I was recently asked to talk with 5th grade students who were struggling to practice empathy, maintain healthy friendship, and show resilience. The P2E crew is committed to empathy (walking in another’s shoes so to experience how they live, feel, and be) at the heart of all we do. So when I thought about being in my 5th grade shoes again, persistent memories of the past kept me awake at night. Sad memories. Eleven year-old me, ugh.
Fifth grade: the worst year of my 19 years in elementary, middle, high school, 4 years of college and 2 years of getting my master’s degree. Oh, there were tough times before and after 5th grade: acne, braces, studying, being benched, getting dumped, even some rebellion, but nothing compared to 5th grade in Mr. Howard’s class. Vivid scenes that as a school counselor, a mother, and the P2E founder, I didn’t want to replay or even admit happened. Rationalizing, I would say, “That was 25-years-ago, why would I share it?” However, one of the things that has bothered me in my research is that many, many people have reported being bullied yet very few admit to being the bully. How can we reverse these cycles if we don’t own our behavior? How can we expect kids to change aggression and violence if we don’t give them practical examples of those who have?
Courageous. It’s the respect word (respect word= a personal quality I respect about myself and others can respect about me) I chose for myself this past January. At the time it seemed like a strong representation of me, but in light of my 5th grade story I wanted to hide.
Fact: Empathy is much harder to live out than to teach.
This was an empathy opportunity for me: to bring up something painful for the benefit of another. I didn’t have to tell them the details, just relay that I had personally walked in their shoes. I could show them, not only was empathy something I taught, but if I had an experience in my story that could help them I would share it. So with a tender amount of courage I decided that keeping my 5th grade shoes to myself to appear perfect would render my message of empathy ineffective.
There were no VIP's in attendance other than the gracious hearts and faces of 11-year-old boys and girls struggling to take care of one another. In my time with them, I was able to say:
“In 5th grade I was a mean girl.”
“I didn’t hurt my friends with my fists, I hurt them with my words.”
“Because sad things were happening to me outside of school, I felt out of control in school.”
“I was mean to my friends because I was hurting on the inside.”
“The bully and the victim can be the same person, it just depends on the setting.”
They smiled. They clapped, and together we talked about how to be a good friend, what to do if they made mistakes, and how to show resilience if others were being unkind. I probably got more out of the experience than the kids did, but that’s the beauty of expressing empathy. Not only do you encourage, understand, and help others, empathy can shine light into dark places in your own life. If given the opportunity, would you let some light into a dark place for the benefit of someone else? As Martin Luther King Jr. said,
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
Telling your story to someone who needs to hear it is more tangible than giving them money, facts or flattery. But, I must warn you, this way of living can open you up to critique and judgement. However,
I believe it’s more important to appear human than perfect.
It’s worth the risk. So try it; don’t air your dirty laundry on Facebook, but look for opportunities to help people whose shoes you have walked in. Hearing from you about your experience may be the key to helping them get through theirs. It might be your son needing to hear you struggled in reading too, or a friend going through a divorce who doesn’t know you were married once before. Carrie Block says, “We are more alike than different.” Look around, be courageous, and your eyes will be opened to empathy opportunities all around you.
Jennicca Mabe- P2E Founder
If you’d like to share your empathy opportunity experience, please send it to: firstname.lastname@example.org