Op-Ed

Taking a kindness cue from kids

The election is finally over. Whether or not the candidate you supported came out victorious, I sincerely hope that we, as a nation, can move forward. Not only move forward, but heal.  Somehow become less divisive and more unified. And realize that our differences may not be as great as they seem.

This campaign was not only like no other in history, it also took a dramatic toll on many Americans’ mental health. In October, the American Psychological Association found in a survey that 52 percent of American adults found the election to be a “very” or “somewhat significant” source of stress. Adding to the stress, the survey found, was social media. Arguments, stories, video, comments, and images on social media that ranged from factual to hostile to inflammatory heightened people’s concerns and frustrations. A common theme emerged around the country — therapists reported that their patients felt more worried and less safe.

As a middle grade author, I couldn’t help thinking throughout the campaign: what about our kids? What are they hearing, seeing, and taking in? How is it affecting them? What are we showing them and teaching them, with our words and our behavior? What will they remember? And how will they act when they become adults…and voters?

I visit many schools and I honestly can’t think of one that didn’t have some type of kindness effort in place. Jars in classrooms to write a “put up” or “shout out” about a classmate. A wall of kids’ names who were observed doing random acts of kindness. A mural where kids wrote their wishes for a better world. Kindness Week. “It’s Cool to Be Kind.” The Great RAK Challenge. Kind words in chalk on a playground sidewalk or adorning posters in hallways. The message is clear in schools: Be kind, act kind, do kind things. This is the KIND of person you should be.

marian-hs-omaha-ne I even recently read about a girl who designed an app for use in a school cafeteria so everyone could find a seat at lunch and no one would have to sit alone.

Amazing, right?

When I observe these efforts at schools and see how they impact kids, I’m always blown away by the positive and hopeful messages. And I can’t help thinking that many adults need to take a cue from kids, and schools, for that matter.

michigan-girl-scouts-7-ypsilanti-eventSeems to me like there’s a really confusing dichotomy. Kids are taught to be kind and helpful and never to bully or tease. Then the exact opposite behavior is displayed by some (not all) people during the campaign — insults swapped back and forth, raging arguments on social media, fights during rallies. It got ugly. And sad. How could kids possibly make sense of this? They couldn’t. No one could.

That’s why I hope we can move forward from this moment and be better. Be kinder to each other. Listen more, talk less. Certainly argue less. Next time you’re in a school, read some of those kindness walls and posters. If our kids grow up with these messages ingrained in their heads, we’ll have nowhere to go but up.

And on a personal note, because I live in Chicago, I’ll add my tearful joy to the chorus of my city on the Cubs World Series win. They brought a ray of optimism to a year when many of us couldn’t find a lot to be joyful about. The grittiness and “never give up” attitude was a balm to heal our nation’s soul. Go Cubs!

gty-world-series-game7-end-25-jrl-161102_16x9_992Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days (Penguin Random House) and Calli Be Gold (Penguin Random House). She has a new middle grade novel coming fall 2017 from Aladdin Books. Connect with her online at micheleweberhurwitz.com.

 

 

 

A look back, a thank you & a goodbye (for now!)…

Mixed-Up Files friends!

Hard to believe, but I’ve been here blogging with the wonderful folks at the MUFs as one of the original members for more than six years now. Yes, six years! A lot has happened during that time — I moved overseas and back (yay military life!), watched my kids go from little to not-so-little (*sniff!*), and went from being an unpublished, aspiring author to someone with almost a dozen books out in the world. It’s been quite a ride so far!

But, as I’ve learned in the last year with the publication of my debut YA novel, there’s an awful lot of work that happens after your book hits the shelves. (You know, once you’ve collected yourself from the floor after spotting that thing you wrote in the Barnes & Noble… ). I’ve been busy doing book signings, conferences, school visits, festivals… (No complaints, though! I absolutely love getting out and meeting readers!)

Of course, I still need to write… :). So, for that reason, I’ll be taking a break from blogging here. But before I go, I’d like to share my journey to becoming a published author. It’s a question I get a lot when I speak to groups. It’s a bit personal and a bit long — but I hope you’ll stick with me until the end.

I guess you could say, like most authors, I’d always dreamed of being a writer… someday. I wrote a lot as a kid, studied literature in college, went on to be a journalist, etc. And there was always that little voice in my head creating stories, nudging me to write. But the truth of the matter is, the thought of actually sitting down and writing a book, of putting myself out there open to criticism — well, it terrified me.

(Besides, life has a funny habit of getting in the way. New jobs, marriage, first kids… I’d always quiet that little voice by telling myself I could write that book later — when I was older/wiser/less busy/not afraid. I’d get to it someday.)

Then, my dad unexpectedly got sick.

It was ten years ago. I was a new mom with a young son when out of nowhere my dad fell ill. One day, he was vibrant, healthy, active; the next, he was struggling to breath, suffering from something called “idiopathic constrictive bronchiolitis.” Which, was basically a fancy medical way of saying the small airways in his lungs had become irreversibly inflamed, making it impossible to exhale — and nobody knew why.

It was progressive. It was debilitating. And there was no cure.

With my brother and my dad, my hero.

With my brother and my dad, my hero.

At the time, I lived outside DC, my dad lived in Vermont. I traveled to see him as much as possible, taking him to consult with doctors and specialists — always hopeful they’d find some way to help. Various experimental medications were tried, some with side effects that seemed worse than the disease. Swelling. Fatigue. Brittle bones. Physical therapy didn’t help. The only hope was a lung transplant, but he was ultimately deemed to sick to survive the surgery.

In the meantime, my brother was in the middle of his own someday — visiting our dad as much as possible while finishing his medical fellowship in upstate New York, and getting ready to come home to Vermont and get married.

We all kept hoping for a miracle. That Dad would get better. But as his health grew progressively worse, Dad became focused on just one goal: to get to his son’s wedding.

June came, my brother’s wedding weekend rolled around. It was a semi-destination type event at a resort on Lake Champlain in Vermont — the quaint sort of place with paddle boats, no televisions, no cell phone signal. My dad arrived, confined to a wheelchair, tethered to an oxygen tank. There were hairline fractures in his back, side effects of the heavy steroids that kept him breathing. But he was still optimistic, still smiling, still fixed on his goal. He bowed out of the rehearsal dinner that night — the one he’d paid for and helped plan — to save his energy for the big day.

He was going to make it to that wedding.

The morning of the ceremony, a huge storm blew across the lake — the type that topples trees and downs power lines. It would later seem incredibly symbolic that the oldest tree at the resort was uprooted that day. But at the time, we were all busy getting ready, hurrying to the church, having our pictures taken. A groomsman was charged with making sure my dad and stepmother got there safely.

But as the final guests arrived, my dad wasn’t among them. Time slowed to a crawl as we began to panic. There were several frantic calls to the resort, and to cell phones that went straight into voicemail because there was no service.

We all feared the worst.

Finally, we saw my dad’s car pull into the parking lot. I can’t even explain the relief that washed over me as the groomsmen rushed outside and wheeled him through the blustering wind and rain to the front door.

My dad had done it. He made it to the wedding.

And as he crossed the threshold, rolling safely inside, out of the storm — his head gently dropped to his chest.

And he took his last breath.

It was probably the most profound, sad, and life-changing moment I’ve ever experienced. In one instant, the lens through which I viewed the world shifted. It was the day I truly realized that time is finite, and I had to stop waiting for “someday.” It was the moment I realized I could be afraid, but I couldn’t let fear keep me from moving forward.

If my dad could make it to that church — if broken bones and oxygen tanks and wheelchairs couldn’t stop him — I could write a book.

So, I did. I wrote a book. And then I wrote another one. And then I wrote three more before finally landing an agent. That was eight years ago. And it took almost three years from then to land a deal with book packager Working Partners and see my first book published, and three more before my debut with Disney sold. It wasn’t easy.

But, if my dad could make it to that church — I could handle the rejection, the tough reviews, the waiting to hear on a submission.

I could make it to my own personal church.

And so can you. As I tell people during my speaking engagements — whatever your goal, wherever your church, whatever your destination, you can cross that threshold. You can make it.

Just don’t be afraid to take that first step.

So as I sign off here, I’d like to thank you for being part of my journey the last six years! It’s been a wonderful, inspiring ride so far. And, of course, I wish you all nothing but the best on your own travels through life!

(p.s. For those who are wondering, my brother did get married later that day, on the dance floor at what would have been the reception hall, circled by the guests holding hands, with my cousin singing Ave Maria a cappella. It was the most beautiful wedding I’ve ever attended, without a dry eye in the house, and I know Dad would be proud.)

Jan Gangsei won’t be blogging on the Mixed-Up Files anymore, but she’ll be hanging out in the comments every now and then, and you can find her at www.jangangsei.com, and on Facebook and Twitter. Someday, she might even post something on Instagram.

Disconnected

So I just returned from a family trip to northern Minnesota, where we spent a week on a lovely lake with no wi-fi, no internet connection and spotty cell coverage. As I sat back down at my computer for the first time in days, I was all ready to write a haha-insightful post about the joy (or sheer horror, if you asked my teenaged son), of being cut off from most of the outside world in a log cabin with no television, a malfunctioning toilet, bloodthirsty mosquitos and the world’s lumpiest sofa/bed.

Then, I read the news.

A man shot during a traffic stop. A black man. A human being, who by all accounts was a good man, hardworking and kind, loved by the schoolchildren he worked with for more than a decade, dead on the side of the road.

My heart sank. Philando Castile was killed in a town I’d just passed through the day before with my own children in the back seat of my car. Suddenly, the toilet that wouldn’t stay flushed seemed trivial and stupid. I wasn’t in the mood to crack jokes anymore. I felt saddened. And sorry. And truth be told–helpless and guilty.

Because here’s the thing–as I blissfully drove through St. Paul, it never occurred to me that I could be pulled over and shot. Heck, I’ve been pulled over–twice when I was in my twenties–for having a tail light out, just like Castile’s alleged infraction. Both times, the police officer changed the light for me. I never felt threatened. I was never perceived as a threat.

That, I now understand, was a luxury I enjoyed as a young, white woman.

Now, let me just pause and say–being a police officer is not an easy job. It’s often dangerous and difficult, and I have great respect–and am thankful–for those who protect and serve, and do it well. I am married to a federal law enforcement professional, have worked with several police officers as a newspaper reporter, and count many as friends. I would trust any of them with my life. I truly believe that the vast majority of people who enter law enforcement fields do so because they want to uphold the law. [ETA: And as I got ready to close my computer down this evening, I saw the news coming out of Dallas about the officers shot at a rally and my heart has sunk even further.]

But, I’m also aware that we have a problem in this country. Somehow, we seem to have become more trigger-happy, more polarized and opinionated (two minutes scrolling the comments section on any news site is enough to confirm that). I guest it’s easier to spew hate and fear when hiding behind a keyboard. And it’s easier to pull the trigger when you don’t see the humanity of the person in front of you.

I started this post wishing I had answers, wishing people could be good and kind to each other. That we weren’t all so disconnected in so many ways. That maybe if we stepped away from our computers, the 24/7 news cycle, our preconceived notions– if we set down the guns–maybe we could actually connect and see each other’s humanity.

I guess that’s why this tweet from wonderful middle-grade author Kate Messner really resonated with me today:

I agree, Kate.

And I will do my best–as an author and a mother and a human being–to speak out against injustice. To listen–really listen–to what it’s like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. To raise my children to do the same.

And I will keep hoping, as well.