen. He told me many years later that he thought I would be a good role model for his four younger children.
‘I don’t know about that, but I did go on to get a great education. And because of that great education, I have had a wonderful, fulfilling career.
‘People have sometimes asked me who my mentors were, who my role models were. I have a hard time pinpointing consistent role models; maybe you do, too. It’s kind of the transient nature of the foster system. But I like to recall something I shared with the first group of volunteers I trained to go into homeless shelters and read with kids. I was trying to get them to remember their first experiences being read with—who read with them, what did they read, how did it make them feel?
‘Inevitably, people shared heartwarming stories of sweet family memories. I wanted to share my story, but of course it was different from the rest.
‘This is what I remember: We lived way out in the country and the school bus came out to pick us all up. We were the poor family in the ramshackle house you could see from the road—very embarrassing.
‘I was maybe five or six, a knobbly-kneed stringy haired little kid who climbed on board an already packed school bus. She was a high school girl who always sat on the end of the seat near the back of the bus. Like usual, no one moved over so I could sit with them.
‘But one day, all of a sudden, she scootched over. I sat down. And so it was, every day after that. The high school kids were always picked up first, so the bus was half-packed by the time it came to pick up the little kids. And there she was, always on the end of the seat until she saw me, and then she moved over to make room for me.
‘I have no memory of ever talking with her. I have no idea what her name was. But you see, she made a place for me. She treated me with kindness—something I didn’t experience much. She recognized me as an individual, she treated me with respect.
‘So why did I share this memory with my volunteers? Because every day, all the way to and from school on the bus, she read to herself. As a little kid, this is the one memory I have of someone reading in my presence. From an early age, that’s what I knew: people who read are kind and gentle and caring. And I wanted to be just like her. That’s how powerful that memory is for me. She was my role model, and she will never know it. I wanted to show my volunteers that they can have that kind of impact on a child as well.
‘For you, I share the story because it illustrates what’s helped me throughout my life. I took the good and left the rest. Most of my world treated me like a throwaway child. What sustained me then, as a young girl, was that one person treated me with respect.
‘In your life you’ll find people who disregard or disrespect you. Don’t spend your energy on them. That will help you find the many positive people who might be mentors or role models. But remember: these people are just that, people. Human beings who have their own challenges. My heartfelt advice to you is to take the good you find along the way, and leave the rest. You only have so much energy. Focus on the good.
‘The next bit of unorthodox advice I want to share I learned from an inmate at an insane asylum. I am a fan of classic films. In the film “Harvey,” Jimmy Stewart befriends a six-foot invisible rabbit. And, of course, Jimmy’s considered a bit of a mental case. The other characters spend most of the film trying to get him committed, but along the way he shares some uncommon wisdom of his own. Quoting his mother, she said, “Son, in this world, you have to be oh-so-smart or oh-so-pleasant.” His response: “Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”
‘Students, I recommend pleasant as well. Smart sometimes isn’t in your control—we all have our strengths and weaknesses academically—so smart isn’t always an option. But we can always be kind. How we respond to circumstances is a choice. When the world seems to be telling us to get even, to “represent,” if you can just consistently choose to respond with kindness, you will see that with kindness you will always be building bridges. Answer negativity with kindness and you will always be on the winning side. Kindness is contagious and yes, a sign of true strength. When challenged, only the strong answer with kindness.
‘Choose to be kind and people won’t mind so much that you might actually have the better idea. Kindness is the currency of a civilized culture. It opens doors, it soothes hurt feelings, it changes hearts. Choose to be kind and good will come to you even in the darkest hours.
‘Students, congratulations for making it to this point. You are true survivors. You are exactly where you are supposed to be. You deserve these opportunities.
‘Today you are seeing your destiny. Go forth and fail just as much as you need to. Be kind. Listen deeply. Forgive yourselves and take all the good the world will offer you. Grab onto this lifeline. You can do and be all that you ever dared dream. God bless you. Now, go get your education.’
“Pat’s Story” copyright (c) 2010 Pat Downs. All rights reserved.