Columnist Ashlee Staerk argues that we need to return to the fundamental kindness of first graders. 

It seems silly to say this, but I feel like my heart is still stuck in first grade. I’m a reflective, introspective person, so I’m always thinking about my past, upbringing, and childhood. My mom is a first-grade teacher, which has led to many conversations about that age group and what I still remember from being there myself.

Life goes on, but for a lot of people, not all the fundamental truths you learn do, too. 

As I think about the state of affairs unfolding, there’s a world of possibility for things to have opinions about, and as I thought about where I could jump in, ultimately there’s something more critical that people need to relearn before we go on asserting our beliefs, and it’s very simple — you learn it even before you get to first grade: be a kindhearted human being.

In the wake of current events, it makes me sick to see how some people can so pridefully and menacingly assert their beliefs they hold so strongly because they claim it’s human rights they are arguing for, yet when it comes to stating their convictions, being mean and rude to the people not in agreement goes out the window. How can you claim you’re for human rights and the good of people’s wellbeing if you can’t respect and be kind to the humans right in front of you? 

The truth is that what you stand for in the little things, the everyday encounters with people who cross your path and how you treat them, defines way more about you as a person than your beliefs will. If you’re handling yourself right, your kindness and love will only give your beliefs more authority and credibility. I know some people want to make the excuse that others have such “extreme” or “harmful” views that they are simply not deserving of kindness or respect, but that is a flat out lie, and when you throw those basic values for how you come into contact with any human being out the window just based on your view of what is right, there is no limit as to what kind of evil you can justify in the name supposed morality. It doesn’t work that way.

If you want to stand for the good of others, you must be a good, loving person, even to people radically different from you, even those who don’t deserve any respect or kindness. Give it anyway. 

The problem we have in this society is that people love to gain their power and authority through dominance and being right. The freedom and ultimate victory, though, is in not feeling the need to belittle others to the ground for their beliefs to make yourself seem like the hero protecting everyone else. True heroes don’t care about their recognition; they don’t need to defend themselves because they already hold the power in knowing their convictions that don’t rely on the rest of the world agreeing with them. They are well-rounded souls who don’t have to compromise any of their beliefs to still be kind to everyone else and vice versa.

My mom and I have talked over the years about the basic kindness lessons you learn in kindergarten and up and how shameful it is that so many adults behave in downright mean, narcissistic ways and set terrible examples for generations to come. That’s why my heart is still stuck. Because when I was in first grade, I naively believed those lessons. I adopted them personally, and I believed everyone else in the world would do the same.

I’m a very opinionated, passionate person. I have had deep religious, political and moral convictions since I was in first grade. For a while, I was a typical egotistical child who believed I could only defend my beliefs by being right and making sure the other person knew it.

As I grew up, I realized there is so much more power in being gentle, kind, slow to speak and patient in listening — none of which required me to “loosen up” in any way on my beliefs. No, they’ve only been further solidified, developed and made more precious to me over the years. I just decided that I’m not going to be known for being mean. I’m going to be strong; I’m going to be bold, and at the heart of that is being kind.

Being strong doesn’t mean backing people into corners — insecurity and weakness does that. True strength is gentle and patient because the strength is in the loyalty and commitment to your values that can stand on their own, even if people refuse to understand them. Being bold doesn’t mean bullying people until they accept an agenda — insecurity and weakness does that. True boldness is loving and steadfast because the power is in the self-control you exercise over your emotions and the grace you still display to others.

The reason we can’t begin to fix any of the issues in our world is because we can’t even treat each other like human beings worthy of kindness just for existing. I want to be the person who is kind to people for no reason and even when I’ve been given every reason not to be kind to someone because you can’t take the values and convictions away from someone like that. They know who they are despite what anyone else can say or do. The first thing you’re taught about morality is to be kind — the other, more complicated issues are to be handled with that foundation.

I’m not encouraging anyone to let go of their convictions — I will never let go of mine. What I am saying is that while we need to keep the minds of convicted, concerned adults, we absolutely must resuscitate the hearts of kind, tenderhearted first graders. 

If you want to change the world, keep your boldness, keep your convictions, and especially keep your kindness.

ashlee staerk profile picture

Ashlee Staerk is a sophomore in advertising. 

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