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Is That All?

Most of us celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends. Many of us might have traveled a significant distance to assure that this happy reunion could occur. The festivities were characterized with wonderful food, laughter, shared memories and a common posture of gratitude. School staff and students will return today from this mini-break in the academic routine satisfied by the warm feelings that Thanksgiving uniquely presents. I should say, most staff and students will come back to school with these happy thoughts. But, not all. Many children will not have experienced a loving reunification with loved ones. Many will not have even enjoyed a warm meal. Recent statistics suggest that this may be the reality for one out every eight American citizens. Tragic. This is a classic example of the "teachable moment."

Please recall my November 5 post titled "What Do They Need to Know?" I discussed the critical need to provide deliberate and reoccurring opportunities for students to acquire proficiency with what some label "soft skills." Regardless of the label applied, these are the skills identified by the World Trade Organization, business leaders, sociologists. economists and futurists. These are the the human skills that we historically have treated incidentally, but now must find their way into the heart of our learning organizations. Compassion. Empathy. Social awareness and responsibility. The holiday season is ripe with opportunities to allow students to explore and develop these skills. And, what I advocate goes well beyond "feel good" activities like coat drives or food collection.

The title of this piece proved to be the impetus of a teachable moment for my family many years ago. Imagine a living room transformed into a wrapping paper and ribbon war zone as our four kids gleefully participated in that Christmas morning ritual that is repeated in homes across the country. When they realized that the supply line of wrapped presents that the tree magically disgorged had come to an end, one of kids was heard to say "Is that all?" Perhaps said innocently, for my wife and I those three words clearly suggested a lack of appreciation, a lack of humility and a sense of entitlement. These three words could not just hang in the air unmet.

"Get dressed and get in the car" was the direction to the kids that gave my wife and I just enough time to improvise a plan. We grabbed a large basket and went to the only grocery outlet we could find open on Christmas Day. We filled that basket with every imaginable (or more accurately, available): fruit, sandwiches, crackers, nuts, cookies, bottled water. Whatever we could grab went into that basket. When it had found its capacity, and my wallet had found its limit, he drove the kids, and that basket, down into the inner city streets of our metropolitan center.

The streets of the city were eerily deserted, as all the shops and restaurants were closed for the holiday. Only a small, disorganized contingent of homeless people foraging for what they could find occupied that vast space. Once the oddity of our surroundings had settled in, we instructed the kids that their job was to decide who would become the recipient of our basket.

The kids took to the task with wide-eyed seriousness. As I drove the deserted streets, the kids conducted an impressive assessment of each possible beneficiary. After careful deliberation and evaluation, they identified a man who was exploring a trash dumpster. I pulled the car to the curb and approached the man, basket in hand, with four pairs of young eyes tracking every second of the experience. They saw that the man was caught off guard, and perhaps afraid, as this total stranger tried to convince him of his safety and our sincerity. They observed his initial reaction to flee. They watched the development of a quiet trust between strangers as he slowly, shyly took the basket from my hands.

I was pleased with the success of our mission, as the kids were talking over one another with expressions that ranged from relief, to pride and the emergence of understanding. I glanced up at the rear view mirror and observed a miracle that compelled me to, again, stop the car and to direct the kids to look out of the rear window. Rather than hoarding his treasure, "our" homeless man had summoned his compatriots to his side and was sharing his bounty with them. Our children saw, in unrehearsed real time, compassion, generosity, empathy . . . humanity in action.

Are the lessons they learned that day "soft skills?" Or are they life skills on how to share in our human experience in a way that is informed by respect, understanding and compassion.They learned that it is not safe to assume that everybody enjoyed a 'Happy Thanksgiving' and that they have both the power and the responsibility to carry that knowledge into their academic, professional and personal life.

Rather than responding to "is that all? with a lecture or admonishment, we seized the teachable moment and offered them the opportunity to answer their own question in a manner that was far more impactful, far more relevant, than anything my wife or I could have said. They learned some powerful and lasting lessons that afternoon; lessons based on a shared experience that they are still talking about 30+ year later.

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